As COVID-19 emerged, the Government of Canada foresaw a worsening food and nutrition crisis and acted swiftly to support vulnerable families in Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Malawi, Pakistan, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The Integrated Food Systems Approach to Build Nutrition Security project was initiated to urgently increase household food and nutrition security and livelihoods among poor and rural farming families, especially the women and children within them.

Through partnerships with over 200 public, private, and non-governmental organizations, the 21-month project spanning February 2020 — September 2022 resulted in 8.9 million people eating nutrient-enriched biofortified foods. Over 4,700 metric tons of affordable nutrient-enriched seed and 6.5 million vitamin A orange sweet potato vines were distributed to vulnerable farming households, adding vital vitamin A, iron, and zinc to diets.

For many farming households, growing biofortified crops not only provided much-needed food for their families, but also a chance to improve livelihoods through the sale of surplus produce. Participating farmers sold 347,000 metric tons of biofortified crops and products, bringing USD 146 million of income to their households at an especially challenging time.

“Though our partnership with the Government of Canada, we were able to provide critical nutrition and livelihood opportunities to millions when food security was extremely fragile globally,” said Arun Baral, CEO of HarvestPlus.

The project placed significant emphasis on enabling farmers and women-led agri-businesses by building their business acumen, introducing them to formal financial opportunities, connecting them to markets, and supporting their marketing efforts. Over 600,000 farming households accessed markets and over 40 percent of participating female farmers reported an increase in annual income through the production and selling of biofortified foods and products.

“By supporting entrepreneurial women with skills and access to banking services, the project has contributed to a more resilient and nutritious future for farming families and their local food system,” Baral added.

Many strategies were used to ensure those who needed it most were impacted by the project. For example, partnerships were forged with charitable and institutional partners who were well poised to bring humanitarian seeds and foods to nearly 55,000 refugees and people in hospitals, schools, and women’s shelters; large seed packs were divided into smaller, more affordable sizes increasing their accessibility; traditionally in-person capacity building efforts were amplified using technology and media, reaching over 1.6 million households during lock-downs and decreasing time spent travelling to extension services; and partners onboarded over 5,500 rural women to open bank accounts and save to buy biofortified seeds.

The project’s intentional focus on gender equality resulted in benefits and empowerment gains among women. Specifically, women farmers were empowered by knowledge about nutrition and biofortification and newly acquired financial and business skills to make more strategic choices about their farms and businesses and put them in action. Many felt more resilient to future shocks due to improved linkages to markets, expanded customer bases, and increased personal income.

Experience responding to nutrition insecurity triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic has provided important and urgent learnings and lessons that can be applied as the world grapples with continual threats from climate change, conflict, rising food costs, and more. There is an imperative need to build locally resilient food systems using solutions like biofortification that improve climate adaption capacity, gender equality, and access to affordable healthy diets among populations at risk, especially ones with health, nutrition, and livelihoods at their heart.