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The role of agriculture in women’s nutrition: Empirical evidence from India

Much academic and policy interest has been generated in recent years to
understand how the agricultural sector can be leveraged to address problems of
malnutrition in developing countries. For improving nutrition among women in
particular, agriculture─nutrition linkages are important, since agriculture is a
major employer of women in countries like India. By being a source of income earned
by women, agricultural income can influence the intra-household allocation of
food and other nutrition-enhancing complements.

In our paper,
recently published in PLOS ONE, we investigate the association between
household agricultural income and women’s BMI in the India context.


Farmers transplanting rice in eastern India. (Photo credit: Maureen Valentine)


It is estimated that 42.2% of pre-pregnant women in India are
underweight. This compares poorly to sub-Saharan Africa where 16.5% of
pre-pregnant women are underweight, despite being much poorer on average [1]. Not
only is malnutrition among Indian women high, it is also persistent. Data from
the Rapid Survey on Children conducted by the Indian government and UNICEF show
that between 2005 and 2014, the level of malnutrition among adolescent girls
aged 15-19 years has remained stubbornly high, with close to 45% of girls in
the age-group being “too thin” in 2014.


Empirical evidence on the relationship between agricultural income and
cultivator nutritional status in the Indian context has been impeded so far due
to the lack of suitable data. Empirical evidence on this relationship is
critical because a priori the direction of the association is not evident.
Agricultural production may benefit nutrition by way of being a source of food
and income. On the other hand, heavy agricultural workloads and exposure to
toxins and disease through agricultural activities can deleteriously affect
women’s health and nutrition. Normally, information on agricultural production
and anthropometric data on cultivators does not co-exist in large surveys. The
dataset we use—ICRISAT’s VDSA data—is
a notable exception. To test the association under question, we use five years
of household and individual level panel data, from 18 villages across 5 Indian
states. The total number of women part of our sample varies between 791-992
women, from year to year.

Main Findings

We use within household variation, in lagged agricultural incomes and
BMI over time, to estimate

(a) the extent to which short-term changes in agricultural income are
associated with short-term changes in BMI, and

(b) to estimate the association between agricultural income growth and
BMI growth over a longer term. 

Over the longer term, for households that farm regularly, we find that
a 10 percentage point agricultural income growth to be associated with a 0.10
percentage point growth in BMI.  Effects of agricultural income are driven
by younger women, in the age-group 15-25 years, who face a particularly strong
nutritional disadvantage in India.

Next, we explore the pathways through which household agricultural
income and BMI are linked. We show that both the own-production and market
purchase of food are associated with nutritional improvements. While women’s
BMI is associated with an increase in the consumption of own-produced cereals,
the market plays an important role in facilitating access to more nutritious
foods like pulses.


Younger women face strong nutritional disadvantages in India. (Photo credit: Maureen Valentine)  


We would like to leave readers with three main takeaways from our paper:

1. While the association between agricultural
income growth and BMI growth is economically modest, it is important in view of
the fact that we do not find a corresponding effect for growth in
non-agricultural income.

2. The relationship between agricultural income and
BMI is driven by young women. While we do not investigate mechanisms behind
this finding, the result is consistent with multiple findings in the
development literature that indicate that “low status” family members eat
better in better times and vice-a-versa [2],[3]. This could be explained by
families following a “pure investment strategy” by allocating intrahousehold
resources to cushion better endowed or more productive household members at the
cost of more vulnerable household members during scarce times, or by

3. Our “pathway” results suggest that income
effects on account of agricultural earnings might have significant implications
for nutrition in the Indian context.

By Tanvi Rao and Prabhu Pingali

Dr. Tanvi Rao
is a Research Associate in the Health Division at IMPAQ International. Previously,
she was a research scholar with the Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture and
Nutrition (TCI).  

Dr. Prabhu
is a professor in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics
and Management at Cornell University, with a joint appointment in the Division
of Nutritional Sciences. Professor Pingali is the founding director of the
Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition (TCI). 


[1] Coffey D. Prepregnancy body mass and weight gain during
pregnancy in India and sub-Saharan Africa. Proceedings of the National Academy
of Sciences. 2015 Mar 17; 112(11):3302–7.

[2] Behrman JR. Nutrition, health, birth order and
seasonality: Intrahousehold allocation among children in rural India. Journal
of Development Economics. 1988 Feb 1;28 (1):43–62. Pmid: 12341857

[3] Behrman JR. Intrahousehold allocation of nutrients in
rural India: Are boys favored? Do parents exhibit inequality aversion? Oxford
Economic Papers. 1988 Mar 1;40(1):32–54.