CGIAR and FAO Researchers Challenged to Address Global Malnutrition

Improving nutrition in Indian school children with high-iron pearl millet chapattis. Source: flickr (Alina Paul-Bossuet/ICRISAT)

Contributed by IFPRI and HarvestPlus

When researchers from the CGIAR and the FAO gather with stakeholders from around the globe to discuss research priorities for the 21st century in Dublin this week, they will ask: How can public sector research help meet the challenges of food and nutrition security?

Despite a decline in the prevalence of undernourishment in developing countries from 23 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2012, improving nutrition among the poor remains a challenge. Public sector research has helped reduce hunger in the past—think of the Green Revolution, which successfully doubled cereal production in many countries between 1965 and 1999, more than keeping up with population growth. However, over this period, the production of non-staple foods, which tend to be richer in vitamin and minerals, did not keep up.  Over time, food staples that provide needed calories  became more affordable, but dietary non-staples that provide vital nutrients became more expensive. As a result, poor people have become increasingly reliant on staple foods while their mineral and vitamin intakes have worsened. This dietary shift has had a negative impact on health, especially for women and children, who are the most likely to suffer from micronutrient deficiencies.

Furthermore, due to decreasing investments in public sector agricultural research, high growth rates in cereal yields in developing countries have not been sustained, but populations continue to grow. Food staple prices have also risen, with price spikes in 2008, 2010, and 2011. Because the poor must maintain their consumption of food staples to keep from going hungry, higher staple food prices leave less money for non-staple foods and other expenses, such as medical care and schooling. When faced with rising food prices, caloric intakes among the poor may decline, but vitamin and mineral intakes decline more drastically.

Dr. Howarth Bouis and Dr. John McDermott, of the CGIAR, and Dr. Terri Raney, of FAO, suggest that their organizations give just as high a priority to food quality as they do to food quantity when making  new agricultural investments. This calls for investing in improving production and consumption of non-staple foods, as well as in strategies such as fortification and biofortification, among others. Their recommendations emphasize bridging disciplinary and institutional boundaries to achieve these goals, which include:

  • Improving the nutrition and health expertise at  CGIAR and FAO
  • nvesting in collaborative research on agriculture and nutrition topics, which may include how new methods of storage, processing, and cooking could preserve valuable nutrients that are otherwise lost.
  • Partnering with NGOs who focus on improved nutrition and health in rural areas to develop and implement food-based strategies to improve nutrition, for example in the area of home gardening and livestock production.
  • Engaging with health ministries to achieve a joint understanding of how agricultural policies can either hinder or help achieve nutrition and health goals – for example, by discussing cost-effective safety improvements for particular food value chains.

With a growing focus on nutrition and food security, CGIAR and FAO public sector research can continue to provide solutions to emerging global challenges.  For more information, please see the full paper, entitled “Priorities for Public Sector Research on Food Security and Nutrition” or Executive Summary.