Arun Baral, CEO of HarvestPlus – CGIAR’s flagship programme on staple crop biofortification – discusses how biofortification can help bolster food systems resilience in the face of global crises.
We hear a growing chorus of warnings from members of the food and nutrition security community about the dire consequences of the war in Ukraine on global rates of hunger and malnutrition. Arif Husain, chief economist at the World Food Programme, noted recently that threats in numerous countries to food production and availability from the “Three C’s” — climate, conflict, and COVID-19 — are rapidly being compounded by the “Three F’s” — spiking food, fuel, and fertiliser prices. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the number of undernourished people worldwide could increase by 8 to 13 million this year alone.
Even households which may not be particularly dependent on imported or purchased foods — including hundreds of millions of smallholder farming families in Africa and Asia — are likely to feel the effects of the downward spiral of global trade on their ability to produce food. This is in large part due to higher prices for key farming inputs — particularly fertilisers — which were already on the upswing prior to the war in Ukraine and are now increasing even more quickly.
Preparing for future crises
The war in Ukraine has once again turned the spotlight on the increasingly fundamental, longer-term vulnerability of our food systems during crises as pressures from the “Three C’s” are likely to persist.
The question is: How can we sustainably increase the resilience of the world’s most vulnerable families to food system shocks, and ensure that they are able to afford and access enough nutritious food? Even prior to the outbreak of the global COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, an estimated three billion people could not afford a minimally healthy diet. This is a structural problem as much as a crisis-driven problem, which requires sustainable responses.
As food prices rise and income-generating opportunities are impacted during crises, people tend to reweight their food consumption toward more-affordable items, notably staples, and away from more-nutritious but more-costly items such as fruits, vegetables, and animal source foods.
This is particularly the case for lower-income households, for whom food is a significant share of their budgets. Staples are also a predominant share of the crops grown by smallholder farming households. This is not only because they are less expensive to grow, but also because they are less perishable than fruits and vegetables and more readily stored for parsing out consumption over time.
The problem is that most staple foods – such as maize, wheat, rice, and beans – are low in key nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and proteins, which are needed to maintain good health and proper human development. Thus, when people’s diets are dominated by staples, no matter how filling, they will remain vulnerable to many serious health problems. In the case of deficiencies in vitamins and minerals, health problems include anemia, growth stunting, sight impairment, diarrhea, respiratory illnesses, and even premature death. An estimated 2.5 billion people suffer from micronutrient deficiency, also known as hidden hunger.
Delivering nutrition in common staples
Fortunately, there is a proven, practical way to enrich common staple crops with key vitamins and minerals at no extra cost to farmers or consumers. Through the process known as biofortification, staples are bred to be rich in iron, zinc, and vitamin A. The lack of these three micronutrients in people’s diets accounts for the majority of the health burden from micronutrient deficiency.
CGIAR and the National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) have been at the forefront of the development of more than 400 varieties of biofortified wheat, rice, maize, beans, cassava, sweet potato, and pearl millet. These are now being grown by smallholder farming households in dozens of countries, benefiting an estimated 64 million household members.
This is especially important for women and young children, since they are most vulnerable to the effects of hidden hunger. Without proper nutrition, women cannot bear healthy children, and children cannot develop well mentally and physically.
Embedding biofortification into our food systems
What makes biofortified crops so compelling is that they are a self-sustaining response to malnutrition because they are embedded within food systems. For example, in Pakistan, zinc-biofortified wheat was first introduced in 2016 in part to address widespread childhood stunting resulting from zinc deficiency,
A food systems-based approach has meant engaging partners along the seed and food value chains in Pakistan to create a sustainable zinc wheat market that has generated strong adoption and growth. By 2021, an estimated 1.4 million farming households were growing zinc wheat and an estimated seven million Pakistanis were consuming it. Zinc wheat seed has already captured a 20 per cent share of the national wheat seed market, and this share continues to grow briskly. In a country where wheat flour-based foods average 72 per cent of Pakistanis’ daily caloric intake, this bodes well for better nutrition and health outcomes.
To be sure, biofortified crops are not a universal remedy for all these ills, but they are a ready-to-scale intervention that can contribute to lasting improvement in the availability and affordability of nutritious foods for all, in particular low-income households. We also need to expand the use of industrial food fortification and supplementation.
We urge international financial institutions and global donors to support efforts to strengthen the capacities of national governments and businesses to develop, produce, and distribute nutrient-enriched biofortified crops. Support is also needed to ensure that they are available to those most in need — the poorest households, those in humanitarian circumstances — through public support programmes such as school meals and food assistance.
We have sustainable and cost-effective responses available to ensure that the most vulnerable households are better able to weather shocks in the future: available, affordable nutritious foods should be their first line of defense.
Header photo credit: HarvestPlus