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Opinion: Environment, Food Security & Nutrition

Adopting a Fully Integrated Food System Approach to Improve Nutrition

Marc Van Ameringen Marc Van Ameringen

Significant progress has been made over the last decade toward improving food and nutrition security. Nonetheless, the burden of undernutrition still affects 795 million people and more than 1.9 billion adults are overweight or obese.

With the adoption of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September 2015, however, there is a growing recognition that good nutrition underpins the achievement of almost every development goal. In particular, SDG 2 offers the opportunity to align efforts between all stakeholders involved toward ending hunger and malnutrition by 2030.

To achieve these ambitious goals, we can no longer work in silos: we must look at the whole agricultural value chain to build more sustainable and nutritious food systems. From seeds and soil through to harvest and post-harvest, and culminating in the moment that food reaches the consumer’s mouth, we have the opportunity to reform our precarious and unhealthy food system and put nutrition at its core.

sprinkle family

Family eating nutritious foods in Kenya (GAIN)

Starting with seeds

Starting from the beginning of the value chain, seeds offer various ways to improve the nutritional quality of diets. One of the most effective is breeding new nutrients directly into seeds. This process, known as biofortification, was first developed in the 1990s by the Food Economist Howarth Bouis – who then founded HarvestPlus – to address the issue of hidden hunger and provide people with the essential vitamins and minerals they need in their diets. Breeding micronutrients directly into staple foods was considered a sustainable and inexpensive solution, especially for the poorest people. Despite some challenges, mostly related to product delivery and the need to build demand among consumers for these fortified staples, biofortification has been adopted by several African countries, including Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia.

Improving soil health

Healthy soils are the basis for healthy food production. Hence, the quality of soil can have a negative impact on the crops grown in it. For instance, soils can be contaminated by Aflatoxins, dangerous toxins, produced by the fungus Aspergillus flavus, which infect peanuts, maize and other crops. The Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa (PACA), an initiative of the African Union, aims to free Africa from the harmful effects of Aflatoxins by promoting coordination across different initiatives, acting as a catalyst for partnerships and providing financial resources. With funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, PACA is working to scale up the production of Aflasafe, a bio-control product that ‘pushes out’ harmful, toxin-producing strains of A. flavus from the field through the deliberate introduction of non-toxic, harmless strains of the same fungus – a process known as ‘competitive exclusion’. The Aflasafe has proven to be highly effective: field tests in Nigeria between 2009 and 2012 showed that use of this product consistently reduced aflatoxin contamination in maize and groundnut crops by 80-90%.

Combatting post-harvest waste

Moving down the agriculture value chain, post-harvest loss presents formidable food security and climate challenges. In Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, over 50% of fresh fruits and vegetables produced are lost or wasted, with nearly half of these losses occurring during post-harvest processes. The losses, happening in the middle of the supply chain, are largely due to the absence of functional storage and cooling facilities. A potential solution to reduce post-harvest loss is the introduction of appropriate crating and packaging of perishable foods as they travel from the field to retail. Innovations in the cold chain, or temperature-controlled supply chains can perhaps have the single largest effect on the availability of nutritious diets. However, cold chains are reliant on electricity or diesel, which are expensive or inconsistently available in many of these countries. Investing and scaling up innovative green cold chain technologies will therefore be essential to build sustainable nutritious agricultural food systems. The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), together with the Global Cold Chain Alliance (GCCA), are working toward achieving this goal by connecting global industry leaders in nutritious food cooling with sister companies in the developing world to provide technical assistance and inputs to strengthen nutritious crop cooling and cold chains, packaging and crating and to move processing and storage closer to production fields.

View from a village market, one of the most effective place to improve diets and promote dietary diversity. (GAIN)

View from a village market, one of the most effective place to improve diets and promote dietary diversity. (GAIN)

Bringing healthy foods to market

At the end of the value chain, we find the consumers. In an increasingly urbanized world, the urban poor and families make choices based on what is available in the market at affordable prices and even poor rural famers are net purchasers of food. Cruelly, these farmers are also some of the world’s most undernourished. According to the World Bank, consumers at the Bottom of the Pyramid, both rural and urban, spend $3.5 trillion on food every year and this is expected to grow. In this context, harnessing the role of markets and catalysing small and middle-sized enterprises is vital to improve nutrition. GAIN, with support from USAID and the Feeding the Future Initiative, created the Marketplace for Nutritious Foods, a program designed to foster innovation and support promising businesses that produce heathy, safe and affordable food for low income consumers. Supporting entrepreneurs, many of whom are women, is critical to ensure the success of their businesses and improve dietary diversity. Initially launched in four East African countries, GAIN’s marketplace is currently supporting 37 companies with small grants and technical assistance. In two years, the Marketplace companies have succeeded in making over 7 million portions of new nutritious food available in the market.

Especially in light of emerging challenges like climate change and rapid urbanization, we need nutrition driven food systems that deliver, while ensuring sustainable use of planet’s resources. Showing evidence of what works and driving new partnerships that attract public and private investment for these solutions is essential. And more importantly, let’s not focus on agriculture alone: let’s adopt a fully integrated food system approach, which includes health and nutrition, to feed a growing global population with the affordable and nutritious foods it needs.

For further reading on this topic, read the GAIN snapshot report Cultivating Nutritious Food Systems 

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