The potential of agriculture goes far beyond contributing to basic food and income needs. For this reason CGIAR has a dedicated research program committed to accelerating progress in improving the nutrition and health of poor people by exploiting and enhancing the synergies between agriculture, nutrition, and health through research. The CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH) aims to support agricultural researchers, value-chain actors, program implementers and policymakers in reshaping their actions to better contribute to nutrition and health outcomes and impacts.
A renewed focus on indigenous foods is also helping farmers to generate more income, protect biodiversity and grow crops packed with nutrients. Research shows that the approach can have a significant impact on hidden hunger, an insidious problem caused by lack of essential micronutrients and vitamins. Bioversity International, a member of the CGIAR Consortium, recently co-organized “Crops for the XXI Century“ an International Seminar focusing on neglected and underutilized crops and their role in the fight against hunger and poverty. In addition a number of other CGIAR Consortium members have long been working on the sustainable management and use of agricultural biodiversity for meeting the world’s nutritional needs.
Harnessing the full food potential
One crop offering high hopes for better nutrition is ahipa, the name given by the Incas to the legume root produced by the American yam bean (Pachyrhizus spp.) An initiative led by the International Potato Center (CIP, a member of the CGIAR Consortium) is seeking to harness the full food potential of the crop — for both humans and livestock. For while ahipa, which is native to Central and South America, has the highest yield potential of any storage root forming legumes, and is more nutritious than cassava, it also offers good scope as a sustainable fodder crop for livestock farmers.
CIP researchers, who are working to introduce ahipa in dry areas of Centraland West Africa, have been in Benin to test the root crop as feed for fish, grasscutters and African giant snails. They say ahipa is especially suited to drought-prone countries, since it grows well in marginal soils. Ahipa’s roots are high in protein and rich in potassium and vitamins C and K. And because it fixes nitrogen in the soil, acting as a natural fertilizer, the crop is climate-friendly too.
“Ahipa is an excellent complement or alternative to other common staples,” said CIP breeder and geneticist Wolfgang Gruneberg, who is heading the ahipa program. “Ahipa’s potential as livestock feed or for local processing may bring even greater value added to small-scale farmers,” added Graham Thiele, Director of the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas.
Reviving local foods
In other parts of the world, farmers are being helped to grow more nutritious foods that consumers will like and can easily obtain. At a time when global food production is being narrowed down to a small range of crops, another Bioversity International* project is working to show that enhanced nutrition and food security can be achieved by reviving neglected local foods.
Led by Brazil, Kenya, Sri Lanka and Turkey – the Biodiversity for Food and Nutrition project is exploring local species for potential, among them white termites, indigenous chickens, mushrooms, sorghum and millet.
Fruit trees for vitamins
Domesticating nutritious native fruit trees can have a strong impact on livelihoods and food security for remote rural communities. Research by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR*) has shown that African children living in areas with substantial tree cover generally have healthier diets than those living far from trees. Growing fruit-bearing trees, such as baobab (Adansonia digitata), tamarind (Tamarindus indica), marula (Sclerocarya birrea) and chocolate berry (Vitex doniana) can improve diets and address hidden hunger.
“The unavailability and high cost of fruits is largely to blame for the widespread vitamin C, A and mineral deficiencies in African countries,” said Ramni Jamnadass, head of the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF*)’s Quality Trees Program. A well-coordinated tree domestication campaign could address the twin problem of malnutrition and loss of forest cover, she added.
A source of food and income
In Cameroon, efforts to domesticate the highly nutritious okok forest creeper have provided a sustainable source of this popular food and increased incomes for local communities, especially women. Gnetum spp., called okok or eru in different parts of Cameroon, is a non-timber forest product rich in protein and with a range of medicinal uses.
“It is very important in terms of food, it is very important in terms of medicine, and it is very important in terms of income generation,” said Abdon Awono, a scientist from CIFOR, which has teamed up with local partners, the Institute of Agricultural Research for Development and the Association for the Development of Environmental Initiatives.
Although okok grows naturally in the Congo Basin rainforest, increasing demand has threatened its sustainability. A program that encourages villagers to plant their own okok has proved so successful it has been expanded nationwide.
One of the villagers who has been trained to plant the liana is Calixte Mbilong. She now relies on okok for her income when the cocoa season is over. Mbilong makes 35,000 CFA (US$70) a week from the sales.
“It is important to me,” she said, as she firmly presses a tiny okok seed into the ground. “It is with this money that we pay our children’s school fees, take care of our health and buy clothing. It allows me to buy all that I need.”
Targeting native foods is one way that CGIAR research can ensure agriculture goes beyond basic food and income needs by improving nutrition and health, and by adding value for small-scale farmers.
Photo credit: © CIP-Gruneberg.W
For more information:
The CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH)
Biodiversity for Food and Nutrition Project
Adapting Ahipa in Africa (International Potato Center, CIP)
Mainstreaming Biodiversity for Food and Nutrition (Bioversity International)
A bit of baobab a day keeps the doctor away: wild fruits help solve Africa’s malnutrition crisis (CIFOR)
Taming Okok: Domesticating forest foods in Cameroon (CIFOR)
*members of the CGIAR Consortium