Improved crop varieties have the potential to improve childhood nutrition. However, farming households do not always adopt new varieties and, even when they do, children do not always consume adequate amounts. In Ethiopia, researchers seek to understand how encouraging households to grow a more nutritious maize variety and encouraging them to earmark the crop for children affects production, consumption, and childhood nutrition.
Poor nutrition and stunting are endemic issues in many parts of the developing world. For children in particular, a lack of nutritious food can increase risk of death from infectious disease, hamper physical development, and impede cognitive learning. Improved crop varieties have been promoted as a simple solution to address these issues. New varieties are comparable in growth and preparation techniques, while offering consumers a more nutritious meal. The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), an international research organization, developed biofortified (non-genetically modified) Quality Protein Maize (QPM) as an alternative to traditional varieties in Ethiopia and other countries where maize is a staple crop.
QPM can improve children’ s protein intake, and studies suggest that Ethiopian consumers prefer QPM varieties over other maize types. Limited evidence suggests that QPM consumption can significantly increase children’ s growth rates relative to those consuming conventional maize. However, relatively few farming households grow QPM, and little research has been conducted to examine whether encouraging households to grow QPM can result in actual improvements in child nutrition.
Agriculture is the economic backbone of Ethiopia, engaging 85 percent of the population. Maize comprises one-third of all cereal production, and the average Ethiopian consumes 44 kg of the crop every year. In the study region of Amhara, a majority of female caregivers list maize as the most important ingredient in food they prepare for their children and infants. Notably, more than half of all children in Amhara are stunted. Not only can malnutrition affect a child’ s own ability to grow, learn, and ultimately succeed, but it can also take a toll on the larger economy. National estimates suggest that poor child nutrition comes at a cost of $4.7 billion per year, equivalent to 16.5 percent of Ethiopia’ s GDP.
Efforts to encourage QPM adoption are already underway and, for the purposes of this study, researchers focus specifically on households that have been introduced to QPM via demonstrations from CIMMYT’s Nutritious Maize for Ethiopia (NuME) project.
Researchers conducted a randomized evaluation to test the impact of encouraging QPM production and consumption on child nutrition. In partnership with CIMMYT, Ethiopian Public Health Institute staff visited five districts and randomly selected 3,000 households participating in the NuME project with at least one pregnant woman or child under five years old. Staff presented to (usually male) household heads and female caregivers on the child nutrition benefits of QPM, and also offered a subsidized 2 kg package of QPM seeds. An additional 600 households served as a comparison group and did not receive any additional encouragement to produce QPM.
While encouraging production may be an important first step in increasing consumption of QPM, researchers are ultimately interested in whether greater production and consumption can improve childhood nutrition. To examine how to nudge families to feed QPM to their children, researchers selected 400 of the 3,000 treatment households that adopt QPM to receive an additional encouragement campaign. In this campaign, study teams explained why households should make sure children eat QPM and gave them specific storage containers to “earmark” QPM for children.
Researchers will follow households for two-and-a-half years, conducting surveys and taking anthropometric measurements to measure the effects on production, consumption, and nutrition.
Study ongoing, results forthcoming.