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Agricultural researchers boost fight against malnutrition with staple crops

by Martin Kropff, CIMMYT director general | @jmollins | CIMMYT (International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center)
Monday, 11 June 2018 21:08 GMT

Harvest of provitamin A-enriched orange maize in Zambia. CIMMYT

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“By 2030, end hunger and ensure access by all people, in particular the poor and people in vulnerable situations, including infants, to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round.”

Those words frame the first part of U.N. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2, “Zero Hunger,” established as one of 17 overall objectives to alleviate poverty worldwide. As part of achieving SDG 2, measurable indicators include considering the prevalence of undernourishment in addition to the persistence of moderate or severe food insecurity.

What may be less well known is that the second clause of SDG 2 states: “By 2030, end all forms of malnutrition, including achieving, by 2025, the internationally agreed targets on stunting and wasting in children under 5 years of age, and address the nutritional needs of adolescent girls, pregnant and lactating women and older persons.”

At the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), we are doing our part to help achieve all of the targets of SDG 2, including boosting yields, production and maintaining genetic diversity, to name a few.

But we are also making strides toward improving the nutritional value of wheat and maize.

The good news is that the proportion of undernourished people dropped from 15 per cent in 2000-2002 to 11 per cent between 2014 and 2016. During that same period the number of undernourished fell from 930 million people to 793 million.

But there is much more work to be done.

Currently, almost 2 billion people do not consume enough essential vitamins and minerals required for healthy brain and body development. We believe agricultural research organizations such as CIMMYT should continue to play a significant role in reducing these numbers.

Staple cereal grains make up a significant proportion of diets, and demand for this affordable and efficient source of energy in developing countries will continue to increase in the future apace with population growth and dietary need. 

Discussions on global hunger risks often focus on ensuring the availability of staple foods, but cereals are not simply energy providers – they also contain significant amounts of other important nutrients, including proteins, fiber, lipids, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals.

Whole grain cereals – with higher levels of bioactive compounds and complex carbohydrates – are an especially important component of a healthy and diverse diet.

For people reliant on staple crops and without access to a diverse diet, including almost 800 million who go hungry, one avenue of providing more nutritious food is through new varieties of staple crops. 


For several decades, plant breeders have been focused not only on boosting yields and improving crop hardiness, but also on developing crop varieties with greater nutritional value.

Quality protein maize – originally developed in the 1990s – is now grown on 1.2 million hectares around the world, while pro-vitamin A maize is grown on at least 100,000 hectares in Africa and has been shown to be as effective as vitamin supplements. High-zinc wheat is also taking off in Asia, and the first high-zinc maize varieties for Latin America were released in February.

These biofortification efforts demand investment in improved breeding approaches, but overall they are cost-effective and make a big impact.

In addition to undernutrition, obesity is on the rise, with around 650 million people now seriously overweight, including 350 million children and adolescents.

Closer work with producers, retailers and other businesses in the agri-food sector is required to both develop more nutritious foods that satisfy consumers and involve more farmers – particularly smallholders – in producing nutritious and healthy food sustainably. At CIMMYT, we encourage greater productivity and crop diversity.

There is still much we have to learn, but the more we understand the intersections and connections between food production and nutrition, the more we understand the potential to find solutions to complex challenges.

Biofortifying maize and wheat crops is one tool in the box – albeit a hugely important one in the effort to end global hunger.

CIMMYT is based in Mexico and conducts scientific research throughout in Africa, Asia and Latin America. A member of the CGIAR system CIMMYT works with hundreds of partners throughout the developing world to sustainably increase the productivity of maize and wheat cropping systems, improving global food security and reducing poverty.