Cecilia C. Santos-Acuin, newly appointed Senior Scientist at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), is working hard at the helm of IRRI’s nutrition initiatives.
She has had a long love affair with nutrition. Before joining IRRI, she worked at the Food and Nutrition Research Institute (FNRI) as the Chief Science Research Specialist of its Nutritional Assessment and Monitoring Division, as well as the Chair of its Institutional Ethics Committee in 2016.
She was also the First Vice President of the Philippine Association of Nutrition (PAN) from 2014 to 2015 and is currently a PAN board member. She is also a member of other professional associations, including the American Society of Nutrition, Philippine Clinical Epidemiology Network and Asia-Pacific Network of the International Forum for Social Sciences in Health.
We sat down with Dr. Acuin to talk about IRRI’s role in promoting good nutrition and how this could positively impact rice-consuming populations.
What is IRRI Nutrition?
Dr. Acuin: IRRI Nutrition is a natural part of the continuum in fulfilling IRRI's commitment to improve the lives of rice farmers and consumers—from increasing their production and income to enhancing their health and nutrition.
There seems to be a lot of emphasis on nutrition these days, especially in research organizations like IRRI. What do you think triggered this new paradigm?
Dr. Acuin: There are several factors. First, IRRI is contributing to the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goal 2 on zero hunger which requires tightening the links between food production and food consumption and SDG 3 which ensures healthy lives & wellbeing. These can only happen with good nutrition for all. Second, the need to respond to varying needs and preferences for rice—not just for survival but also for healthier, more nutritious rice (higher level needs, when people are better off and look for better quality in their rice—these are the ones who tend to over-eat, so rice like low GI, and brown rice would be for them). For those who can afford everything, and are picky about their rice, they want not just healthier, but elite rice varieties that gives status and prestige. Third, nutrition has been at the top of the global development agenda for some time now—not the least of which is that good nutrition is necessary for good health, and good health is needed for all the other development goals to be achieved. It is about time IRRI addresses nutrition more explicitly and succinctly, particularly as agricultural communities are among the most malnourished in the world. IRRI is, therefore, positioned to make a tremendous impact on the achievement of the SDGs among rice producing and consuming countries.
What is the vision of IRRI Nutrition?
Dr. Acuin: To have a healthier, appropriately nourished rice producers and consumers.
How does this vision align with the strategic direction of IRRI?
Dr. Acuin: The new strategic direction of IRRI requires more effective responses to rapidly evolving country needs. We need to be able to provide a timely, more directed (no more cafeteria style menu options) and relevant support to the countries in which IRRI works. Countries are including nutrition in their development agendas and are seeking to make their agricultural policies and programs aligned with and accountable for nutritional outcomes. IRRI needs to support these efforts among rice-producing and rice-consuming countries.
How do you think can we fulfill the vision of IRRI Nutrition? What key steps do you think should be done to make this vision a reality?
Dr. Acuin: First, we need to develop the metrics—we can only change what we measure. We are currently working with other nutrition scientists in improving global nutrition indicators that will reflect changing food quality and an evolving food environment. Second, recognizing that rice, though central for much of the world, is just a part of the diet, and cannot meet all nutritional needs. Therefore, we will work through rice food systems and with our food producer partners, with our CGIAR peer institutions, food scientists, the food industry, and other stakeholders to enable the production of sufficient diet diversity to meet these needs. Third, because we cannot achieve nutritional goals without addressing food security, we have to address the different links within the value chain to ensure not just sufficient supply, but also reliable ways to access food regardless of season, including during times of disasters (whether natural or man-made). Fourth, good nutrition can only happen if our food supply, particularly our staple—rice—is safe. We will establish the templates and metrics and provide guidance for safer rice and rice food systems.
In what ways can IRRI Nutrition positively impact the lives of rice-consuming population?
Dr. Acuin: IRRI Nutrition will harness the different sciences that are among IRRI's expertise, and include a few more (for example, food science and technology) to achieve our vision. Agriculture impacts nutrition through three main pathways:
1) increasing productivity—this has long been IRRI's strength, and we need to continue to lead this pathway for rice productivity,
2) increasing income—for rice farmers, this means not just growing more, but growing in smarter ways (more efficiently, with more outputs for less inputs), and producing higher value rice such as heirloom rice, and
3) through gender-focused interventions—women hold up half the sky. In agricultural communities, there is evidence that when women are empowered through more substantial roles in decision-making, in operations, in household and farm resource control and mobilization, their households and their children benefit even more, the household and community potentials for income development increase, and over-all productivity is enhanced.
What challenges do you anticipate in fulfilling the vision of IRRI Nutrition? How do you intend to overcome these challenges?
Dr. Acuin: We have an ambitious agenda that will require more resources. We hope to develop partnerships, tap networks, create synergies to get a "whole that is bigger than its parts".
Why did you accept this role?
Dr. Acuin: I started working on health. But even as a doctor I felt that the solutions to our health problems could not be found in hospitals but in homes and communities, and so I specialized in Family and Community Medicine. My first job was to develop and implement interventions to prevent diarrhea among infants and young children through breastfeeding and improved complementary feeding. This led to a career in nutrition (ultimately getting a PhD in Nutirtion), focusing on the nutrition of the mother-child dyad. As FNRI's representative to the SDG TWG on the Philippine Indicators, I saw the stark gaps between agriculture and nutrition - which is felt not just in the Philippines, but is also experienced globally. So when the opportunity to work at IRRI came up, I thought that with my background, I could contribute to this global need through IRRI Nutrition.
In your capacity as lead of IRRI Nutrition, what changes do you want to see and when do you think can you see the positive impact of these changes?
Dr. Acuin: The first change I hope to see is through the thinking of our IRRI staff and scientists. I hope IRRI Nutrition can influence them to think beyond yield. I am glad to see the efforts to improve rice grain and nutritional quality through plant breeding and molecular engineering, and hope to push the boundaries even further for specific health and nutrition needs. I see tremendous possibilities through crop diversification (vegetables, fruits, legumes, root crops, etc), concomitant fish and livestock interventions (with CGIAR & other partners), enhancement of post-harvest processing perhaps initially through brown rice and rice bran interventions; as well as looking more broadly at opportunities for expanding the market for more nutritious rice and its products, developing metrics and processes for safe rice systems. and in improving the ways we reach communities, households and individuals through food consumption interventions.
In addition to her work at IRRI, Dr. Acuin has been the co-chair of the Philippine National Health Research System, Research Utilization Committee since 2012. She was previously a consultant and vice-chair of WPRO Regional Advisory Committee on Health Research in WHO Western Pacific Region, and has worked on consultancies in Indonesia and Vietnam. She obtained her Ph.D. in Nutrition with minors in Nutritional Epidemiology and Risk Communication from Cornell University, USA. She completed her Masters in Medical Anthropology at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, and obtained her M.D. and residency training in Family Medicine at the University of the Philippines Manila and Philippine General Hospital, respectively.