To ensure nutrition levels are maintained we need to develop
innovations that can be used by farms of all sizes.
Battling malnutrition isn’t simply about ensuring that individuals have enough to eat, it’s about ensuring they have enough of the right kinds of food. The 2016 Global Food Policy Report, published by the Food Policy Research Institute, proposes that agri-food systems need to be reshaped so they are nutrition led and nutritionally driven. With an estimated two billion people suffering from micronutrient, the task at hand is huge.
"We need to be innovative in our response," explains Sagar Kaushik, Chief Operating Officer of UPL, a global crop protection and seed company. "We need to respond quickly to ensure that our technology adds value to the grower." That response needs to start even before the seeds go into the ground.
It may seem very obvious, but the quality of what goes into the ground really does determine the quality that comes out. The better the seed, the better the fruit. Research and development has led to huge leaps in areas such as biofortification, whereby crops are cultivated to maximise nutrition. There are great examples where boosting the nutritional content of staple crops, such as increasing the vitamin A content of sweet potatoes, has helped to combat malnutrition.
But innovation needs to keep pace with changing demographics, as Mr. Kaushik explains. “UPL has a presence in 124 countries and we need more research and development, particularly in emerging countries where consumption is set to increase due to growing urbanisation.” Harnessing the local knowledge of famers across the world is one way that we can develop crops to withstand changing environments and maximise not just the quantity but the quality of produce.
Of course, individuals only benefit from crops once they have been successfully harvested, so ensuring they maintain that nutritional value as they grow is essential. The science of crop protection is rapidly changing and advancements in biological and biopesticides, which are used extensively in the cultivation of organic crops, mean farmers now have a much wider range of options to best suit their environmental needs and the demands of their consumers.
Whilst a lot of emphasis has typically been placed on nurturing and protecting crops, some of the greatest losses are often experienced once the food has been harvested from the ground. "As much as 30 percent of a crop can go to waste once it’s been taken from the ground," explains Mr. Kaushik. "The financial implications of this are huge, not to mention the environmental impact." Scientists estimate up to 14 percent of emissions from agriculture in 2050 could be avoided by managing food use and distribution better.
"We have a number of products that can be applied to the surface of fruit and vegetables to prevent fungal infection and maintain the nutritional value of the produce once they have been picked," continues Mr. Kaushik. Citrus producers in Spain and apple growers in the USA are reaping the benefits of such products, but these advantages stretch to smaller famers in developing nations.
With the assistance of post-harvest protection, a mandarin farmer in the Punjab in north India will be able to preserve his produce long enough to transport it to a new market in the south of the country. Not only does this reduce wastage and ensure the farmer a greater income, it keeps prices competitive for consumers. The simple maths of supply and demand means that when produce is scarce, prices are high and when there is an abundance of a crop, prices fall. Reducing wastage and ensuring more fresh fruit and vegetables are on the market will help to make nutritious food more affordable.
"The vast majority of farmers across the world are small holders, with just a hectare or two," continues Mr. Kaushik. "So they are a vital part of the nutritional value chain." It’s these famers who are responsible for feeding those in some of the poorest regions of the world.
Typically, smallholders have used the same techniques handed down through generations and won’t have had access to the advantages of new technology. Reaching 90 million small farmers in India with new technology is no mean feat, but if we are to take nutrition seriously, we need to rise to the challenge. "It's important that we aggregate these small farmers and give them access to information and technology," says Mr. Kaushik.
As the global population continues to grow, it’s these farmers who have the vital job of feeding their nations, so they need as much care and attention as the multimillion dollar producers. Through support helplines, local interventions, education sessions, and by offering practical ways for farmers to pool resources, agribusinesses can help smallholders make the most of the latest technology.
As we look to the future, population growth, migration and climate change will all pose additional challenges to global food security – we have to anticipate these changes and be innovative and agile in our response. Drought is just one example. A lack of rain decimates countless crops each year, causing immense suffering - largely to those in the poorest regions of the world.
Developing technology to mitigate against the effect of drought could have profound benefits for global nutrition. "Progress is being made and we have been at the forefront of developing a drought mitigation product," explains Mr. Kaushik. "We have created a starch-based granule that is applied to roots during planting and can absorb and retain more than 400 times its weight in water. When the roots become dry, the solution releases water to sustain the plant’s growth and then degrades like any other plant residue, once it has released all the water."
If we are to ensure the world’s population can access the vital nutrients they need, we need to continue drawing on local knowledge and creating innovative solutions that are accessible to farmers of all sizes.