Three in five pre-school children in Afghanistan are stunted, the highest prevalence globally

Photo: Nigel Poole


For centuries agriculture has been the mainstay of the predominantly rural Afghan society. Wheat is the principal food crop, while fruits and nuts and livestock products such as wool have played a large part in subsistence, in local marketed production, and in exports. A major food crisis in the early 2000s led to massive humanitarian intervention. The national rate of child malnutrition has reduced from a catastrophic level of more than 60% stunting recorded in 2003/04 to about 40% in 2011/12, but high levels of hunger and micronutrient deficiencies persist. Much attention is given in humanitarian work to therapeutic approaches to improving the nutrition of vulnerable groups, but the contribution of agricultural development and the food system to improving rural and urban diets also needs to be increased. The recent history and current context of Afghanistan point to other factors affecting the wellbeing of the population. Political fragmentation is enmeshed with military conflict, the drugs economy, cultural diversity, regional extremes of temperature and altitude, and migration. Research is needed in these complex conditions to improve the linkages between agriculture and nutrition, taking into account the conditions of political and environmental fragility and gender issues. 


Leveraging Agriculture for Nutrition in South Asia (LANSA) is a programme of research which aims to generate evidence that can improve nutrition outcomes in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The research under LANSA explores the fundamental, underlying and immediate determinants of nutrition particularly for women, girls and children under five years of age, and the ways in which the potential of agriculture to address malnutrition can be realised


LANSA work in Afghanistan is led by the team from the LCIRAH, University of London. We are using national data to analyse the agricultural determinants of health and nutrition. Secondly, fieldwork is being undertaken through non-governmental organisations which have a permanent presence in Afghanistan. Thirdly, local research initiatives into agriculture and nutrition are being integrated into the programme. Finally, capacity building among local partner organizations is supported by the team from MSSRF, India and IDS, UK. 


The field research in Afghanistan was launched in mid-2015 with a mapping exercise of both agriculture and nutrition stakeholders and policies. Fieldwork was conducted by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), with support in Kandahar from the Afghanistan National Agricultural Sciences and Technology University (ANASTU). The objectives were to understand the interrelationships among key organisations in agriculture and nutrition, the local evidence base linking agriculture to nutrition, and the perceptions of decision makers about the capacity, priorities and financial resources for improving nutrition through the agri-food system. 
Interviewees were drawn from the Afghan public sector, and international and national NGOs, in Kabul, Bamyan, Badakhshan, Kandahar and Nangarhar. Initial analysis of the data points to the significance of fragmentation in policy making, coordination and communication. A stakeholder consultation was held in Kabul in April 2016 to consider results, seek feedback and inform future work. A full Working Paper has been made available in English and a Policy Brief summarising the research and outcomes have been published by LANSA and locally by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit. A resulting journal article is to be submitted to Food Security.


South Asia is the region of the world with the highest levels of iron-deficiency anaemia. There has been little work on understanding anaemia in Afghanistan, except that anaemia prevalence amongst non-pregnant women has been estimated at 25%. Analysis of secondary data on health and agriculture has been conducted in order to identify the drivers of anaemia in women, and the food sources of iron. The diversity of foods in diets is an important factor in enhancing nutrition. For Afghanistan, where bread is the principal food, lack of dietary diversity probably is very important. An interesting and potentially important result is that ownership of sheep is a significant factor in relation to lower levels of anaemia: the linkage between sheep ownership and anaemia risk is at least partly due to consumption of meat arising from own-sheep production where markets fail to provide a diverse diet.

Secondary data are also being used to analyse the relationship between agricultural production and dietary diversity. Emerging from the data is the question of how easy - or difficult - it is for people to access food from local markets, and the need to address the impact of seasonality on diets. Findings so far suggest that improved crop diversity over the year is positively associated with dietary diversity in the regular season, but not in the lean season. Following the earlier work which identified sheep ownership as an important factor in diets, livestock species diversity appears to be important for dietary diversity throughout the year, but particularly so in the lean winter/spring season when cropping becomes unfeasible due to climatic extremes. Thus, markets become important for dietary diversity specifically in the lean season.

Together with the local NGO Ecology and Conservation Organization of Afghanistan (ECOA) we have collected qualitative data from farming households in the Shah Foladi region of Bamyan Province. We find that out-of-season access to nutritious foods is curtailed by limited scale of production, remoteness and particularly by the harsh winter conditions. Own-production of foods in the winter is not possible, access to markets is limited by snow and cold, and there are few employment opportunities. Food storage is an important factor, highlighting again the importance of livestock production and preservation of animal-source foods such as cheese and yoghurt.


Another LANSA partner is the NGO Afghanaid, who have been working in Afghanistan since 1983. LANSA have teamed up with Afghanaid to analyse a recent intervention concerning women’s economic empowerment funded by DFID that included a dairy development project in Badakhshan. Badakhshan is a remote province where high rates of malnutrition prevail among vulnerable population groups. A value chain analysis of the dairy project concludes that building effective value chains can leverage dairy production for better human nutrition, but projects need contextualisation. This analysis has been published in the January 2017 special edition of the IDS Bulletin.

Further research into dairy consumption and value chain development has been undertaken by LANSA in collaboration with Afghanaid to understand further how to maximise the potential of dairy production to address nutritional needs, particularly taking into account the seasonal climatic extremes and the national concern to develop an indigenous dairy sector to meet local demand.


The research conducted so far has built on close interaction with stakeholders and policy makers. Fieldwork has been designed and implemented with local research partners. LANSA is supporting the NGO BRAC to undertake a randomised control trial of the promotion of vegetable gardening among young women through adult literacy centres in Kabul, Parwan and Kapisa. In addition, 4 stakeholders participated in an online discussion in February 2015 which brought together expert participants from across Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, to discuss the regional experiences of orienting agricultural value chains towards better nutrition of vulnerable groups. Others enrolled on the FAO-hosted ENACT online course on nutrition education that was piloted January-April 2016. Various stakeholders from Afghanistan also participated in an online discussion event in April 2017, hosted by LANSA, focusing on understanding the effectiveness of different routes for delivering good quality nutrient-dense food to low-income and undernourished people.  


The evidence from this research programme has potential to impact areas from agriculture through food markets, consumption patterns and household nutrition to the policy-making environment. LANSA will actively engage with stakeholders through a variety of channels and media in order to integrate agriculture and nutrition policies and programmes and to promote coherence among national and international stakeholders in addressing the complex challenges of malnutrition in the diverse regions of Afghanistan.

South Asia Focus

Funded by UK DFID

This research has been funded by the UK Government’s Department for International Development; however the views expressed do not necessarily reflect the UK Government’s official policies



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