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OPINION: A pandemic of malnutrition calls for new food policies in Africa

by Cedric Habiyaremye | Washington State University
Friday, 27 November 2020 08:30 GMT

Quinoa grains are seen at the kitchen of "Go Green" restaurant in La Paz, Bolivia, February 2, 2018. Picture taken in February 2, 2018. REUTERS/David Mercado

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

Policy, aid and private investments should go towards growing nutritious crops that are adapted to climate extremes

Cedric Habiyaremye is a Rwandan crop scientist, agricultural entrepreneur, research associate at Washington State University, research lead at Food Systems for the Future Institute, and a New Voices Fellow at The Aspen Institute.

Nutritious food is medicine. It is at the center of health.  When that center is missing, it leaves a vortex of suffering and disease. Africa knows all too well that children and adults with immune systems weakened by malnutrition are especially at risk of deadly diseases, from COVID-19 to HIV. 

Yet, today, in the midst of a global pandemic when good health is more important than ever, malnutrition and hunger are on the rise. Globally, an additional 6.7 million children under the age of five could suffer from wasting – and become dangerously undernourished – in 2020 due to the socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. An estimated 80 percent of these children would be from sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. In East Africa, it is estimated that 41.5 million people are likely to be food insecure in 2020, an increase from 24 million prior to the pandemic.

The pandemic creates an urgent need for African governments to rethink their agricultural policies. For too long, they have focused on so-called “food security” crops—like maize and rice—that are high in calories but low in nutritional value. Calories alone cannot sustain a healthy population—nutritious food for all is essential.

Agricultural policies and investments must include an expanded focus on nutrient-rich but neglected crops, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where maize increasingly dominates production. From 2007 to 2017, the area planted with maize increased by almost 60 percent. It is time to break with an over-reliance on calorie-rich but nutrient-poor crops like maize, rice, and wheat, which together comprise 60 percent of global food calories. Import tariffs, market price support, fertilizer subsidies and other policies that one-sidedly promote these standard staples must change.

To be sure, these crops will remain a significant part of the global food supply. But the continued neglect of known nutrient-rich crops, many indigenous to the areas where malnutrition is most acute, is unacceptable. 

Government policy, multilateral aid, and private investments should be designed to encourage farmers to grow a biodiverse variety of nutritious crops that are adapted to climate extremes and not dependent on large applications of expensive inputs like fertilizer. 

Crops that meet these criteria are well known and include cereals like sorghum, millet, fonio, and pseudo-cereals like quinoa and amaranth.

Quinoa is a case in point. It addresses both short and long-term nutritional and food security: farm families can eat the leaves while they wait to harvest the grains—benefiting from a complete source of protein, a rich array of micronutrients and calories. Yet it is grown on just 1,000 hectares in Africa, mostly in Rwanda, where more than 500 farmers grow the crop.

At Washington State University’s Sustainable Seed Systems Lab we have created a Global Participatory Quinoa Research Fund that supports research collaborations with institutions in Kenya, Malawi, Gambia, Uganda, Lesotho, and Rwanda to test and develop various varieties of quinoa for their suitability to local conditions.

Meanwhile, small, scattered research projects are being conducted on several other nutritious and climate adaptable crops, including sorghum and millet. Purdue University and The University of Queensland are homing in on the genetic architecture of heat and drought tolerance in sorghum. The work aims to provide African farmers with varieties able to withstand even higher temperatures and secure the productivity of these vital crops into the future.

The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and Africa Harvest in partnership with Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KARLO) and the Kenyan government are strengthening sorghum and millet value chains for food, nutritional, and income security. These and others could bridge Africa’s widening nutrition gap. Yet they receive only a small fraction of research attention and funding in Africa.

To ensure access to nutritious and affordable food for all, government programs, international organizations, and multinational food companies must fund agricultural scientists to breed crops and explore production practices that result in more nutritious diets at affordable costs.

The growing global crisis in malnutrition calls for urgent measures to build strong links between crop and food scientists and researchers working in human-health disciplines such as epidemiology, dietetics, and nutrition. It calls for policies that support the legions of smallholder farmers across Africa to diversify their fields with nutritious and indigenous crops.  It calls for a commitment to a shared vision of a food system in which nutritious foods are available and affordable for all.

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Family farmers struggle to keep up with fast-warming world