Equity in Agriculture-Nutrition-Health Research: What have we been researching, and what are the gaps?


by A4NH | January 18, 2020

To understand what is needed in tackling different aspects of inequity in agriculture for better nutrition and health, first it is critical to understand what research already exists, and what is missing. Doing so will help identify how issues of marginalization and inequity are addressed in research, and shaping progress, in these fields.

It is from that premise that Jody Harris and colleagues at the Institute of Development Studies undertook a scoping review of existing academic literature to pinpoint gaps in knowledge that are preventing researchers, policymakers, activists and others from ensuring no one, as the UN Sustainable Development Goals stress, is left behind.

Dr. Harris presented findings from the scoping study during a January 14 webinar. The study was supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH)’s Gender, Equity, and Empowerment cross-cutting unit. A4NH and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)’s Gender Task Force co-hosted the webinar.

She first laid out definitions of equity and equality – two concepts that are frequently used interchangeably, often misunderstood, and sometimes contested. Operating from a basic premise that all people count and should be treated as equals, she said, the essential difference in the two terms centers on where you focus. Equality centers on the sameness of outcomes, while equity focuses on fair processes. Underpinning both inequality and inequity, she noted, are processes of marginalization, understood as treating a particular person or group as peripheral or insignificant.

Based on this understanding, to determine how ANH research addresses inequity in low- and middle-income countries, the team conducted a literature search to uncover:

  • which topics within food and agriculture, nutrition, and health were addressed through an equity lens; and
  • which aspects of equity were addressed: unequal outcomes, capital and resources, and structural determinants.

Casting their net to cover literature from 2008 to 2019, researchers hoped to not only get an understanding of how research is addressing equity issues, but also how that has changed over time. From an initial list of over 26,000, their search turned up 243 papers which, Harris noted, was only a very small fraction of all papers published in that period, showing that equity is, overall, still an understudied area of research.

She went on to explain the breakdown of papers by discipline and approach, as well as by ANH concepts and by equity concept addressed.

Harris noted that different disciplines have engaged with different aspects of equity, and the need to read widely across disciplines to understand the range of equity issues. She also pointed out how infrequently several issues were studied:

  • ethnicity, disability, and age, among the different aspects shaping unequal outcomes;
  • intersectionality among different aspects of equity, where these interact; and
  • structural aspects such as power differentials systematically holding certain groups back.

While sharing which aspects of agriculture, nutrition, and health were cited most often in these studies, she noted that while most papers across the board looked at what the equity problem was, a smaller but significant number went on to look at how that inequity was shaped. Fewer still, she added, went on to look at why the inequity existed in the first place. The distribution of topics did not surprise the researchers; they found it in line with historical global interests and funding. Harris encouraged others to consider the findings when thinking about future research.

“We can see here what’s being looked at, and also what’s NOT being looked at,” she said. “But a lack of evidence doesn’t mean an issue isn’t important. We must consider, ‘Who are the marginalized groups in particular contexts?’. We all know we need to address this somehow in our work, but this study points to gaps to address in future research.”

She also cited marginalization and intersectionality as two critical points to address moving forward.

“Given the role inequity plays in holding back progress, we think looking at these other issues will need to be front and center,” she said. “Moving forward, you’ll have to justify why you’re not doing it, instead of why you are.”

The authors plan to submit the paper for publication, while future work will include conducting further analysis to examine how issues of governance and the enabling environment were addressed in the set of included studies.

The following resources are available to those interested in learning more, to guide and plan future work on equity: