The Smart Food Triple Bottom Line – Starting with Diversifying Staples

Including summary of latest Smart Food studies at ICRISAT

article by By Dr Nigel Poole and Ms Joanna Kane-Potaka

Original article published in

The Smart Food initiative engages in finding food system solutions that in unison are good for you (nutritious and healthy), the planet (environmentally sustainable) and the producers, especially smallholder famers. This is the Smart Food triple bottom line. A key objective of Smart Food is to diversify staples. By focusing on staples across Africa and Asia, which typically comprise 70% of the plate and are often eaten three times a day, we can make a big impact.

For decades, huge investments as well as government support, private industry investment, product development and development aid have gone into the Big 3 – rice, wheat and maize, creating a “Food System Divide”. There are lessons to learn from the successes achieved by the Big 3.

Breaking into the Big3 league and making inroads into the food system will involve focusing on select Smart Foods and dedicating efforts to develop their value chains. The Smart Food initiative has chosen millets and sorghum as the first Smart Foods to focus on and to mainstream.

Millets and sorghum are the choice because they are highly nutritious and fulfil some of the major health needs. For instance, many millets are very high in iron and zinc. Finger millet has thrice the amount of calcium than milk and a low glycemic index (GI). They have a low carbon footprint, survive in high temperatures and require very little water. They are often the last crop standing in times of drought, are climate smart and a good risk management strategy against drought for farmers. They are multifaceted and versatile – serving purposes ranging from food, feed and fodder to brewing and biofuels that are not yet fully tapped. Millets and sorghum were once the staples in many countries in Africa and parts of Asia. They also figure in some of the biggest global health food trends – of being a super food, ancient grain, are gluten free, have high fibre and low GI and are good for weight loss. Moreover, they can be consumed in multiple ways — cooked like rice, used as flour and for porridge and used in deserts and as a drink. Critically, they are also tasty.

The Smart Food initiative started with the aim of helping smallholder farmers and communities across Africa and Asia. It also recognizes that mainstreaming a couple of Smart Foods calls for thinking bigger and globally. The Government of India is proposing a United Nations International Year of Millets that FAO has approved for 2023, with final approval awaited from the UN General Assembly. If successful, there will be just enough time to build momentum around the cause and ensure that the occasion marks a turning point in achieving major value chains of these Smart Foods globally, while at the same time positioning Africa and Asia to capitalize on this.

Meanwhile, it is critical to compile the scientific backing for millets and sorghum. Following are some of the Smart Food initiative studies that have tested the nutritional benefits and consumer acceptance of these crops in Asia and Africa:

In India, the first school feeding study on millets with 1,500 school children and 1,500 in a control group, showed that compared to iron fortified rice-based meals, millet-based meals led to: –

In Tanzania, over 2,800 students in 4 schools were introduced to finger millet and pigeonpea in their meals. All meals were significantly superior in protein, iron, zinc, calcium, magnesium, fat and energy. Fifteen months later, 681 students (26%) were surveyed showing that:

A protein study highlighted that even though legumes are an important protein source (affordable proteins in developing countries and with rising plant-based diets globally), one must look deeper than just the total protein level. Legumes are low in one essential amino acid – methionine, which is found in millets. The analysis of a combination of millets and legumes found that they make a complete and highly digestible protein, while also providing a basket of micronutrients. (Cereal Chemistry 2019; Summary flyer)

In Kenya, parents of over 60,000 children below 5 years interacted with Smart Food Ambassadors who spread nutrition messages and conducted fun activities and cook offs. At the end of the first year, we found:

  • Almost 100% increase in diet diversity among the children; and 20% increase in diet diversity among the women. (ICRISAT, 2018)

In Myanmar, a small study undertaken with millets and pigeonpea meals:

  • Had a positive impact on the extent of wasting and underweight children between 2-14 months; and
  • Showed an average score of 4 out of 5 in sensory evaluations of all the recipes and products among the community. (Science of Food and Agriculture journal; Summary)

These studies demonstrate the potential for significant consumer acceptance of millets and sorghum as well as their very positive nutritional benefits. While there is a resurgence of these Smart Foods which have been hailed as the next quinoa, we need biodiversity that caters not only to the health conscious in high end niche markets but also reaches the masses, especially in less privileged communities across Africa and Asia. This will create big impacts and contribute to the achievement of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

About the Authors

Dr Nigel Poole

Former Board Chair, ICRISAT governing board

ICRISAT Ambassador of Goodwill

Joanna Kane-Potaka

ADG, External Relations, ICRISAT

Executive Director, Smart Food