Time to Focus on Sustainable Food Solutions

Nutritious Iron Pearl Millet in India
Nutritious Iron Pearl Millet in India

After steadily declining for over a decade, global hunger is on the rise again, affecting 815 million people in 2016, or 11 percent of the population. The cost of malnutrition alone to the global economy could be as high as $3.5 trillion per year, or $500 per individual. As food insecurity continues to spread due to regional conflicts and climate change, the global community is increasingly turning to agriculture to deliver long term nutrition security by empowering people to help themselves.

Faced with the perfect storm of a rapidly growing population, increasing urbanization, unpredictable climate conditions, less arable land, and an international funding crisis, the question of how to feed current and future generations with diverse and nutrient-rich diets is one that experts are debating with great urgency.

Many of the challenges we see today are not new. In fact, 25 years ago, a young American economist named Howarth Bouis was already thinking about ways to improve food systems, specifically for those who suffered from the ‘hidden’ hunger associated with micronutrient deficiencies. Bouis saw how billions of dollars were being spent annually in developing countries to provide supplements and fortified foods to address micronutrient deficiencies. While effective, those solutions required the same recurrent expenditures year after year and often didn’t reach the rural farmers and communities most in need.

Seeking a sustainable solution to help those afflicted with ‘hidden hunger’, Bouis pioneered a scientific concept called biofortification – a natural process of cross-breeding plants to restore and increase their nutritional value.

Consuming these biofortified crops helps people meet their daily requirements of vitamin A, iron and zinc, which in turn helps prevent or improve conditions like diarrhea, poor vision, low immunity and physical and cognitive stunting.

Farmers have been quick to adopt biofortified crops because they are high yielding and climate-smart. And while the crops require time and investment to develop, once farmers have biofortified seeds, the enhanced traits remain in the crop, providing a sustainable solution to both growing more nutritious food and putting the agricultural tools directly into the hands of the communities that need them. By the end of 2016, biofortified crops were being consumed by 26 million people worldwide, and Bouis’ concept earned him the World Food Prize in 2016.

Emergency interventions are critical and will always be necessary in times of crisis. However, given the current state of climate change-induced food insecurity and decreasing dietary quality, and the impact of conflict on food systems, we must support scalable, innovative agricultural solutions that not only help farmers today, but ensure food and nutrition security for generations to come.

Recognizing the gaps in our global food systems, the United Nations launched the UN Decade of Action on Nutrition in 2016 with the goal of incentivizing countries to explore and pursue such solutions, encouraging UN member states to set and reach their own nutrition goals by 2025.

As Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations Thomas Gass once said, “nutrition is a maker and a marker of sustainable development.” Indeed, societies cannot grow and prosper without first having healthy communities, and I have seen time and again that the foundations for better nutrition lie at the local level.

Sadly, despite the overwhelming evidence that good health and nutrition lay the foundations for more prosperous societies, investment in nutrition has been low. The necessity of private sector involvement to end malnutrition is increasingly being recognized by the global development community. In fact, malnutrition is consistently ranked as a top priority for investment by leading economists, given the exceptionally high benefit-to-cost ratio of providing micronutrients to reduce diseases caused by deficiencies in iron, zinc, and vitamin A.

Commercial farmers, food processors, wholesalers and retailers play a critical role in global food systems and are therefore essential to drive food system reform. At the same time, those of us in the non-profit sector need to do more to nurture the green shoots of change in the private sector as companies see that investing in nutrition is not just socially responsible, but also in their business interests.

In the past two decades, agricultural innovations have focused on producing crops that are bigger and grow faster, but we seem to have forgotten why we eat in the first place. If we are going to feed the two billion people in the world suffering from hidden hunger with nutritious foods, and prepare for a growing population – and all the challenges that brings – nutrition needs to be a default setting for agriculture, not an after-thought. We can start by adding biofortification to the global tool box and looking at ways to leverage agriculture as a cost-effective building block for better health. With 70 percent of Africans dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods, why would we look anywhere else?

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