In the 1950s and ’60s, governments in Africa and Asia started subsidizing the production of staple crops like rice and corn because it was the fastest way to fill bellies and reduce starvation in those regions. Today, needs have changed: The problem is no longer chronic hunger but malnutrition, and the solution is not more calories, but better calories.By RACHEL CERNANSKY
It’s a crucial difference. A diet of corn or rice may keep a person alive, but can result in myriad health issues from night-blindness to severe anemia. For decades, however, governments, agriculture companies and development organizations have focused so heavily on staple crop production that Africa and South Asia are now growing too much corn (or maize, as it’s widely known abroad) and rice, says Prabhu Pingali, director of the Tata-Cornell Agriculture and Nutrition Initiative at Cornell University. Most of the surpluses are used for animal feed, in some cases to drive the growth of industrial animal production.
These starchy foods are not only insufficient to combat malnutrition; they have also displaced crops that are more nutrient-rich but harder to produce. And while governments have undertaken significant efforts, particularly since the global food crisis of 2008, to control prices for staple crops, they have made little effort to support the production or affordability of more nutritious foods, says Pingali. (See his critique of food policies as published in a June 2015 report in the journal Food Security. At the site, click on “Look Inside.”)
Consider lentils, or dal, in India, a legume that is rich in protein, fiber and key nutrients. “For decades, dal prices were rising relative to rice prices, but nobody said anything about it,” said Pingali. “It’s only now that people are saying: ‘Wait a minute. We need dal as much as we need rice. Where’s our dal strategy?’”
Governments around the world have long failed to promote the production or availability of a wide range of legumes, vegetables or fruits; in fact, just about every food other than corn, wheat or rice has been neglected. “Like in many other countries, when you talk about food security, Kenyans are talking about how many bags of maize we have,” said Mary Abukutsa-Onyango, a horticultural researcher at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology near Nairobi. She has a story to tell about how to start turning things around.
Ten years ago, vegetables that had been introduced during colonial times, mainly cabbage, collard greens and kale (sukuma wiki in Swahili), were standard fare in many parts of Kenya, particularly urban areas. Indigenous greens like African nightshade, jute mallow and spider plant had become associated with poverty, and many Kenyans chose not to eat them despite their greater nutritional value.
Abukutsa has published more than a dozen studies documenting the robust health benefits of the traditional vegetables, which are high in vitamin A, iron, zinc and other micronutrients often lacking in local diets. Moreover, she began working to encourage restaurants and supermarkets to serve or carry these vegetables; she and her students took field trips to help farmers grow them; and she helped to develop and publish recipes to make them more appealing and approachable, since preparation for some of the greens can be rather involved, and some traditional cooking knowledge had become less widespread as the vegetables’ popularity declined. Then she circulated her findings to other researchers, to get them interested in these nutritional powerhouses.
Today, restaurants throughout Nairobi serve greens like African nightshade to packed lunch crowds and supermarkets sell out of them while kale wilts on the shelf, a sign that the traditional vegetables have been taking over the exotic varieties. More farmers are growing the indigenous greens, and in the most convincing sign of increasing commercial interest, seed companies are breeding them.
Abukutsa has also worked to include the study and breeding of indigenous vegetables in university curriculums, because she knows that horticulture students often go on to become agriculture extension officers, the key source of farming advice for farmers around the country. Five universities now include the cultivation of indigenous fruits and vegetables in their syllabuses, she said. While the obvious goal was to ensure that knowledge about indigenous crops trickled down to farmers, there has also been a potentially more powerful result: The insights that drive these efforts have been trickling up as well, and are making their way into national policy.
Historically, Kenya’s ministries of health and agriculture have operated in isolation from one another, but in 2012, they decided to collaborate on a new agricultural policy that emphasizes more diverse, underutilized and nutrient-dense crops, Abukutsa explained. “The policy we had before had been focusing more on commercial crops for export and staples,” she said. “We needed a policy specifically addressing nutrition — not just talking about production.”
The government’s policy proposal has not been published yet because the draft text is not yet in final shape. But when it is, Abukutsa expects that it, like policy declarations before it, will affect the type of training available to farmers through the government’s extension program and perhaps the types of crops for which research is funded.
“The new policy will ensure that when we talk about food security, we are not just talking about maize — that we are talking about all that is available,” she said. The resurgence in popularity of indigenous vegetables is too recent to show an impact on national health statistics, but Abukutsa is confident it will lead to improvement, especially in relation to malnutrition and degenerative diseases. She’ll be tracking the results.
Other groups too are working to breed and improve the quality of indigenous crops in Kenya and around the globe. The Nairobi-based World Agroforestry Center has been leading a campaign to breed and conserve threatened varieties of indigenous fruits such as baobab, bush mango and African plum. It has a team working with small-scale farmers in Cameroon and other parts of Africa to domesticate fruit trees that have always grown in the wild. Largely because of deforestation, the fate of these trees in the wild is uncertain, so domestication may not only preserve them, it may also lead to the development of varieties of trees that will be more nutritious and resilient.
Elsewhere, the Taiwan-based World Vegetable Center has been breeding varieties of indigenous vegetables around the world, although its communications director, Maureen Mecozzi, said the work remains an uphill battle. “Although many countries now recognize the need to encourage production of a more diverse set of crops, developing the policies, funding the research, and building the infrastructure to support that diversity is a big challenge,” she said.
So far, there has been no research from which to quantify the changes in Kenyans’ consumption of indigenous fruits and vegetables, the impact of those crops on the nutritional status and overall health of populations. But researchers who work globally, like Pingali, and locally, like Abukutsa, are confident that the only path that makes sense is focusing more on vegetables and other nonstaple crops, whether they are indigenous or not.
“I’m now of the view that we’ve sort of beat the calorie problem,” said Pingali. “Even if you think towards 2050 horizons, we’ve got the tools and the mechanisms to support the demand for staple grains. Now, a lot of people will argue me on that. But I believe the same people who say we need to double the amount of rice, et cetera, should also be asked: Well, what about tomatoes? What about green beans?”
“As you think to the future and the demands for food in the future,” he said, “only focusing on staples puts us in this really funny situation of creating increased imbalance in our diets.”
Rachel Cernansky is a freelance journalist in Denver. She writes about agriculture, health, and the environment.