Breaking the silos: Agriculture and health

si·lo n. pl. si·los

a. A tall cylindrical structure, usually beside a barn, in which fodder is stored
b. Development jargon, favored by the policy community, used to describe an issue-specific program that does not reflect external or cross-cutting influences

If you’ve spent time in the D.C. policy world (or even on the ONE blog), you’ve probably come across the term “silo,” a word used to describe development programs that aren’t integrated into the realities of the world around them.

A silo could mean funding for AIDS clinics without consideration for how to treat common co-infection with TB, or designing an education program without consideration for an appropriate school feeding system. At ONE, we promote integrated development efforts—such as the Global Health Initiative and Feed the Future—programs that are rooted in the fact that people fighting poverty have complex lives with overlapping interests and challenges. It’s a fundamental assumption that people don’t deal separately with health and agriculture and jobs and education in their lives, because they all spill over into one another—and therefore so should our development programs.

So, it was with a lot of enthusiasm that a few of my colleagues and I attended an event last Thursday at International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) that talked about the linkages between agriculture and health. First, a confession: those of us who attended had the words “agriculture” and “health” in our job titles, so you could argue we’re doomed to be “siloed,” too. But we went into the event with open minds, hoping to hear ideas about how these sectors influenced each other, and how in turn, we might communicate these links in our work for ONE.

The event was great, with dynamic speakers from the WHO and Cornell University, who were of the rare breed of thinkers who cared not just about their specific issue, but how it mattered for other sectors as well. There was much discussion about how health and nutrition dramatically impact the success or failure of a food system and its productivity, and how a productive food system creates diverse, nutritious products that in turn keep communities healthy. We also learned about how topics — including nutrition, food safety, disease and pest management, and the production chain — all have real impacts in both sectors and how dealing with them separately often leads to pitfalls for one or both.

As always, talking about breaking the silos is easier than actually breaking the silos. The speakers rightly noted that silos are prevalent in policy institutions, funding cycles, research and training processes, and that there are not always great incentives for people to integrate their work on health and agriculture. But they argued convincingly that we should be doing a better job of promoting inter-sectoral funding, programs and outcome measurement, so that government officials and donors can really see the economic benefits of a joint approach. If we can show what a wise investment jointly rooted in health and agriculture really looks like and what benefits it brings to communities, we’ll be well on our way to becoming more effective development advocates.