Policies, aid and private investment must contribute to the cultivation of nutrient crops adapted to the extreme climate
Nutritious food is medicine. It is the center of health. When the center is missing, it leaves behind a vortex of suffering and disease. Africa knows all too well that children and adults with malnourished immune systems are particularly at risk of fatal diseases, from COVID-19 to HIV.
Yet, today, in the midst of a global pandemic when good health is more important than ever before, malnutrition and hunger are on the rise. Worldwide, an additional 6.7 million children under the age of five could suffer spillage – and become dangerously malnourished – by 2020 due to the socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is estimated that 80 percent of these children will come from sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. In East Africa, it is estimated that 41.5 million people are likely to be food insecure by 2020, an increase of 24 million before the pandemic.
The pandemic creates an urgent need for African governments to reconsider their agricultural policies. For too long, they have been concentrating on so-called “food security” crop-like maize and rice – which are high in calories but have little nutritional value. Calories alone can not sustain a healthy population – nutritious food is essential for everyone.
Agricultural policies and investments should include a greater focus on nutrient-rich but neglected crops, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, where maize is increasingly dominating production. From 2007 to 2017, the area of maize increased by almost 60 percent. It’s time to rely too much on calories, but low-nutrient crops such as maize, rice and wheat, which together account for 60 percent of global food calories. Import tariffs, market price support, fertilizer subsidies and other policies that unilaterally promote these standard staples need to change.
These crops will certainly remain an important part of the global food supply. But the constant neglect of known nutrient-rich crops, many indigenous to the areas where malnutrition is most acute, is unacceptable.
Government policies, multilateral aid and private investment should be designed to encourage farmers to grow a variety of biodiversity food crops that are adapted to the extreme climate and do not depend on large-scale applications of expensive inputs such as fertilizers.
Crops that meet these criteria are known and contain grains such as sorghum, millet, phonio and pseudograin such as quinoa and amaranth.
Quinoa is an example of this. It addresses the short- and long-term nutrition and food security: farm families can eat the leaves while waiting to harvest the grains, which benefit from a complete protein source, a rich variety of micro-nutrients and calories. Yet it is cultivated on just 1,000 hectares in Africa, mostly in Rwanda, where more than 500 farmers cultivate the crop.
At Washington State University’s Sustainable Seed Systems Lab, we have created a global participatory Quinoa research fund that supports research collaboration with institutions in Kenya, Malawi, Gambia, Uganda, Lesotho and Rwanda to test and develop different types of quinoa for their suitability for local circumstances. .
Meanwhile, small, distributed research projects are being done on several other nutritious and climate-adaptable crops, including sorghum and millet. Purdue University and the University of Queensland are working on the genetic architecture of heat and drought tolerance in sorghum. The work aims to provide African farmers with species that can withstand even higher temperatures and ensure the productivity of these important crops in the future.
The International Center for Dry Tropical Research (ICRISAT) and Africa Harvest, in partnership with the Kenyan Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KARLO), and the Kenyan government are strengthening sorghum and millet value chains for food, nutrition and income security. These and others could bridge Africa’s larger nutrition gap. Yet they receive only a small fraction of attention and funding for research in Africa.
To ensure access to nutritious and affordable food for all, government programs, international organizations and multinational food companies need to fund agricultural scientists to grow crops and investigate production practices that result in nutritious diets at affordable costs.
The growing global crisis in malnutrition calls for urgent measures to build strong ties between scientists in crops and food and researchers working in human health disciplines such as epidemiology, dietetics and nutrition. It calls for policies that support the legions of smallholder farmers in Africa to diversify their lands with nutritious and indigenous crops. It calls for a commitment to a shared vision of a food system in which nutritious food is available and affordable for all.
Cedric Habiyaremye is a Rwandan crop scientist, agricultural entrepreneur, research fellow at Washington State University, research leader at Food Systems for the Future Institute, and a New Voices Fellow at The Aspen Institute.