As we experience a second month of lockdown here in Washington, DC, like many other people around the world, I am closely watching my newsfeed. The number of posts about the impact of COVID-19—on the economy, environment, health, food systems, climate change, gender equity, and more—seems to grow as rapidly as the count of those infected by the pandemic.
While there are multiple analyses and opinions, there is also broad agreement that the pandemic and efforts to contain it will likely have a disproportionate impact in the Global South, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and parts of Latin America. We know from past experiences that health crises and other shocks such as food price crises can have a severe effect on food and nutrition security in these regions This is especially true for smallholder farming families and other vulnerable communities with very limited resources to fall back on in hard times. Malnutrition, present in all its forms already in these regions, also weakens immune systems—the first line of defense to fight off infections when no readily available vaccines or other treatments are available (such as with COVID-19).
Before this pandemic took hold, two billion people were already malnourished (mostly in low- and middle-income countries) and 820 million faced chronic hunger; COVID-19 may double the number of hungry people globally and by the end of 2020 “an additional 130 million “could be pushed to the brink of starvation” according to World Food Programme Executive Director David Beasley. This is a potentially catastrophic humanitarian outcome, which would also move us much further behind in global efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2 of Zero Hunger by 2030.
Despite this very sobering prospect, I also see reason for hope: We do have proven strategies to respond to this hunger and nutrition threat and build the longer-term resilience of the world’s most vulnerable communities—such as the approaches recommended in a recent call to action to global leaders from members of the Food and Land Use Coalition. As they note, the focus should be on strengthening – if not transforming—food systems to deliver healthy, nutritious food for all. This would mean firing on all cylinders to make food supplies and systems more nutritious, affordable, sustainable, and inclusive.
One of the several promising initiatives for transforming food systems to deliver healthier diets is the biofortification of key staples. Staples are the backbones of any food system, and biofortification improves their productivity (yield and climate resilience) and micronutrient content, boosting food and nutrition security in the drive toward 2030. Biofortified varieties of maize, beans, rice, wheat, cassava, sweet potato, and pearl millet are conventionally bred (non-GMO) to be rich in vitamin A, zinc, and iron—all micronutrients that are essential for good health and strong immune systems.” A lack of these micronutrients not only means susceptibility to illnesses but also contributes to widespread stunting, anemia, blindness, and impaired cognitive and physical development in children. These conditions cause human suffering while trapping billions of people, their communities and countries in vicious cycles of poverty and preventing them from achieving their full potential.
As result of the crop research and development and delivery research conducted under the CGIAR’s Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH) Flagship Program on Biofortification, these micronutrient-rich crop varieties are already available for planting in over 40 countries across the Global South and are benefiting an estimated 50 million members of smallholder farming families, who can grow these nutritious crops for the same cost as the non-biofortified crops they would otherwise be growing and eating. As we work together to make food systems more resilient and nutritious, biofortified crops are an evidence-based, shovel-ready solution that can be part of integrated strategies to help boost the nutritional value of local food production and of food aid programs.
Making staples healthier makes good sense. This is all the more urgent now, given that the economic hardship and food systems disruptions caused by COVID-19 will likely force many millions more low-resource families to rely even more on relatively cheap, low-nutrient staple foods, while they forego higher-nutrient but more-expensive alternatives like meat, dairy, and vegetables. The time is now to make their core diets more nutritious.
Arun Baral is CEO of HarvestPlus, where he oversees the program’s interdisciplinary, global effort to develop and deliver micronutrient-rich staple food crops to reduce hidden hunger among malnourished populations.