The UN Decade of Action on Nutrition 2016-2025


Bioversity Blog: Why governments should look to agricultural biodiversity to contribute to the Decade of Action on Nutrition

In her latest blog post in DG Dialogues, M. Ann Tutwiler, Director General, Bioversity International welcomes the Decade of Action on Nutrition and highlights the important role that agricultural biodiversity has to play in nutrition solutions.

Welcoming a call for a Decade of Action on Nutrition 

Last week the UN General Assembly announced a Decade of Action on Nutrition – a timely call to action to eradicate hunger and prevent all forms of malnutrition. Following on from the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals and the Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2), national governments need to create the conditions necessary to feed but also nourish the planet’s growing population.

Eradicating hunger and nutrition is about the quantity and the quality of food. One of the images used in the media coverage showed a young girl eating a plate of white rice. Rice is an important staple grain, and critical to addressing hunger in many parts of the world. The successes in breeding new varieties of rice has played a vital role in reducing the number of hungry people in the world. But, if we are to tackle the problems of malnutrition, rice alone is not enough. The girl’s meal will prevent hunger, but rice lacks several essential micronutrients – the vitamins and minerals that are essential for adequate growth and development. These nutrients come from fruits, vegetables, and animal and vegetable proteins. In other words, from a diversified diet.

For families around the world, the struggle to diversify their diet and their children’s diets with healthy, nutritionally-balanced foods is a daily and persistent reality. Simply producing more and more of a narrow range of staple grains – rice, wheat and maize alone account for more than half of the world’s supply of calories from plants – is not a panacea when it comes to achieving healthy diverse diets from sustainable food systems. We have many other food options at our disposal which must be included in the nutrition action menu.

Nature’s diverse food aisles 
One of many apricot varieties growing in Tajikistan. Credit: Bioversity International/C. Zanzanaini

Nature’s food aisles contain 5,538 crops that humans have historically used for food, yet the potential of putting this nutritious diversity back into food baskets remains little explored. This is where Bioversity International’s research agenda to nourish people and sustain the planet can help fill the gap.

It seems a common sense approach that consuming a diverse diet is a more nutritious and sustainable way to eat rather than relying on just starchy staples. In fact, the importance of dietary diversity is reflected in national dietary guidelines around the world. It is not a new concept. Yet crop diversity is still not widely embedded into agricultural policies. Agriculture often sits outside the nutrition discourse, even though the regions of the world where rich biodiversity can be found, including nutritious wild, indigenous and traditional foods, are the places that are also home to the world’s poorest people and where the potential of its effective use for nutrition action is highest.

Healthy diets from sustainable food systems 
Our nutrition team carries out research through our Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems Initiative to bring diverse and nutritious foods to the plate. We study how the diversification of the whole diet, using locally available vegetables, fruits, pulses, nuts and seeds, and animal source foods, across seasons, can provide missing nutrients. In particular, we investigate how a range of underutilized crops which have largely fallen off research-for-development agendas can provide nutritious alternatives within a diverse diet.

Whole diet, whole year 
As part of our research on local food systems and year-round seasonal food availability, we are also studying how adding locally available ingredients to family meals can boost nutrition all year round.

Diverse Vietnamese dishes. Credit: Bioversity International/J. Ranieri

In Vietnam for example, we identified that legumes, dark green leafy vegetables, vitamin A-rich fruit and vegetables were lacking in the diet. We shortlisted locally available but underutilized foods – produced by less than 40% of the population – that could fill these food group gaps. Through the creation of community diversity clubs, that are facilitated by village health workers, we are now working with farmers to diversify production, developing new or adapted recipes and improving nutritional knowledge and understanding on why diet diversity is important.

Recent research conducted by Bioversity International in collaboration with the Earth Institute also found that increasing food supply diversity was associated with lower levels of acute and chronic child malnutrition (stunting, wasting and underweight) at a national level.

Nutritious minor millets 
Bioversity International has been working with partners for more than 15 years in India promoting the conservation and use of nutritious minor millets. When compared to white rice, 100g of cooked grain of Foxtail Millet contains almost twice the amount of protein, and Little Millet more than nine times the amount of iron*, yet minor millets account for less than 1% of food grains produced in the world. Studies showed that substituting white rice with minor millet varieties in school lunches, resulted in increased hemoglobin levels in children within 3 months. India’s National Food Security Act incorporated millets into the public distribution system in 2013, meaning these nutritious grains will soon be available to more than 800 million people at a subsidized rate. 

Nutrition education 
Nutrition education is a vital part of ensuring take-up of our research recommendations. Bioversity International’s research in Kenya has shown that nutrition education motivates the caregivers of infants and young children to improve the quality and diversity of complementary diets by using accessible local food resources. More children and infants in the intervention group were consuming fruit and vegetables, dairy products, legumes and nuts, increasing their diet diversity from 3.5 food groups a day to 4.2 food groups a day.

We could do so much better if we have agriculture and agricultural biodiversity work FOR us and WITH us in the battle against hunger and malnutrition that is sapping the potential of so many children and taking its toll everyday on their future and the future of the nations where undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies are a constant reality.

M. Ann Tutwiler

*Gopalan C., Ramashastri, B.V. and Balasubramanium, S.C. (eds) (2004) Nutritive Value of Indian Foods, ICMR, New Delhi.

Notes: The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) will lead the implementation of the Decade of Action on Nutrition in collaboration with the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the World Food Programme (WFP) and UNICEF and with the involvement of the United Nations Standing Committee on Nutrition (UNSCN) and the Committee of World Food Security (CFS).

Photo top: Dishes prepared on site for a food fair held in the Barotse floodplain, Zambia. The food was judged in a competition for the most nutritious dish. Credit: Bioversity International/E. Hermanowicz
Photo middle: One of many apricot varieties growing in Tajikistan. Credit: Bioversity International/C. Zanzanaini
Photo bottom: Diverse Vietnamese dishes. Credit: Bioversity International/J. Raneri

The original blog post is available here.