The connections between agriculture and health are major and go both ways. Good health enhances agricultural productivity, and the intake of nutritious plant-based foods supports good health. Governments and corporations recognize the relevance of agriculture to maintain food security and generate economic benefits. Expansion of agricultural practices such as irrigation farming, use of chemical fertilizer and biotechnology farming, have boosted food production, thereby enhancing health for many. However, the benefits are not without trade-offs: some of these agricultural practices have unfavorable health, socio-economic or environmental consequences for the lives of farmers and farming communities. One critical health consequence is an increased risk of malaria. In communities with irrigation projects or in which land is cleared for agricultural uses (deforestation), scientists have observed increased breeding of malaria-transmitting mosquitoes.
Agribusinesses companies play a pivotal role in the industry through investments in farming-related activities that include seed production and supply, conversion of crops such as grains into food products, production of agrichemicals and the manufacturing of farm equipment. Given their core competencies and their ties to farmers, agribusinesses are well-placed to help address malaria in endemic regions. Some companies are already taking innovative steps to help fight malaria by educating farmers about improved farming methods and getting medical care for malaria, creating new insecticides in recognition of growing insecticide resistance and offering low-cost malaria treatments.
This article takes a look at three key areas of intersection between agribusiness and malaria:
- The agricultural and land use practices that increase malaria transmission
- The negative impacts of malaria on levels of agricultural productivity
- The case for business engagement: How agribusiness companies can invest in malaria prevention and control
Agricultural and land use practices that increase malaria transmission
Malaria is a parasitic disease that is transmitted through the bite of an infected female anopheles mosquito. Generally mosquitoes breed favorably in areas with high temperature, high rainfall and poor environmental sanitation. Some agricultural practices and land use patterns can predispose farmers and their households to malaria infection. These include:
- Irrigation agriculture: Irrigation agriculture is used to water crops mainly in semi-arid or arid regions to compensate for variable or low rainfall in such areas. It is used extensively in the cultivation of rice paddies, wheat and in sugarcane fields. Many of the irrigation systems lack efficient drainage, facilitating water accumulation which provides a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Irrigation agriculture can render areas with both seasonal and year-round malaria transmission vulnerable to high malaria incidence, especially among children under five and pregnant women.
- Deforestation: Deforestation is the clearing of forests to make way for road construction, logging or new farms. This practice contributes to alterations in the local ecosystem (temperature, sunlight, humidity and vegetation). Cross-continental studies illustrate that a change in ecosystem can cause changes in mosquitoes’ breeding behavior. In particular, deforestation offers non-forest anopheles species a new breeding territory, which increases malaria transmission in that region.
- Farming highland regions: Most tropical highland areas tend to have seasonal malaria transmission. The expansion of farming activities such as upland rice cultivation in India and Thailand or tea and coffee cultivation in the Western highlands of Kenya may increase malaria incidence in these areas for two reasons. First, upland farming activities alter the ecosystem causing changes in rainfall patterns, temperature and vegetation. Like deforestation, these changes can produce optimal breeding environments for mosquitoes. Second, farm workers from lowland malaria-endemic areas migrate to work in the highland areas, bringing malaria with them.
Negative impacts of malaria on the levels of agricultural productivity
Malaria costs governments and the corporate-sector $US 12 billion annually. Malaria inhibits agricultural productivity in the following ways:
- Farm output: Ill-health or the premature death of farmers from malaria leads to decreases in farm output or crop production. The decreased output limits the supply of quality raw-materials that agribusiness companies can manufacture into food products
- Financial insecurity: Increased expenditure on malaria treatments limits household spending on other essential items such as food, shelter and education. To offset medical bills, patients and their families may give up agricultural assets such as land, livestock or equipment, thus shrinking the agricultural supply chain in a region
- Agricultural innovation: The premature death of trained personnel and farmers from malaria hinders the use of acquired knowledge to develop new agricultural techniques
The case for business engagement: How agribusiness companies can invest in malaria prevention and control
The well-being of farmers and the economic viability of agrarian-driven communities are critical to the success of agribusiness. Agribusiness companies have a valuable role to play, both through their corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs, as well as through their core business areas to achieve greater agricultural productivity and health. Agribusiness companies can take action in many ways, including:
- Improve access to anti-malarial treatment: Agribusiness companies can pursue a corporate social responsibility (CSR) agenda that prioritizes malaria control and prevention. Malaria attacks these companies’ workforces, supply chains, and communities. CSR strategies should incorporate internal policies as well as advocacy to governments and other corporate partners addressing the need to adopt farming methods that prevent malaria proliferation.
Advanced Bio-extracts Limited is supporting the fight against malaria in Eastern Africa (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) by producing low-cost artemisinin malaria treatment. Artemisinin is a core component of the WHO recommended Artemisinin-based combination therapies used as first-line treatment of uncomplicated malaria. In partnership with Action Medeor, a German medical aid non-profit organization, and TechnoServe, a United States-based NGO, the program trains local farmers to effectively cultivate the plant Artemisia annua from which Artemisinin is derived. Advanced Bio-extracts Limited then purchases the Artemisia annua leaves from the local farmers and extracts the active ingredient artemisinin at its processing plant in Kenya.
- Train farmers on sustainable agriculture: Agribusiness companies can provide training to farmers on organic cultivation methods. Such techniques limit the quantity of water needed to support crop growth, and in particular, the construction of water storage reservoirs that increase mosquito breeding.
The international fashion retail company C&A partnered with Textile Exchange and Shell Foundation to provide training for 30,000 farmers in India on the cultivation of organic cotton. This technique helps conserve water and avoid the use of artificial fertilizer and toxic pesticides, two methods to prevent increases in mosquito breeding.
- Apply core competencies to research and develop new malaria tools: New tools are needed to help combat the threat of emerging resistance to insecticides and anti-malarial drugs. BayerCropScience is an agribusiness company that produces public health insecticides administered via aerosol spray, indoor residual spraying or in bed nets. The company launched its innovative LifeNet in 2011 that has the pyrethroid insecticide deltamethrin impregnated in its fibers to protect sleepers against mosquito bites.
Sumitomo Chemical is a leading producer of fertilizer, basic chemicals, public health insecticides and long lasting insecticide-treated nets (LLINs). Sumitomo is partnering with the Innovative Vector Control Consortium (IVCC) to produce LLINs impregnated with alternative active ingredients. This innovation will combat the growing threat of mosquito resistance to the pyrethroid insecticides that are used in most bed nets.
- Support workforce and community programs on the ground: Agribusiness companies can support or sponsor health awareness initiatives to disseminate malaria prevention messages to their workers, farmers and communities. A survey in Nigeria in 2010 revealed what is likely a widespread problem: local farmers lack knowledge about how malaria risk is related to agricultural practices. Company-sponsored programs should focus on increasing the use of prevention tools (repellants, bed nets and protective clothing) and promoting early health-seeking behavior for effective diagnosis and treatment of malaria.
Nestlé supports a “farmers school initiative” for cocoa farmers in the Ivory-Coast. The farmers meet every two weeks to learn sustainable farming practices to improve their cocoa yields. The same teaching platform is used to enlighten the farmers on social and health issues such as child labor, education and HIV/AIDS. As Nestlé broadens the scope of the initiative, malaria education could be seamlessly integrated into the curriculum.
- Collaborate with stakeholders in all sectors: To create the most sustainable impact, agribusiness companies should collaborate across sectors. Companies can work alongside governmental agencies in-country to encourage development of farm-sites and infrastructure in locations that minimize damage to the ecosystem. Companies can join business coalitions such as the Corporate Alliance on Malaria in Africa which is managed through GBCHealth. Coalitions like CAMA leverage pooled resources and core competencies to fight malaria and other diseases to enhance collective on-the-ground impact.
As this analysis shows, agribusiness has a unique and essential role to play in generating innovations and fostering sustainable improvements in health. Agribusiness companies can contribute to global food security, alleviate poverty in agrarian regions and prevent disease directly through their products. Where agricultural processes create risks to health, leading companies have shown that the industry can and should mitigate these risks, whether through technologic innovation or through social investments (CSR).
Want more information about CAMA? Contact Ochuko Keyamo.
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