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Ending world hunger isn’t just about producing more food, argues Barbara Wells, of the International Potato Center.
Feeding the world is more than just a numbers game. If food security were simply about volume, the global population would be fed 1.5 times over.
The reality, as the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed to devastating effect, is that too many people worldwide rely on limited diets in places where supply chains and markets are weakest.
It is true that food productivity and diversity in low-income countries remains deficient. But it is also true that too much of what is produced is lost for a lack of appropriate innovation, from insufficient plant protection leaving crops vulnerable to disease to inadequate post-harvest storage.
Providing a healthy diet for as many people as possible is as much about access and availability as it is about quantity, and the pandemic has reinforced the value of local and regional production to sustain communities through a crisis.
This is why the most promising solutions for ending global hunger lie not only in producing more food but doing so in a smarter way, using science to make sure that healthier, more nutritious food survives to reach the market, and that these markets reach the most remote and vulnerable.
For example, in places where the poorest have access to just a few staple crops, agricultural researchers, NGOs and governments have a narrow opportunity to improve diet, health and prospects.
But by enriching these crops with vitamins and minerals, such as the orange-fleshed sweetpotato with added levels of vitamin A, it is possible to improve the quality of diets without requiring families to grow or buy more or different food.
This can then be supplemented by developing markets for new, improved varieties of staples to address other barriers to food security, such as storage. Processing orange-fleshed sweetpotato (Ipomoea batatas) into a purée, for example, reduces post-harvest losses, meaning that families can access more nutritious food for longer.
Research in this area by the International Potato Center (CIP) has already improved the nutritional status of 6.8 million rural households across Africa and Asia, and this is just the tip of the iceberg of what can be achieved through breeding better crops.
Adding a secondary staple like potato to rice-based systems in Asia, for example, can help diversify existing cropping systems and offer new nutritional and economic benefits.
Not only can agricultural science and research help bolster the nutritional value of staple crops, but it can also produce hardier varieties that can withstand pests and disease, meaning more produce surviving to harvest and providing additional income as a buffer.
Since 2013, quality potato seed, improved crop management and value chain approaches have helped more than two million smallholder farmers in Africa and Asia.
One example of these approaches is a new cuttings technology introduced in Kenya only a few years ago, known as rooted apical cuttings, which offers farmers a way to take one tissue culture potato plant and generate up to 2,000 plants to serve as higher quality seed. This increases the availability of disease-free planting material and guarantees more from each harvest.
In Kenya alone, the potato generates livelihoods for 2.5 million people, worth an estimated US$480 million a year, despite the prevalence of pervasive diseases like late blight, which destroys almost a third of all potato yields worldwide. Last year, nursery sales of rooted apical cuttings of potato increased by 44 per cent, generating up to $800,000. So successful, this approach is now being promoted in India, Malawi, Tunisia and Uganda.
Finally, making the right crops available for changing climates and cultural environments, and improving the availability of resilient, adapted varieties relies on protecting a back catalogue of genetic material to safeguard different features of different crops.
After five decades of research and expertise, CIP continues to break new ground with cutting-edge conservation techniques including cryopreservation at its gene banks, which are home to 15,000 samples of potato, sweetpotato and other root crops.
The economic benefits of conservation are clear: gene banks like CIP’s contributed almost three-quarters of the $1 billion generated by the Victoria potato variety alone in Uganda between 1991 and 2016, which is just one indication of the potential economic value of conservation and utilisation of genetic materials.
This year is set to be a milestone year on the road to ending hunger by 2030. Not only does CIP and its parent organisation CGIAR celebrate its 50th anniversary by recommitting to solving global challenges through science and innovation, but 2021 will also see the first UN Food Systems Summit.
Addressing issues of hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity as shortcomings in an interconnected system is a crucial first step in developing a smarter, more efficient way forward.
As with the pandemic, the only route to ending hunger is through science and innovation. To outrun climate change, disease threats and rising populations to feed the world, not only must we do more but we must do it smarter.
Barbara Wells is director general of the International Potato Center (CIP), a research-for-development organisation focused on root and tuber agri-food systems.