Editor's Note: The Chicago Council is pleased to launch a new blog series, “Breaking Ground,” to explore how food systems innovation and agricultural research and development can empower farmers and feed the world. A special subsection of our series, “Field Notes,” features voices from Feed the Future Innovation Labs and CGIAR centers. We will publish weekly posts, culminating in the Global Food Security Symposium on March 26.
Women sorting tepary beans in San Marcos, Guatemala. Credit: Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT/N.Amaya
Over the last couple of decades, an increasing number of consumers in high-income countries have bought into the booming superfood market. Grocery stores now include hitherto unknown items such as protein-rich quinoa, immune-boosting goji berries or nutrient-rich chia seeds, marketed on the basis that they are naturally rich in the vitamins and minerals we need to be healthy.
These products represent a small sample of the many thousands of species and varieties of plants around the world with the potential to pack a hefty nutrition punch. As a bonus, many are also superfoods for the planet, evolving in harsh environments to require little water, fertilizer or pesticides. Unfortunately, rather than be deployed as strategic assets to fix local food systems, they remain sitting on the sidelines, often under threat of extinction. Much of this biodiversity does not make it to the plate—even at its point of origin where, with additional attention and investment, this potential could make a game-changing difference.
The case of the tepary bean in Guatemala
The Dry Corridor of Guatemala is marked by its high climatic variability, aggravated in recent years by long periods of drought. This is adversely affecting the production of common beans, a staple crop important for regional food security and nutrition. Researchers from the Alliance of Bioversity and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) investigating how to diversify bean production to improve climate change resilience remembered a crop they worked on thirty years before – the tepary bean.
This once-popular legume is native to the area spanning from the southwestern United States to the northern border of Guatemala. Although grown and eaten since pre-Columbian times, the tepary bean has become displaced, in part through a decline in traditional food cultures. Its unusual colour and wrinkly appearance deter some consumers, and it has suffered from low yields and susceptibility to water and worm damage. However, the bean is valuable because it requires very little water to grow into a strong plant that produces iron- and protein-rich beans.
Tepary beans found in San Marcos Department, Guatemala. Credit: Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT/R.Robitaille
The researchers had previously collected 36 tepary bean cultivars from the southwestern coast of Guatemala where they were widely used in traditional recipes by ethnic groups such as the Tzutuhil and Mam. Upon returning, they found the beans had vanished. Finally, after visiting many communities and markets in the area, the researchers got lucky. One smallholder farmer, Señor Arriaga, emerged from his shed with a bag of tepary beans. His family had continued to cultivate them for use in typical Guatemalan dishes – such as frijoles colados, a kind of black bean mash – and recognized their drought-tolerance and quick maturation.
Beans purchased from Señor Arriaga are now integrated in a local seed saver network and undergoing production trials. There are also renewed efforts to increase their consumer appeal and local market potential. The view is to use them to complement common bean production during times of low harvest across the area.
Looking for the tepary bean in a market in the Department of San Marcos, Guatemala. Credit: Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT/R.Robitaille
Fruits of the forest in Brazil
Some species are not forgotten, instead, they never made it into the local food system in the first place. This was the case with the Brazilian fruit, camu camu.
Brazil has high rates of malnutrition and despite being considered megadiverse. With the world’s largest biodiversity, the country only has a handful of native food species on the market. This is a paradox given that the country’s agribusiness is one of the strongest worldwide, but based largely on non-native species such as coffee, soy, maize, sugar cane, cotton, oranges and tobacco. Increasingly the country grows a dwindling number of species and is losing its native biodiversity even before its value and potential are realized.
To this end, the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment and Ministry of Social Development and Fight Against Hunger signed an ordinance to define and support nutritionally important native species. But what does that mean? In this case, many different stakeholders worked together through the Biodiversity for Food and Nutrition Initiative, in government and beyond, on all aspects of the food system.
The first step was to analyze the nutrient content of 80 of the most promising native species to reveal their full potential, for example finding that camu camu, a wild fruit languishing in obscurity in the Amazon forest, contains 35 times more Vitamin C than the common orange. Other activities for the ‘Super 80’ included incentives to grow nutritious diverse species, developing a procurement scheme linked to a school-feeding program, while at the same time stimulating consumer interest using celebrity chefs and school education campaigns.
Creating a value chain for fonio in Mali
As the food procurement model in Brazil shows, value chains play a fundamental role in diversifying markets. This, in turn, generates income for farmers, which spurs continued production and consumption. A value chain is the entire network of stakeholders and activities that provide our food, from farm to fork, adding value along the way – for example, through trading or processing. It includes producers, processors, traders and consumers.
In recent years governments and development partners have invested in value chain development as part of more comprehensive development strategies to link smallholders to markets to increase production and incomes. Nutrition-sensitive value chains have an extra function – to improve nutrition in a given population by shaping the value chain to address constraints and opportunities around supply, demand and nutrition value.
In Mali, research on fonio shows some of the challenges of developing local value chains. Fonio is a cultivated grass native to West Africa, perhaps the oldest cereal cultivated in Africa. It is considered high in several vitamins and minerals, and is hardy, able to grow in low-quality soils with little water.
Harvesting and processing are time-consuming and problematic, in particular removing sand from the very small grains. Additionally, cleaning and polishing the grains – to make them attractive to consumers – involves removing the outer part of the grain, which is high in micronutrients and dietary fibre. Small producers also face difficulties in linking to a disorganized market, where the price is too low to incentivize farmers to cultivate fonio, but too high for local customers.
Working directly with all the stakeholders along the value chain, and interventions such as improved technology for processing, could help overcome some of these challenges. For example, better organization among producers could facilitate market access, and coordinating transport and market links could open up new markets in the neighbouring countries of Burkina Faso and Guinea.
Hedging our bets
No investor would put all their funds in a narrow stock portfolio, yet that is where the food system is headed. In nearly 50 years, country-to-country variation in diet has fallen by nearly 68 percent. More than 50 percent of calories from plants come from just three crops – rice, wheat and maize. Meanwhile, the global supply of fruits and vegetables falls 22 percent short of meeting the daily recommended amount needed per person. This shortfall rises to 50 percent in some low-income countries.
Science shows that using agricultural practices based on biodiversity can increase yields, reduce waste and dependencies on external inputs, and increase resilience to climate change, crop pests and disease outbreaks. The superfoods reaching international shelves represent just a taste of the wealth of species and varieties that can benefit food systems worldwide. As the examples given here demonstrate, the full range of these strategic assets requires our attention and investment to achieve integration into local farms, markets, and diets for a more healthy and sustainable future.
This article is based on research carried out by scientists from the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT working closely with partners around the world.
The Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT brings a dynamic, new and integrative approach to agricultural research for development, addressing the food system as a whole. It delivers research-based solutions that harness agricultural biodiversity and sustainably transform food systems to improve people’s lives in a climate crisis.
The Alliance is part of CGIAR, the world’s largest agricultural research and innovation partnership for a food-secure future.