In a new report, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) says building truly inclusive food systems requires better engagement of smallholder farming families in food value chains—something that biofortification and other integrated agriculture-nutrition strategies are well-positioned to support. 

 “Some of the most relevant actions that can be taken to redesign food systems are those that use a value-chain framework,” write Johan Swinnen and Shenggen Fan—respectively, the current and former director generals of IFPRI—in the first chapter of the 2020 Global Food Policy Report (GFPR). “Integrated agriculture and nutrition interventions such as biofortification show particular promise for bringing smallholders into  ‘healthy’ value chains that promote a nutritious diet, from seeds to consumption,” they add. 

In the annual GFPR, researchers at IFPRI survey recent developments in food systems and food security by world region and provide analysis and recommendations on selected policy themes. The broad theme explored in the 2020 edition, Building Inclusive Food Systems, aims to “ensure that marginalized and vulnerable people enjoy the benefits and opportunities that food systems can bring and to support sustainable development.”  

“The world’s 510 million smallholder farmers play a large role in the food system, but poverty levels in rural areas are high, and small-scale farmers earn a disproportionately small share of agrifood value added,” IFPRI notes. “The potential to create new jobs and better incomes by strengthening food system linkages to include smallholders and rural people is enormous,” the research center adds. IFPRI is part of the CGIAR global research partnership for a food secure future. 

Swinnen and Fan note that progress in reducing hunger has stalled in recent years after several decades of steady progress. There were an estimated 820 million people suffering from hunger in 2018, the third consecutive annual increase, while one quarter of the world population still faces moderate-to-extreme food insecurity. They predict further deterioration in 2020, in large part due to the impacts on food systems from the COVID19 pandemic. 

The way to reduce the impact of such shocks over the long term is to catalyze food systems that are more resilient and inclusive, says the IFPRI team. “It is currently too difficult for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable to enjoy these systems’ outcomes, such as affordable, safe, and nutritious foods, or share fairly in their economic benefits,” they write. Key to inclusion is to “integrate historically excluded people at all stages of the agrifood value chain” and involve them in decision-making processes that inform food system programs, policies, and investments. 

HarvestPlus, which is based at IFPRI and part of the CGIAR Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH), is a global leader in catalyzing the development and adoption of biofortified staple crops that are conventionally bred to contain higher levels of essential micronutrients—specifically, iron, zinc, and vitamin A. The program’s primary target adopters are smallholder farming families in low- and middle-income countries who generally rely on cultivation of low-nutrient staple crops for much of their diet. Biofortification increases these crop’s nutrition and health value by making essential micronutrients readily available to these families in the crops they grow and eat every day. By the end of 2019, more than 42 million members of smallholder farming households were benefitting from these nutritious crops, which have well-documented benefits

HarvestPlus recognizes that smallholder farming families not only eat what they grow; families also want to sell some of their harvest to earn income and improve their livelihoods. Farmers will be incentivized to grow more biofortified crops if they know there is external demand for them. 

Thus, a large part of HarvestPlus’ work involves developing reliable biofortified seed multiplication and supply chains, and linking smallholder farms with small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) along food value chains—including post-harvest crop aggregators, crop processors, food product manufacturers, and food retailers. HarvestPlus also works with partners to generate consumer demand for biofortified crops through various public awareness channels. This “seed-to-table” food system approach works because it engages partners at every point in the value chain. 

For example, during 2019, HarvestPlus handed over a sustainable value chain for iron-biofortified beans in Rwanda to national partners—only a few years after the first iron bean varieties were introduced to smallholder farming families there in 2012. Key to success was market facilitation and capacity strengthening efforts with more than 300 value chain partners, of which smallholder families act as the principle bean suppliers. The result: By the end of 2018, iron beans had become 20 percent of all beans grown in the country, and about 15 percent of Rwanda’s population of 12.7 million were eating these nutritious beans.  

In the GFPR, IFPRI staff also emphasize the need to engage youth, women, and conflict-affected populations in food systems transformation. Since its inception in 2003, HarvestPlus has worked closely with both women and men farmers in co-development of biofortified crops to understand women’s roles in both smallholder food production and household level food consumption and nutrition. HarvestPlus also ensures that both women and men have access to biofortified planting materials and associated agronomic and nutrition training, while encouraging women-run SMEs in biofortified food production. 

Regarding the engagement of conflict-affected groups, HarvestPlus country programs in Uganda and Zambia recently have begun targeting cross-border refugee communities in programs that introduce them to biofortified crops, train them in cultivation, and connect refugee farmers with buyers.