Food security is not only the amount of food we eat, but also the level of nutrition it provides. We are what we eat – and agriculture can play a crucial role in making the food we eat more nutritious and us, in turn, a healthier population. When coordinated with efforts from other sectors, such as healthcare and sanitation, these agricultural interventions could have a significant impact on malnutrition.
Unfortunately, two billion people in the world are not getting sufficiently nutritious food. Whilst they may not officially qualify as ‘hungry’, as they consume the recommended intake of calories, the staple crops they eat are likely to be devoid of vital nutrients such as Vitamin A, iodine and zinc. This condition is known as ‘hidden hunger’, and causes people to suffer from a devastating range of health problems, from blindness and stunting in children, to increased susceptibility to illnesses such as diarrhea and malaria, two of the leading causes of child mortality.
A healthy and varied diet is paramount for warding off these problems. But food that is rich in nutrients is not always readily available, or affordable. We must therefore look to find interventions which can offer people suffering from malnutrition a better diet. Agriculture offers a number of promising solutions.
Combating the “hidden hunger”
The first solution is biofortification of crops – through both conventional breeding techniques and modern biotechnology — to enhance the levels of key micronutrients in staple foods. The recent success story of Orange Flesh Sweet Potato in Uganda and Mozambique is a prime example of this strategy.
Plant breeders from Harvest Plus produced several orange sweet potato varieties with beta-carotene content of 30–100 parts per million (ppm), compared with the 2 ppm in local varieties. This beta-carotene is then converted to vitamin A in the body. Following a successful implementation and adoption campaign, vitamin A deficiency in children aged 12 – 35 months in Mozambique fell by 25-33% in Mozambique and by 31-34% among the same group in Uganda.
Other programmes – such as the biofortification of baladi bread in Egypt – bring the nutrients in at a later stage. In 2008, it was estimated that half of children under the age of five in Egypt were anaemic. The Egyptian government and the World Food Programme therefore joined forces to add iron and folic acid to the basic bread that reaches over 50 million people. By bolstering iron levels through the consumption of this bread, WFP estimated that Egyptian employers stand to gain over $175 million by reducing levels of anaemia in the workforce. They also discovered that every USD $0.17 invested in fortifying flour is estimated to return over $4.00 to the economy.
Nutrients, from the ground up
The use of nutrient-enriched fertilizers is yet another alternative. It is estimated that one third of the population is deficient in zinc. Zinc is essential for physical growth, the functioning of the immune system and reproductive health.
In an effort to eradicate health issues related to zinc deficiencies that were prevalent in Turkey, a project led by the Unversities of Cukurova and Sabanci increased levels of zinc in fertilizer for wheat crops in the Central Anatolian region. The results were staggering, with yields increasing as much as 500%. As the nutrients were passed from the soil, to the crop, to the people, levels of zinc deficiency in the population also dropped considerably. In India, 50% of soils are zinc deficient. It is calculated that enriching rice and wheat grain with zinc could save the lives of 48,000 Indian children per year.
Finally, fighting nutrient deficiency means farmers must be assisted to employ best agronomic practices. Crop rotation, for example, will help preserve the nutrients present in soils, which are passed to their crops. Farmers should also be trained to diversify their crops, and produce a wider range of food that will in turn give them and their families a more balanced and nutritious diet.
Agriculture’s role in combating malnutrition is clear. As we begin to shape our vision for the Sustainable Development Goals and the future we want them to engender, let us ensure that these agricultural interventions feature in our toolkit for eradicating hidden hunger for good.
Blogpost by Morgane Danielou, Co-Chair of Farming First
Photo: Gates Foundation