Stories tagged: resilience

How Nutrition-Smart Agriculture Can Help Build Resilience Against the “Three C” Crises of Climate, Conflict and COVID-19

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.

Hundreds of millions of smallholder farmers are likely to feel the impact of global trade issues. Photo credit: HarvestPlus

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.\

Farmer growing zinc enriched rice. Photo credit: HarvestPlus

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

Moving Small-scale Farmers Up the Ladder of Protection and Possibility

Professor Michael R. Carter, founding director of the Resilience+ Innovation Facility, outlines how the Resilience+ framework can help smallholder farmers flourish through better risk management.

Life is constantly changing, and this is especially true for small-scale farmers. Ideally, a farming family’s livelihood will improve over time: they might grow a little more food to be able to sell locally, and then set aside whatever they can to protect themselves in the inevitable next disaster.

While life may change, risk is a reliable constant. One of the primary ways farmers manage their risk of losing crops is to reduce how much they stand to lose in the worst of circumstances. Avoiding investments in inputs like improved seeds or fertilisers can help a farming family to survive a disaster, but it also stunts their ability to improve their circumstances over time. Although a disaster can drive a rural family into poverty, the risk of a disaster can keep them struggling. But does that have to be the end of the story?

At the University of California, Davis, we recently established the Resilience+ Innovation Facility to spark inclusive agricultural transformation among small-scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

More than a decade of research shows that it is possible to shift these dynamics with effective and accessible financial tools to manage risk. The most recent advances have made it possible to take the next step with bundled financial tools that respond to a farming family’s changing needs and circumstances over time, helping them to move up the ladder of both protection and possibility.

In Mozambique and Tanzania, the author tested a bundle of stress-tolerant maize seeds developed by CIMMYT in combination with a low-cost form of insurance. Photo credit: Jonathan Malacarne

Resilience+ – a framework to manage risk

Resilience+ is a term we use to describe two ways in which rural families benefit from more effective tools to manage risk. First, a financial instrument that provides support in the wake of a shock can help a family to recover quickly with a lower likelihood of long-term or lasting impacts. Second, when a family knows they will have this protection, they tend to increase their investments in producing more food and income.

In Burkina Faso and Mali, I led a study from UC Davis testing a low-cost form of insurance for small-scale cotton growers. In Mali, a coup d’état forced the project to halt in 2012, but the direct impact on cotton investments was already substantial. Farmer groups who purchased the insurance increased their planting by between 25-40 per cent, which would at harvest increase average income by about US $300.

In Mozambique and Tanzania, we tested a bundle of stress-tolerant maize seeds developed by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and a low-cost form of insurance that would trigger seed-replacements after severe drought.

We were surprised to find that farmers who received replacement seeds achieved higher yields than even before the shock. Surveys showed that in addition to planting those seed replacements, farmers also increased their total investments in improved seeds. After experimenting with the bundle, they were able to learn for themselves its benefits.

Tools to generate Resilience+

A number of financial instruments make it possible to build from these and other successes in generating Resilience+. The most well-researched is agricultural index insurance, a form of insurance that by design is low-cost and easily scalable in even the most remote rural communities. Instead of basing payouts on losses that are individually verified, index insurance triggers payouts based on an area’s average conditions that are correlated with losses. However, there is the chance that an index will fail to trigger payments if the estimates of average losses do not reflect a farmer’s actual losses.

Today, we have new indexed financial tools that don’t come with the same level of risk as index insurance. One of these is a kind of savings account that limits withdrawals to pre-defined need, such as after a drought or for investing in agricultural inputs. Another instrument is a contingent loan that functions like insurance but without premiums paid in advance. An evaluation of such a loan designed in partnership with the NGO BRAC in Bangladesh showed that it increased rice planting by about 25 per cent, and households who did not suffer any flood losses produced about 33 per cent more from their crops.

There are a number of financial mechanisms help generate Resilience+, but more research is needed writes the author. Photo credit: Unsplash

A new approach to an old problem

While each of these instruments moves money through time to a present moment of need, they have different prerequisites. Savings require cash, emergency credit requires creditworthiness, and insurance requires the money to pay premiums as well as trust in the contract and an understanding of how it works.

The benefits of each instrument also vary. With savings, farmers are guaranteed to receive the money that they paid in advance. By contrast, a loan and insurance provide access to money through leverage. Because of its low cost, insurance seems the most viable for households with the least means. However, it is the most potentially dangerous: if payouts do not trigger for actual losses, a farmer is not only without the expected support but is also out the money paid in advance for protection.

The various qualities and mechanisms of these three instruments make them potentially powerful complements as a farmer’s circumstances and opportunities change. But there is a need for research that provides evidence from the field about how this flexible approach can meet the changing needs of small-scale farmers – a cause that helped give rise to the Resilience+ Innovation Facility.

This Resilience+ approach to development is designed to leverage existing networks of local private sector companies to reach small-scale farmers and pastoralists with better tools to manage risk. This approach is critical to ensuring that our successes are self-sustaining and continue to expand opportunities for rural families to achieve stability, prosperity and resilience.

Michael R. Carter is a distinguished professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California, Davis and honorary professor of economics at the University of Cape Town. Carter directs the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Markets, Risk & Resilience and is the founding director of the Resilience+ Innovation Facility.

Building Nutrition Resilience in the Covid-19 Era

Lynn Brown, Director of Alliances and Policy at HarvestPlus Continue reading