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Combating hidden hunger in a changing climate: harnessing biofortified crops

Combating hidden hunger in a changing climate will require breeding crops that are both resistant to climate variability and high in essential nutrients. Photo: P. Casier (CGIAR)
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Often hunger in poor areas is combated by governments and development organizations by ensuring physical access to food. Little attention is paid to hidden hunger that comes from poor nutrition - which is equally harmful.

There is an African adage that says “when hunger is taken away from poverty, poverty becomes a lot more manageable”. This is in recognition of food as one of the basic needs, and probably the most vital need, to human survival. This proverb, though, only talks about hunger in the form of physical access to food and more calories, and does not take into account the type of food or the nutritional status of the calories consumed.

Just like the thought behind the saying has focused on physical access to food, most efforts by researchers, development organizations and governments have in the past focused mainly on increasing the amount of calories available to poor people with little emphasis on the nutritional quality of the food. Often, this “observed” hunger is tackled leaving behind the “hidden hunger” which can – and often does – have equally devastating effects.

However, this has begin to change as nutritionists are able to draw more attention to the linkage between nutritious food and good health and successfully showed that food security without nutritional security is not enough; prompting the FAO (in 2001) to update its definition of food security to “…access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”

Combating hidden hunger in a changing climate will require breeding crops that are both resistant to climate variability and high in essential nutrients. Project leader Prof. Charles Spillane highlights that “there is a need to identify now the crop varieties that can maintain high levels of micronutrients in the face of climate change induced stresses such as drought. This is essential for smallholder farmers to have access to the types of crop varieties that can make their farming and nutritional systems resilient to climate change”.

Nutritional Security Challenges

In the 2013 State of Food Insecurity in the World (SOFI) report, the FAO highlighted that 842 million people are “undernourished” globally. However, it was noted that in some countries, the incidence of under-nutrition – as manifested in the percentage of children affected by stunting – is considerably higher compared to that of undernourishment – defined by dietary intake.

As access to food increases in many countries and the incidence of undernourishment is tackled as part of the drive towards attaining the Millenium Development Goals, under-nutrition persists. Despite increased calories intake, essential micronutrients required by the body for growth and immune system functioning to fight infections are currently low in many of the staple foods consumed. Developing countries, especially in Africa, are disproportionately affected by such hidden hunger and within each country, women and children are worst affected.

PhD student and nutritionist Marijke Hummel indicates that "improving nutritional quality of staple foods can significantly increase the overall nutritional quality of the diet. The aim of this is to use nutritious staple foods to lift the micronutrient status of entire communities to a higher level, and in particular the most vulnerable: children and mothers."

For example, 1.6 billion people suffer from iron deficiency anaemia in the world; out of this, 42% are pregnant women. In Africa, 68% of children under age five and 57% of pregnant women are anaemic. Similar statistics are evident for other essential micronutrients like zinc and iodine. About 500,000 children die annually of zinc deficiency. Zinc deficiency is the 5th leading risk factor for death and diseases in developing countries; impairs immune systems and increases susceptibility. 

Biofortification to combat hidden hunger

CCAFS in partnership with the NUI Galway PABC has a research program – supported by Irish Aid and CIAT – underway to biofortify and climate-proof staple food crops such as beans for sustainable maternal and child nutrition in sub-Saharan Africa . Dr. Rowland Chirwa of (CIAT Malawi) highlights that “beans are essential for both food security and incomes, especially of women smallholder farmers in Malawi. This program is a “research into use” approach whereby existing biofortified varieties are evaluated for their potential for climate proofing of smallholder agriculture systems”.

Beans are regarded as “meat of the poor” in Africa. Therefore, this research aims to identify drought-tolerant biofortified bean varieties, which meet both the agronomic and food needs of smallholder farmers, while improving the nutrition of women and children. Gender and agriculture specialist Dr. Una Murray indicates that “pregnant women and children are disproportionately affected by micronutrient deficiencies, in a manner that perpetuates cycles of poverty and stunting. The first 1000 days window for nutrition and before is a key target for the delivery of higher levels of micronutrients”.

Climate-proofing food materials

The other aspect of the research is climate-proofing crop varieties so that farmers have access to  higher yielding varieties that can deliver high levels of micronutrients, but which also equally provide increased tolerance to drought and heat stress caused by higher temperatures and precipitation variabilities – that are the expected fallouts of climate change.

On a recent state visit to Malawi, the President of Ireland Michael D Higgins highlighted that climate change provides a new and profound challenge in the battle against famine and poverty, requiring that climate related decisions prioritise the needs of the most marginalised and vulnerable. In this context, the CCAFS-NUI Galway project is important to help safeguard food and nutritional security against climate change and to improve smallholder farmers’ resilience to climate variability.

Ongoing research, encouraging results

Although, this research is still ongoing, already there are encouraging results from the research partnership. Initial field trials at the Chitedze Research Station in Malawi have identified promising biofortified bean varieties that maintain high zinc levels and are additionally higher yielding in comparison to the existing non-biofortified varieties. Project agronomists Veronica Guwela and Dr. Edna Curley highlight that “the adoption of biofortified bean varieties by women smallholder farmers will require that such varieties have comparable or higher yields than the existing varieties that they grow ”.

Considering the current and impending climate change and food security challenges, the new climate-proofed bean varieties can help combat both real and hidden hungers in some of the world’s most undernourished regions.