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Interactions Between Agriculture and Health Explored

Fundamental reassessments of farming practices, diets and global trade were advocated at the first conference organised by a novel £3.5 million interdisciplinary initiative. Speakers highlighted the neglected links between agriculture and health, and suggested strategies to improve this relationship, at the event run by the Leverhulme Centre for Integrative Research on Agriculture and Health (LCIRAH) – a project facilitated by LIDC. The scale of the challenges and trends facing both sectors were described in detail, and panellists recommended ways to overcome institutional differences and build an effective interdisciplinary network.
Poverty and ill health were shown to occur mainly in rural and agricultural communities. Other trends, such as changing diets, were described as increasingly complex and leading to varying outcomes. These included the challenges of population growth and rising demand for animal products, such as an expected increase in demand for poultry by 725 per cent between 2000 and 2030 in South Asia. The severity and double burden of global health concerns – 800m people today are undernourished and 1.2 billion are overweight – were also raised. The international conference took place at the Wellcome Collection, London, on 23 June.
Combining agriculture and health
Professor Jeff Waage, Director of LIDC, began by explaining the aim of the meeting: to build an intersectoral dialogue between experts working on agriculture and health, and to identify questions for LCIRAH’s emerging research agenda. He emphasised the significance of the interactions between agriculture and health as they influence many issues, including diets, diseases transmitted between animals and humans (zoonoses), undernutrition and overnutrition. However, Waage also referred to the “challenging” task of building interdisciplinary links, especially as both agriculture and health sectors exist in separate silos with their own associated ministries, university departments and civil society organisations. 
Institutional challenges
Professor Janet Allen, of the UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, and Professor Gordon Conway, of Imperial College, London, reiterated the problems caused by such institutional divisions, and emphasised the need for career incentives to ensure interdisciplinary initiatives succeed.  Professor Joachim von Braun, of the University of Bonn, praised the “almost unique” interdisciplinary nature of LCIRAH. He said shared objectives, inclusive engagement, and the joint building of models related to agriculture and health would help the process of building a strong global network, which could go on to make a “major contribution” to research.
Damaging diets
Professor Ricardo Uauy, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, argued for a new model of nutrition based on better and balanced diets – quality rather than quantity. He showed how four carbohydrate-rich and micronutrient-poor crops – rice, maize, wheat and potato – represent 65 per cent of the food produced in the world, and how these energy-dense foods contribute to non-communicable diseases, such as heart disease. He even raised the spectre of global life expectancy falling because of poor diets and inactive lives. His recommendations included the re-allocation of subsidies and strengthening demand for healthy foods. He said: “We should expect more from agriculture than preventing famine.”
Professor Harriet Friedmann, of the University of Toronto, echoed many of these concerns. She said: “The unhealthy diets of the North are now coming to the global South.” Friedmann spoke of inequality within the global food market, especially as exporters in the South are now expected to produce counter-seasonal produce, including flowers, for supermarkets in the North. This produce is then too expensive or unsuitable for providing a balanced diet for local people. She also asked whether it is twice as good to live on $2-a-day as $1-a-day. Her response was that the answer should depend on what people eat in these situations, and this led her to conclude that it is time for  a switch from an economic metric to a health metric.
By Guy Collender, Senior Communications Officer at LIDC
Powerpoint presentations
Metrics and models for agriculture and health research - Professor Laurette Dube, McGill World Platform for Health and Economic Convergence