UN Report Tallies Increased Food and Nutrition Insecurity Amid COVID-19; Notes Value of Biofortification as a Response

An influential UN report on global food and nutrition security shows how the combination of conflict, climate change, economic stresses, and the COVID-19 pandemic led to a significant increase in global hunger and malnutrition during 2020. The report estimates that nearly 10 percent of the world population (or about 811 million people) was undernourished last year, up from 8.4 percent in 2019. 

The 2021 edition of the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) report also projects that, if current trends were to continue, the global community would fall well short of the Sustainable Development Goal 2 (SDG 2) of ending hunger by 2030, with nearly 660 million people still experiencing hunger by then. Of that total, the report says about 30 million cases would link directly to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

This year’s SOFI also highlights the urgent need to ensure that nutritious diets are both accessible and affordable to everyone. It recommends five policy response areas for doing so—including micronutrient enrichment of staple crops through the process of biofortificationThese micronutrients are now more relevant than ever as they are needed for healthy immune systems – the first line of defense against health threats, including viruses such as COVID-19. 

The SOFI is a flagship publication series that monitors progress towards globally agreed food security and nutrition targets. It is jointly produced by five UN agencies*. and is widely recognized as a valuable resource to drive informed decision-making for policy actors striving to formulate policies on SDG 2, i.e., to end hunger, achieve food security, end all forms of malnutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.

Regarding biofortification, the SOFI report states that it has been used along with large-scale food fortification as a cost-effective measure to reduce micronutrient deficiencies while increasing the availability—and lowering the cost—of nutritious foods.” 

The report calls for a value chain-based approach “to increase the availability of safe and nutritious foods and lower their cost, primarily as a means to increase the affordability of healthy diets,” using incentives such as diversification of diets toward more-nutritious foods such as fruits, vegetables, and animal source foods, as well as promotion of biofortified crops. 

The report cites the example of Rwanda, where HarvestPlus and partners introduced iron-biofortified beans which were rapidly adopted by farmers. “By the end of 2018, it was estimated that 20 percent of beans produced in the country were iron-biofortified, and 15 percent of the population was consuming these. Regular consumption of fortified beans can provide up to 80 percent of daily iron needs. Iron-biofortified varieties have also produced yields with iron levels that are 20 percent above those of other varieties, turning them into an attractive alternative for farmers,” the report noted. 

HarvestPlus leads a global movement to scale up production and consumption of biofortified staple crops, notably iron beans and pearl millet, zinc rice, maize, and wheat, and vitamin A cassava, maize, and sweet potato. As of the end of 2020, more than 260 biofortified varieties of these crops were available to farmers in 30 countries across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Biofortified crops are designed specifically for smallholder farming families who primarily consumer what they grow themselves and rely heavily on staples for their diets. 

For the first time, the SOFI report shows that recent increases in the unaffordability of healthy diets are associated with increased food insecurity. The report estimates that more than 2.3 billion people (or 30 percent of the global population) lacked year-round access to adequate food in 2020. This indicator (also known as the prevalence of moderate or severe food insecurity indicator) increased in one year as much as in the preceding five years combined. This alarming increase reflects the cumulative negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on food security in 2020.

We are now at a critical moment in time that requires new food system approaches and urgent actions at scale to get back on track towards achieving SDG-2 and other SDGs. Biofortification is a particularly relevant approach now, as the severe disruptions and economic tolls of the COVID-19 pandemic—and efforts to contain it—cut many families’ incomes and force them to rely more on relatively cheap lower-nutrient staples such as rice, wheat, beans, and maize. 

Empowering Smallholder Farmers to be Food System Change Agents

NOTE: This article was first published on farmingfirst.org and is reposted here with the permission of Farming First. 

The Nutrition for Growth Year of Action got off to an auspicious start at a virtual launch event last month, where prominent stakeholders announced investment commitments of more than $3 billion toward the upcoming Nutrition for Growth Summit‘s goal of addressing the hunger and nutrition crisis.

Separately, the UN is convening a Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) in September to identify strategies for making food and agriculture systems not only more nutritious but also more equitable, environmentally sustainable, and resilient to shocks such as the Covid-19 pandemic.

The pandemic’s serious impacts on health, well-being, and economies have heightened the sense of urgency to ensure that food systems can deliver nutritious diets to everyone, under any conditions. But food systems transformation will only happen if we succeed in engaging and empowering the hundreds of millions of smallholder farming families around the world who are highly vulnerable to malnutrition.

These families work three-quarters of all agricultural land and their diets depend primarily on what they grow. In Africa, 80 per cent of farms ­– 40 million across the continent – are of smallholder size. Often, these smallholders lack the means and the financial incentives to produce more nutritious foods for themselves, as well as for those who purchase from them.

Biofortification: A proven and scalable solution  

There is one proven, agriculture-based strategy, specifically tailored to smallholder families, which should be part of the solution toward food systems transformation: biofortified staple crops. These are varieties of rice, wheat, maize, beans, and other common staples that have been conventionally bred to contain nutritionally-significant levels of iron, zinc and/or vitamin A—all micronutrients that are essential for maintaining good health and ensuring proper mental and physical development in children. Biofortified crops are scientifically proven to improve nutrition and health outcomes when eaten regularly.

Biofortification research began in the 1990s within the CGIAR international agricultural research partnership, under the leadership of the HarvestPlus programme, as a response to widespread micronutrient deficiency among the world’s rural poor. The first biofortified crop variety was officially released to farmers in 2004 (a vitamin A orange sweet potato variety in Uganda).

Biofortified crops make nutrition accessible to farming families: They are one-for-one replacements for the lower-nutrient staple varieties that these families already grow. There is no sacrifice in yield or other agronomic traits important to farmers. These crops are also affordable for smallholder farming families, requiring no additional investment, and deliver micronutrients less expensively than typically higher-nutrient foods such as fruits, vegetables, and animal source products, which tend to be too costly for these families.

Biofortified crops also provide livelihood opportunities for farmers as well as small-scale entrepreneurs. SME food businesses are springing up throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America to develop and sell food products with biofortified ingredients, creating a market for smallholders’ biofortified crops and an attractive financial incentive to grow them.

Most significantly in the Covid-19 era, biofortified crops also provide key micronutrients (particularly zinc and vitamin A) that boost health resilience by strengthening immune systems. Furthermore, since the micronutrients are delivered through staple foods, they are more likely to reach and benefit female household members. Research has shown that, in many rural regions, male household members have preferential access to animal source foods and other higher-nutrient food items.

Currently, more than 340 varieties of 11 staple crops are available to farmers in 40 countries, benefiting about 50 million smallholder family members. The CGIAR research centers provide biofortified varieties as public goods to countries, where national agricultural researchers work with farmers to adapt these varieties to local conditions and farmer preferences.

Biofortified crops are ready for rapid scale-up, based on this extensive proof of concept under real-world conditions. The HarvestPlus goal is to work with multiple partners to reach one billion people with these nutritious crops by 2030.

Strong interest among policymakers

There is strong and growing interest among national leaders for scaling up biofortification in their countries. In just the past few months, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a public declaration in favor of biofortified crops and their integration in nationwide food assistance programmes.

Tanzania released comprehensive biofortification guidelines that provide welcome guidance for farmers and food businesses. And Guatemala’s government included biofortified crops in a new national strategic food reserve that is part of a new Covid-19 economic recovery plan. These and other leaders recognise the valuable role biofortification can play in better food systems.

Commitments at this year’s two summits to scaling up biofortification will show that the international community has the interests of the most vulnerable rural families top of mind. Biofortified crops are an equitable, inclusive, and complementary response to global malnutrition that put positive food systems change in the hands of these families.

Andrew Natsios served as Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development from 2001-2006. He is Advisory Committee Chair of HarvestPlus, and executive professor at the Bush School and director of the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs at Texas A&M University.

Sierra Leone’s President Julius Maada Bio Inspects Agricultural Machinery at the Agriculture Central Stores

Sierra Leone president Julius Maada Bio has embarked on an inspection tour of the stores of the Ministry of Agriculture that is housing about 2,410 agricultural implements and 410 tractors for the 2021 planting season. 

In the 2018 New Direction Manifesto of the SLPP, the President emphasised that the overall goal of their agricultural policy was to sustain and diversify the production of food, increase investment in agriculture, develop and implement mechanised commercial farming to transform the traditional subsistence agricultural sector. 

At the inspection site, east of Freetown, President Bio said his visit was to show that his government was serious about improving the agricultural sector and providing the enabling environment for farmers to exhibit and discover their true potentials. 

“There has been constant grumbling about the lack of mechanisation in farming over the years. With these machines, it is now left with us as a country to effectively utilise them to increase agricultural productivity for the years ahead,” he noted.

The Acting Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security, Dr Abubakar Karim, disclosed that all the 410 tractors and 2,410 farming implements would be distributed across the country by next week to ensure that farmers were ready for the 2021 planting season.

Bill Gates becomes top US farmland owner

While Microsoft founder, Bill Gates, is known throughout Africa and developing countries for his support for agricultural growth, he is now the owner of the most farmland in the United States, according to Land Report.

The Land Report researchers concluded that Gates, now the fourth richest man in the world, and his wife, Melinda, own 242,000 acres of farmland.

They own roughly 52,000 more acreages than the Offutt family, who sit at No. 2 on Land Report’s list of families who own the most farmland in the U.S.

In total, Bill and Melinda Gates have acquired land in more than a dozen states. However, his largest land holdings are in Louisiana (69,071 acres), Arkansas (47,927 acres), Nebraska (20,588 acres), Arizona (25,750 acres) and Washington state (16,097).

Bill Gates speaks during the 2019 New Economy Forum at China Center for International Economic Exchanges (CCIEE) on Nov. 21, 2019, (Hou Yu/China News Service/VCG via Getty Images)

According to Land Report’s research, Gates and his wife had hired former Putnam Investments bond fund manager Michael Larson in 1994 to help them diversify their personal assets.

These investments included a stake in AutoNation, the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, Mass., the Four Seasons in San Francisco and upward of 100,000 acres of farmland in various states, Land Report said, citing a 2014 profile of Larson in the Wall Street Journal.

However, Land Report’s latest findings show that the 100,000 figure has since surged to more than twice that amount.

Although Gates is widely known as the man behind tech behemoth Microsoft, he is no stranger to agriculture.

Since the early 2000s, Gates and his wife have made the foray into the agriculture space through numerous investments to support farmers in the developing world.

In 2008, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced $306 million in grants designed to boost the yields and incomes of millions of small farmers in Africa as well as “other parts of the developing world so they can lift themselves and their families out of hunger and poverty.”

The foundation also teamed up with the Department for International Development (DFID) to support agricultural research projects in developing countries in order to help small farmers increase their yields and incomes.

Roughly a year ago, Gates created the nonprofit Gates Ag One to further their goals of supporting agriculture in developing countries.

Credit: Fox/Business

Pan-African Private Sector Trade and Investment Committee (PAFTRAC) challenges WTO to hear Africa’s voice

Communiqué sets out a road map for WTO reform; Communiqué calls for development to be at the centre of WTO reform; Agriculture subsidies and non-tariff barriers highlighted as a specific hindrance to development.

Following a meeting convened by the Pan-African Private Sector Trade and Investment Committee (PAFTRAC) and hosted by the Afreximbank, a communiqué addressed to members of the WTO and the eight candidates who have been shortlisted as the institution’s next Director General was released yesterday calling for a wide range of reforms.

The communiqué was formulated following numerous consultations with PAFTRAC members, its institutional partners, and through a comprehensive survey of the African private sector. Within it, the Committee have highlighted a number of recommendations to ensure the institution is more effective in growing global trade but doing so in a manner that is fair to all.

The communiqué stated that “ignoring the voice of Africa and other emerging economies will have dramatic consequences for and undermine the relevance of the WTO and the rules-based system at a time when multilateralism is already under threat.”

In the opening remarks at the meeting, the President of the Afreximbank stated that “Africa has played an important but largely under-valued role in the global economy.” He cited that Africa’s global share of trade has fallen from 4.4% in 1970 to 2.5% today, whilst the share of Asia has risen from 7.7% to 20% over that same period. “Whilst this is the result of numerous factors, including fragmented markets and persistent supply-side constraints,” he said, “tariff escalations and stringent standards on final goods in developed economies have limited Africa’s potential to move up value chains.”

The communiqué called for the WTO to ensure “that development issues are front and centre of its reform agenda.” They specifically called for African countries to be afforded Special and Differential Treatment that will allow flexibilities and sufficient policy space to support local industries and advance development. The African private sector also emphasised the importance of addressing subsidises and state-aid in developed economies which continue to confine Africa to the bottom of global value chains.

With the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) coming into effect in 2021, they also requested that African integration under the AfCFTA and the establishment of an African Common Market is not undermined by multilateral negotiations.

The organisers called for the voice of the African private sector be “heard and considered under the multilateral framework,” so that the private sector can not only compete fairly but also grow. Trade, they said, is vital to generate the volume and quality of jobs required to absorb over 17 million young Africans who are entering the labour market every year.

African Development Bank partners with Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa as sponsor of virtual African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF)

The African Development Bank (https://www.AfDB.org/en) returns as a top-tier partner of the African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF) – Africa’s largest agriculture conference – to be held online for the first time from 8-11 September 2020, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The tenth annual AGRF will be headlined by African Heads of State and Government, and will bring together delegates from governments, civil society, the private sector and research communities. AGRF 2020 is hosted by the Government of Rwanda and the AGRF Partners Group, organized under the theme Feed the Cities, Grow the Continent. Leveraging Urban Food Markets to Achieve Sustainable Food Systems in Africa.

“As COVID-19 causes disruptions across Africa, we must prioritize policy support, especially for small and medium enterprises that produce, process and market 60% of food consumed on the continent,” said Wambui Gichuri, Bank Acting Vice President for Agriculture, Human and Social Development. “We need to enhance movement of inputs and food, increase production of and access to healthy and nutritious foods, establish food security task forces in countries, as well as strengthen regional organization capacity to monitor multi-country initiatives. AGRF is the platform to move these policy conversations forward.” 

Acting Vice President Gichuri leads the Bank’s “digital delegation” to AGRF, which also includes Atsuko Toda, Director for Agricultural Finance and Rural Development; Martin Fregene, Director for Agriculture and Agro-industry; Esther Dassanou, Coordinator of the Bank’s Affirmative Finance Action for the Women of Africa initiative (AFAWA) (https://bit.ly/2Fgoovr), and Edson Mpyisi, Coordinator of the Bank’s Enable Youth program. The Bank delegation will take part in nine AGRF sessions.

Edson Mpyisi

Gichuri is scheduled to deliver remarks during a nutrition-themed plenary: Building Back Better – Growing the Continent. This policy symposium held Wednesday (16:00 CAT) will discuss the UN’s The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, the ongoing pandemic, and feeding the continent.

Director Toda will moderate a Bank-organized AGRF side event on Monday, 7 September (15:00 CAT). The session, Integrating African Food Systems through the Lens of SME Champions will amplify the voices of small and medium enterprises in the production, processing, logistics, and cold chain solutions sub-sectors. 

“Feeding Africa’s growing population is not just about producing more food. It’s also about getting food to people who need it most. We support entrepreneurs along food system value chains helping to make that happen,” Toda said.

Fregene will be a panelist at an AGRF pre-event, Scaling Up, starting at 15:00 CAT on Monday, and he will speak during another pre-event session, Agriculture Technologies for Feeding Cities AGRF at 17:00 CAT on the same day. 

Mpyisi will help judge the AGRF Agripreneur Competition Finale parallel session on Tuesday. The competition brings together young entrepreneurs, innovators and “movers and shakers” in Africa’s agri-food sector. Mpyisi will also serve as a panelist on the Strengthening the Ecosystem for Young African Agripreneurs session, which will look at action plans on how to better serve the needs of young agripreneurs.

AFAWA Coordinator Dassanou will join a panel of experts discussing Making the Most of Gender-Based Financing on Wednesday, 9 September. The session will home in on the methods needed to identify and fund women entrepreneurs who are part of the hidden middle that links farmers to the value-added processing, retailing and food service sectors in urban centers across the continent.

“Agriculture and strengthening food systems are cornerstones of Africa’s plan to build back better coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Fregene. “AGRF online will convene the most senior decision-makers of governments in the same digital space as grassroots players along the agricultural value chain – we at the Bank are proud to be part of it,” said Fregene.

MONDELĒZ INTERNATIONAL Advances Sustainable Palm Oil sourcing with Advance traceability

Mondelēz International, Inc. (NASDAQ:MDLZ) announced on Thursday significant progress in advancing requirements for traceable, forest-monitored palm oil and confirms strong progress against sustainable sourcing goals.

The new requirements include traceability to plantation and satellite monitoring covering all palm oil concessions* supplying mills attributed to the company, against the deforestation criteria set out in its Palm Oil Action Plan. All mills must be identified on Global Forest Watch, with no active grievances against concessions in their direct supply, or operated by the same producer groups elsewhere. In addition, suppliers must have third-party assurance of their monitoring process and systems used and be subject to cross-check by Mondelēz International.

From Q1 2021, the company expects 80% of its palm oil to meet these enhanced expectations with strong supplier partnership, working to increase coverage as quickly as possible.

The enhanced sourcing requirements will improve transparency across the sector by requiring suppliers to confirm sustainable sourcing practices across their entire supply chain by 2025, not just the portion supplied to Mondelēz International. They form part of Mondelēz International long-term ambition to eliminate deforestation and forced labor in the palm oil supply chain and support the aims of the Consumer Goods Forum #Forestpositive Coalition.

“We have a unique opportunity to help create a future where sustainable practices are universal across the palm oil sector,” said Quentin Roach, Chief Procurement Officer at Mondelēz International. “As a company we are continuing to pioneer partnership and action with our suppliers to ensure they share and actively support not only our commitment, but the larger collective commitment to realize a forest positive future where a highly efficient ingredient like palm oil is sustainably sourced across the sector.”

“AAK is delighted that Mondelēz International has enhanced its commitment to sustainable palm oil, and is committed to working with Mondelēz International to achieve its goals. Sustainability is key to AAK’s future, including palm oil sustainability in particular. It is critical that representatives along the supply chain join forces to continue the momentum towards a fully sustainable palm oil industry. As one of the key leaders in the market, Mondelēz International sends a strong message with its new announcement, joining AAK as a catalyst for change,” said Jan Lenferink, Vice President AAK AB.

“We are supplying traceable palm oil from areas covered by our in-house land use change monitoring program to Mondelēz International and have always been impressed with their passion and sense of urgency for sustainability. We have appreciated their collaborative approach in setting high standards and utilizing industry frameworks that can be leveraged by all suppliers. We share the belief that close engagement with our customers and suppliers is key, as our sustainability goals can only be achieved through the commitment and collaboration of all stakeholders. We are proud to be able to support Mondelēz International in advancing their sustainable palm oil sourcing and deliver a positive impact together,” said Ben Vreeburg, Sr. Director Sustainability for Tropical Oils, Bunge Loders Croklaan.

Despite representing around 0.5% of demand for palm oil, Mondelēz International has taken a leadership position on palm oil sustainability and recognizes that all actors have a role to play in achieving a solution to this complex problem.  The company has maintained 100% RSPO palm oil coverage since 2018, 98% of the company’s palm oil comes from suppliers with aligned-to policies across their entire supply chain and the company takes action against groups who don’t comply, including the suspension of 89 mills in 2019.

“Many corporations are working hard to address deforestation and achieve better transparency in their supply chains. We are proud to work together with MDLZ to further reduce the environmental impact of the palm oil sector, and make meaningful progress more visible using the combination of daily satellite analytics and granular supply chain data,” said Niels Wielaard CEO of Satelligence.