Read the full article by Dr Yemi Akinbamjo in The Globe Post; Photo credit : ICRISAT
“Superfoods” is a catchword that has found popularity among the most health-conscious consumers. However, the concept of these nutritionally dense and healthy foods only focuses on one aspect of the complex global food system.
With experts increasingly raising the alarm that our food system is broken, we need a different narrative which captures not only the role of food in nourishing our bodies, but also the connections between agriculture, the environment, and farmers’ livelihoods.
While superfoods provide a useful shorthand for the most nutritious foods available – often only to the most privileged – we need a popular food movement that is accessible to all, from the rural poor and growing urban populations all the way to the global elite.
Transforming the Global Food System
Smart Food is the concept behind such a movement, designed to address all aspects of the global food system by being good for the consumer, good for the planet, and good for the farmer.
Adopting a Smart Food approach can tackle some of the biggest challenges simultaneously, including malnutrition and other diet-related health issues, rural poverty, and adaptation to and mitigation of climate change. The foods that meet these criteria already exist, but how do we use them to transform our global food system?
To have the greatest impact, Smart Food must be mainstreamed as staples in global diets to complement today’s three most consumed crops: rice, wheat, and maize. This is especially important for Africa and Asia where these “Big 3” staple crops can form up to 70 percent of meals, three times a day. Rice, wheat, and maize account for half of the global calories consumed.
Diversification of Diets: Millet and Sorghum
The biggest challenge to mainstreaming Smart Food is the “food system divide,” in which the majority of investment and research is directed towards the “Big 3:” rice, wheat, and maize. Some 45 percent of private sector investment is channeled into maize alone.
But a focused effort can set the wheels in motion for a smarter food system, starting with just one or two Smart Foods. By slowly increasing the staples from the “Big 3” to the “Big 5” (adding millet and sorghum) and then beyond, we can successfully achieve the diversification that our diets need to be sustainable.
To spearhead this transformation, the Smart Food initiative – led by Asian and African networks – has identified millet and sorghum as the first Smart Foods.
Millet and sorghum were originally the staples across many countries in Asia and Africa before the 1966 – 1985 Green Revolution, which focused energy on developing and improving rice and wheat. And there are enormous benefits to the consumer, planet, and farmer from these crops once again becoming a mainstay of food systems.
Good for Consumers
Some millets are very high in iron and zinc, two of the top three micronutrients that are most often lacking globally. Finger millet, for example, has three times more calcium than milk, and all millets are a rich source of fiber and protein, making it ideal for children.
In one study of 1,500 schoolchildren in India by NGO Akshaya Patra, for example, a random sample of 10 percent of the adolescent children given millet-based school lunches showed 50 percent faster growth than those eating fortified rice-based meals. What’s more, the children rated them as at least 4.5 out of 5 for taste, making millet-based meals not only healthy but also appealing.
In another study funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Tanzania’s market was tested for its acceptance of Smart Foods. A total of 2,000 school children had millet and pigeon pea meals included in their menu, and 87 percent changed their perception and food choices. The recipes were significantly higher in energy, protein, total fat, iron, zinc, calcium, and magnesium.
A major project in Kenya, funded by USAID, reached the parents of more than 60,000 children under five with Smart Food nutrition messages. In only one year, women and children’s behavior changed significantly, moving towards a more micronutrient-rich diet with a 15 percent increase in diet diversity for women and an almost 80 percent increase for the children.