June 3, 2015

Healthy Food for a Healthy World: Improving Access to Diverse and Nutritious Foods

Photo courtesy of Mohd Irman Ismail

On April 16, The Chicago Council launched a new report, Healthy Food for a Healthy World: Leveraging Agriculture and Food to Improve Global Nutrition, at the Global Food Security Symposium 2015. Each week, we will highlight one of the report’s recommendations in a new post on the Global Food for Thought blog. This blog series will explore how the strengths and ingenuity of the agriculture and food sector can reduce the reality and risks of malnutrition globally. Watch for a new post each Wednesday, and join the discussion using #GlobalAg.  

To improve global nutrition, the US government, in partnership with universities, business, and civil society, should invest in research to improve access to diverse, healthy foods. Diversity has long been recognized as a hallmark of healthy diets: diets that include a variety of foods and food groups are more likely to provide the essential vitamins, minerals, and other food components that support healthy growth, development, and disease prevention. Research investments to increase access to diverse, nutrient-rich foods are essential to addressing malnutrition.

For too long, food systems have focused disproportionately on calories rather than nutrients and the diverse foods that supply them. While humanity will continue to benefit from having this reliable supply of calories, our understanding of nutrition continues to evolve. The potential for food systems to enhance access to healthy diets is perhaps greater than that of any other single sector.

Investments in agriculture and agricultural research have traditionally prioritized a limited number of crops, especially rice, wheat, and corn. High-yielding varieties of coarse grain crops such as sorghum, millet, and barley as well as legumes, fruits, and vegetables have lagged decades behind the development of modern varieties of major cereal crops in part because of inadequate investment in research and development. Though investments in research to enhance the productivity of alternative crops have increased in recent years, support is still far below that of the major cereal crops.

Meanwhile, the global supply of fruits and vegetables has been estimated to be far from sufficient to meet recommended nutrient intakes for populations especially in low-income countries. This deficit could increase substantially in the future if anticipated production increases do not outpace population growth. With growing constraints on land and water resources, research is needed to more efficiently produce these nutrient-rich crops sustainably and cost-effectively.

In many low-income countries, the limited availability of fruits and vegetables is compounded by inadequate postharvest storage infrastructure, limited access to cold chains, and poor transportation networks to carry these perishable, high-value crops intact and unspoiled to markets. Some estimates indicate that as much as one-quarter of food waste in developing countries could be eliminated by increasing access to refrigeration equipment.

Therefore, in addition to sustained investments in improved crop varieties adapted to regional climate conditions, research investments are needed to extend the seasonal availability and reach of fruits and vegetables. Innovative solutions are needed in crop management, harvesting practices, postharvest storage, processing, and transportation to achieve these goals. Bolstering linkages between seasonal horticultural production and local markets that require minimal transport would further complement these efforts.

Investments in research on pulse crops and coarse and perennial grains are also needed and could result in wins for both diet diversity and sustainability. Legumes, for example, enhance soil nitrogen content – a critical need for many nutrient-depleted tropical soils – while reducing the need for inorganic fertilizer. Perennial grain crops, compared to annual grain monocultures, generally have longer growing seasons and deeper roots that allow them to not only reduce erosion and maintain soil carbon, but to use water more efficiently – traits of critical importance under increasingly arid conditions. Investments to strengthen breeding research programs for perennial grains will pay dividends in the future for climate resilient agriculture. Legumes and alternative grains are also important sources of protein and dietary fiber and contain essential micronutrients such as B vitamins, iron, and zinc. Research investments to reduce the per-unit costs of producing these crops would result in multiple wins for farm productivity, climate resilience, and nutrition.

Furthermore, investing in research to increase the productivity and adoption of “orphan crops” is equally important for strengthening the resilience of agriculture while also promoting nutrition-sensitive food systems. Orphan crops, also called “neglected” or “underutilized” crops, such as millets, sorghum, and cassava, have not received the same attention as mainstream crops. They are often cultivated in smaller areas and have limited markets despite their significance for food security and nutrition, especially for the poor. These crops are valued culturally in local communities, are often highly nutritious, require minimal external inputs, are genetically diverse, and are adapted to harsh environments.

Although they have the potential to create new markets for rural farmers and increase household incomes, ultimately improving food security, there has been little investment in the research and promotion of orphan crops. But one promising initiative is the African Orphan Crops Consortium, which launched in 2011 with the goal of improving the nutrition, productivity, and climatic adaptability of some of Africa’s most important food crops. The consortium will train 250 plant breeders over a five-year period to improve planting materials for varieties that are more nutritious, productive, and robust for smallholder farmers throughout Africa.

Research investments are also needed to strengthen livestock production in low-income countries. Meat, fish, and other animal products are important sources of protein and micronutrients such as iron, zinc, and vitamin A, which are often lacking in the diets of women in childbearing age and young children in low- and middle-income countries. Including animal-source foods in the diets of individuals who rarely consume them can improve nutrition and contribute to healthy growth and development in children. Livestock also support the livelihoods of many low-income households and also provide manure, which can substitute for costly inorganic fertilizers. In addition, innovative approaches to sustainably increasing access to protein-rich foods should be explored, including expanded production of aquatic plants and edible insects.  

While research investments should prioritize access to diverse, healthy diets, efforts to improve the nutritional value of staple crops can also play an important role in improving nutrition. For example, the HarvestPlus initiative, building on previous efforts by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center to breed maize varieties with improved protein quality, has spearheaded efforts to scale up biofortification of staple crops such as rice, wheat, and maize. Sweet potatoes biofortified with b-carotene have been proven to improve vitamin A intakes of women and children and the vitamin A status of children in several countries of Sub-Saharan Africa. Other research has shown nutritional benefits from consuming pearl millet or rice biofortified with iron and maize biofortified with b-carotene.

But continued research investments in plant breeding are needed to develop new biofortified varieties with both enhanced micronutrient levels and desirable agronomic traits. Research is also needed to understand the nutritional impacts of consuming these crops. Research is also needed to evaluate cost-effective methods for increasing access to biofortified planting material and for creating demand among farmers and consumers for biofortified crops and foods without compromising existing farm and diet diversity.

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About

The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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