Mastering the last mile to food security

By Alice Marks, @alicemarks0

5-12-13_ladieswalking_1

IFPRI, Milo Mitchell

Is there light at the end of the tunnel for achieving food and nutrition security? According to Roberto Ridolfi, Director for Sustainable Growth and Development at the European Commission, there is not far left to go, but the journey still presents many obstacles to overcome. To him, the last mile is “the last inch between the fingers of the farmer and the seed in the soil.” On June 14th, the eve of the European Development Days, delegates congregated in Brussels at a workshop entitled Going the Last Mile: Accelerating Progress in Food Security and Nutrition. The evocative title conjured up different images for each speaker, which combine to create a path along this mile:

Step one: use the brain

For a long-distance runner, like Stineke Oenema from the United Nations Standing Committee on Nutrition, “the last mile of a marathon can be the hardest to complete”. The last mile is when the brain must be engaged to mentally, as well as physically, push towards the finish line. Similarly, now is the time to engage the knowledge of scientists, engineers, and experts in order to overcome the final barriers, such as lack of access to a varied diet or improved seeds, which allow food insecurity and malnutrition to persist.

1118599048_ee3c93515b_o

Credit: Scott Wallace, World Bank

Indeed, in order to create sustainable agricultural growth research is desperately needed, for instance to generate improved varieties of crops. An excellent example of the impact that this can have was delivered by HarvestPlus Country Manager for Rwanda, Joseph Mulambu, who discussed their biofortified high-iron beans. Not only can a portion of the biofortified beans provide half of the daily requirement of iron, but the beans have been shown to be drought resistant, inferring an extra advantage to those who grow them. Using conventional breeding techniques, HarvestPlus scientists have contributed a crop that is nutritious and can reduce iron deficiency while at the same time improves farmer resilience to droughts, which are likely to become more severe and more frequent due to climate change. This is exactly the kind of innovation that helps the finish line come into view. [Read more…]

Hidden Hunger: Tackling micronutrient deficiencies

HGAs we wait to hear from global policy leaders meeting at the Nutrition for Growth summit in London tomorrow, we have been thinking about all the different ways that malnutrition can be tackled, in particular agricultural measures than can be taken to boost nutrition.

In a new video story, Alina Paul of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) outlines the extent of micronutrient deficiency (termed hidden hunger) in India. Looking in particular at iron-deficiency, over 70% of children under the age of 3 and half of women in India suffer from anaemia, often linked to iron deficiency. Such deficiencies affect their development and survival.

In order to combat widespread deficiencies in iron, India is taking steps to promote iron-rich crops such as pearl millet, which is high in vitamin B, calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium and zinc as well as being well adapted to drought, poor soils and high temperatures. The Indian government is aiming to reverse the trend of declining millet production by incorporating the crop into school feeding programmes, thereby improving school children’s nutrition and creating market demand. Elsewhere the Home Grown School Feeding programme is making great strides in procuring traditional nutritious food for school children from local farmers.

International donors are also funding research into the development of higher yielding pearl millet with enhanced iron content. HarvestPlus and ICRISAT have partnered with Nirmal Seeds in India to develop and distribute a new conventionally bred, higher iron pearl millet variety. Since May 2012 over 25,000 farmers have bought and planted this seed.

But breeding more nutritious crops is only part of the solution to tackle hidden hunger. Growing a diversity of nutritious crops will help to boost household nutrition. Gordon Conway often references his experiences of Home Gardens in Java (see picture) that grow a wide variety of plants and crops and house different livestock, all of which can be consumed or sold. The M.S.Swaminathan Research Foundation has recognised the importance of local people in fighting hidden hunger and has established a programme of Community Hunger Fighters, village volunteers who are trained to address the major causes of malnutrition within their community. [Read more…]