15 October 2016

Lessons from biofortification’s success at the 2016 World Food Prize Symposium

This week I was in Iowa at the World Food Prize Symposium.  It is a three-day event of about 1,500 people, mostly food and agriculture policymakers, but many researchers too.  I gave three talks.  First, presenting the new Global Panel report on Food Systems and Diets.  Second, I was on a panel discussing metrics on food and nutrition.  For this I drew on the Global Nutrition Report experiences.  The third presentation was at a reception for the 2016 World Food Prize winners: Howdy Bouis, Jan Low, Maria Andrade and Robert Mwanga for their work on biofortification—breeding for higher concentrations of micronutrients in staple crops — without compromising yields. 

I focused the last presentation on what we can learn from the biofortification experience.  I argued for three lessons.

First: donors—keep investing in innovation.  Innovation takes time.  Over a 20 year period the biofortification team had to find the varieties of staples such as rice, sweet potato and pearl millet that showed sufficiently high levels of micronutrients; maintain or improve their yield so farmers would grow them; show that consumers would eat them; make sure the micronutrients were bioavailable when the food was consumed; show it had an impact on micronutrient status — all the while making sure a market existed for such foods.  It was a long and uncertain journey.  The original donors who supported this in the 1990s — DANIDA, Canada, DFID, USAID and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — deserve an enormous amount of credit for taking the risk. Keep it up.

Second: the biofortification programme was convinced that agriculture could do much more for nutrition than it had done in the past.  They were right. The rest of us need to take note. Clearly the CGIAR — the network of international agricultural research centres that gave us biofortification— needs to come up with a second nutrition act.  They should ask themselves, where would the CGIAR be on nutrition without biofortification? When will there be another program like it?  The biofortification journey is far from complete, but what is the next innovation rolling off the production line? The CGIAR desperately needs to diversify into allocating more R&D funding to crops other than staples.  If they don’t they will be fighting a 20th century battle in a 21st century world.  Talk about “green revolution”, well vegetables, fruits and pulses have green leaves too!  For health and nutrition reasons we need fruits, vegetables, pulses, fish and poultry to become the “new staples” but this will not happen unless more agricultural R&D dollars are invested in them.  At the moment, the spend on them is minimal.

Third, the biofortification programme took science to scale.  The scientists weren’t content with developing the improved varieties; they wanted to get them into the markets and into the mouths of consumers who are malnourished.  They weren’t content with upstream work, they wanted to see children grow—just like the founder of the Green Revolution, the late Norman Borlaug did. To do it, they had to venture into the food system: into value chains with seed distributors, storage facilities, processors and marketers and into the food environment where consumers come face to face with options. This is where most of the action is (I think) when it comes to finding win-win policy solutions that improve the nutritional content of food and diets while maintaining commercial return. 

GAIN already works strongly in this food system space and I think this will intensify in the coming years.  It is hard to work in this space—it involves analysing systemically, building alliances with unusual suspects, and creating incentives for scaling. 

But when the going gets tough we will be sure to draw inspiration from the pioneers of biofortification.  Their innovation, their insistence that agriculture can (and should) do more for nutrition and their journey from agriculture into the rest of the food system in search of impact will be touchstones we can all draw on as we aim to end malnutrition by 2030.

Endnote:  I saw presentations by Jim Kim and Akin Adesina, Presidents of the World Bank and African Development Bank respectively on “grey matter infrastructure”.  I had read their views before but nothing beats an in the flesh presentation and they were great: genuine, committed and eloquent.  It is terrific that they have both secured new five year terms. 

Like Jim Kim (health) and Akin Adesina (agriculture) none of the four new World Food Prize Laureates are nutritionists. We need more non-nutritionists (as well as nutritionists) to become nutrition champions.  Only in this way can it be seen for what it is: a driver and a barometer of the quality of development. 

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