Beyond the staples

I haven’t been following the Millennium Villages literature — scientific and popular — quite as assiduously as I should, but what I have read does seem to focus quite strongly on the staple crops. No doubt a sustainable increase in the production of staples is necessary to combat hunger in Africa. But is it sufficient? The impression I have taken away from my reading is that that is not a question that is accorded high priority in this literature. If I’m wrong about this, I would welcome being set right. In any case, it came as a nice surprise to read the following passage in “Tripling crop yields in tropical Africa,” a recent article in Nature Geoscience by Prof. Pedro Sanchez, one of the moving forces behind the Millennium Villages project.1

An increase in staple crop production is only a first step towards reducing hunger in tropical Africa. The provision of wider nutritional needs, such as more protein and adequate vitamins and trace elements, coupled with a reduction in disease, is also necessary.

Unfortunately that is not followed by a call to harness agrobiodiversity to provide those wider nutritional needs. But it does open an interesting door. A door that Bonnie McClafferty of HarvestPlus had no compunction about going through at a couple of days back:

The enormous challenge of micronutrient malnutrition is best addressed in the long run through poverty alleviation, economic development, education, women’s empowerment, access to adequate healthcare and dietary diversification, among other things.

Now, her defence of biofortification against the charge of medicalizing micronutrient deficiency sounds a lot like “don’t let the best be the enemy of the good,” which is a bit much, as in fact if anything it has been the good that’s been the enemy of the best in this game. Surely a lot more money has been going into biofortification than into dietary diversification — where, after all, is the latter’s equivalent of HarvestPlus? But it is good to see the importance of diverse diets — and by implication agrobiodiversity — at least recognized. Perhaps the Millennium Villages project could now plan some interventions around local vegetables and fruits?

  1. I’ve taken the title of this post from the heading of the final section of Prof. Sanchez’s article. []

2 Replies to “Beyond the staples”

    I agree wholeheartedly with Jeremy Cherfas, Pedro Sanchez and Bonnie McClafferty that diversification of foods of the poor is key to reducing hunger. I would add that diversification of foods grown by the poor and diversification of livelihoods pursued by poor households are just as key—and that all three kinds of diversification are likely to help reduce poverty and environmental degradation as well as hunger. The world’s billion small-scale food producers shall need everything in our food production arsenal to feed the world’s growing population—not expected to peak until mid-century. Let’s not forget another important if traditional weapon in our arsenal—animal agriculture, which provides poor households with modest quantities of milk and meat, which help human bodies make better use of the staples they consume, as well as help farmers not only make regular incomes but also make more efficient, sustainable and productive use of their croplands and farming systems. Indeed, the oldest staple of all may be not grains but diversification itself.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *