Biofortified food: Building climate smart agriculture

Special Report

Kigali, Rwanda – There is increasing scientific evidence that food production and nutrition security are at risk from climate change, especially highlighted by the report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) at the end of last month.

According to the report, climate change may cause losses of up to 25 percent in crop production such as corn, rice and wheat by 2050 when global population is projected to reach 9 billion people.

And African countries could be the most vulnerable ones with profound and irreversible changes.

The World Bank is now promoting a new approach called biofortification. This method uses conventional plant breeding techniques to enhance the concentration of micro-nutrients in staple crops through a combination of laboratory and agricultural knowledge.

Climate change and ‘hidden hunger’

Image: Fabiola Ortiz

Image: Fabiola Ortiz

The goal is to combat micronutrient deficiencies, which can cause severe health problems such as anemia, blindness, impaired immune response and development delays.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) projects that micronutrient malnutrition affects 2 billion people globally. When people do not get enough of these micronutrients, they suffer from what is called “hidden hunger”.

“The science is quite clear, that increasing risk for agricultural systems is a result of climate change,” said Rachel Kyte, the World Bank Group Vice President and Special Envoy for Climate Change.

Kyte spoke at the Second Global Conference on Biofortification held in Kigali, from March 31 to April 2. The meeting, under the banner of “Getting Nutritious Foods to People”, was organized by HarvestPlus, an international research program on agriculture for nutrition and public health. It gathered over two hundred scientists, policymakers and stakeholders to discuss how to get nutritious foods, essential for good health and human development.

According to Kyte, what is particularly worrying is that Africa is vulnerable given an already existing situation of food insecurity for many African people.

Extreme weather events also threaten other continents, but given current concerns regarding food and nutrition security in Africa this is now an extreme risk. Kyte supports the biofortification approach as a new way for creating resilient agriculture worldwide.

“Can we produce crop varieties that are drought resistant, which are heat resistant, short cropping [quicker cultivation – F.O.] and biofortified? The challenge is to not just increase the yield. The challenge is to be able to do all of those things together”, she said.

As participants were discussing biofortification in Kigali, the IPCC released a new report. Yields of certain staple crops are threatened by climate change, the World Bank’s Kyte cited the report.

“This becomes a particular problem for countries where agricultural productivity is an important part of economic growth,” she said. “It becomes a very important effect for livelihoods and to households’ nutrition security as they face food price breaks due to extreme weather”.


Climate smart agriculture

Over the course of the past decade, scientists have been able to develop a more resilient and ‘climate smart’ agriculture. According to Kyte, there has been a “remarkable progress” in producing seed varieties of maize and rice which are heat and drought resistant, and also short cropping so they can grow despite unstable weather patterns.

Image: Fabiola Ortiz

“We know a lot about how to make these crops more resilient to the changing weather. But now what climate science is suggesting is that it isn’t just about making a resilient crop more resistant – it is about the entire system,” she said.

The challenge nowadays is to bring sustainable agriculture and food security together so that small farmers are able to have a sense of what is changing in the weather, Kyte said. “But more than that you’d need to be able to get more nutritional output of what you’re growing,” she stressed. “Climate change just makes it all the more important and urgent”.

The World Bank has committed itself to help and make sure that biofortified seed distribution systems happen, Kyte stated.“We understand that food systems today are broken in many perspectives and we are now fully committed to developing agricultural systems that can survive climatic changes. Biofortification provides a very important way to get that nutrition security from a food system under stress,” she said. We need to “help stimulate demand for biofortified products and support government and private sector to provide that support”, Kyte concluded.


Africa is vulnerable

In Africa, over 12 people die every minute due to lack of access to food. Overall, 240 million people do not get enough nutritious food, stated Akinwumi Adesina, Nigeria’s minister of Agriculture and Rural Development.

HarvestPlus is a global initiative, part of the CGIAR research program focused on promoting biofortification in nine target countries – Nigeria, Zambia, DR Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. Brazil has also been working cooperatively.
Scientists participating in this program believe that enriching staple food crops with vitamins and minerals is a way of fighting the so called hidden hunger.
HarvestPlus aims to get 15 million households worldwide growing and eating biofortified crops such as cassava, maize, orange sweet potato, pearl millet, pumpkin and beans by 2018.

The level of malnutrition in the continent is “totally unacceptable”, said Adesina. Over 80 percent of those who are malnourished in the world are found in 18 countries, he added, and eight of those nations happen to be in Africa.

“Addressing malnutrition is central to the economy just like investing in infrastructure. We are trying to put agriculture at the heart of our economy,” he said.

Adesina is an enthusiastic supporter of biofortified crops in developing countries, particularly in his continent. “In Africa, GDP is growing, but nobody eats GDP, people eat food,” he said. “Africa should not become a museum of poverty and hungry people. We are determined to deal with this, particularly in Nigeria, to improve access to food and make agriculture work.”

By taking enriched nutrient crops with increased density of vitamin A, iron and zinc, Adesina believes that biofortification could be a “big changer for global nutrition and food security”.


Nigeria as an example

Over the past two years Nigeria has initiated a massive program for boosting its food production to reduce dependence on food imports, while also creating 3.5 million new jobs.

The country’s target is to reach 2.5 million households growing highly enriched nutrient staple food by 2016. “We’re determined to be the leading country on the cultivation of biofortified nutrient energy crops to allow us to deal with the issue of malnutrition,” said Adesina.

Nigeria has 84 million hectares of land, of which no more than 40 percent is properly cultivated, explained Adesina who defends the use of modern farming inputs like irrigation and mechanization, plant growth regulators and use of mechanical ploughing.

“Agriculture is the way in which you can have inclusive growth in African countries. It is what I call ‘the great matter infrastructure,'” the Nigerian minister said. “We invest in roads, in power, in ports and we must recognize that building this great matter infrastructure and better nutrition is investing in economy today and in the future of our societies.”

  Fabíola Ortiz

 Disclaimer: The author traveled to Rwanda as a guest of HarvestPlus


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