Opinion: Why nutrition resilience is key to better food systems in the COVID-19 era

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A team of researchers harvests seeds for a wheat breeding program. Photo by: UA System Division of Agriculture / Fred Miller / CC BY-SA

Building resilience is a priority across multiple global development sectors, including health, climate adaptation, disaster preparedness, livelihoods, and more. But relatively little attention has been paid to nutrition resilience — more specifically micronutrient resilience, which is the ability to withstand dietary diversity shocks without suffering impaired growth or increased morbidity.

This is critical to immediate and long-term human well-being.

Discussions around nutrition typically focus on ways to address acute malnutrition, which is understandable given that the world has been grappling with periodic shocks and disasters that trigger daunting humanitarian crises. Here the emphasis has usually been on short-term nutrition responses.

But with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, significant disruptions to food systems have increased the global focus on the ongoing resilience of these systems. Micronutrient resilience deserves more attention in this context. Its absence during shocks leads to spikes in serious health problems linked to micronutrient deficiency, such as stunting, anemia, and compromised immunity, which can lead to irreversible damage to human physical and cognitive development.

Adopting a new role for staples

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Dietary diversity is widely accepted as the gold-standard approach to positive nutrition and health outcomes.

For the nutrition community, the overriding focus is on increasing the availability and lowering the cost of higher-micronutrient quality foods such as fruits, vegetables, and animal-source foods, often complemented by nutrition and behavior-change communications targeted at increasing consumption. Staple foods are typically categorized by nutritionists as important sources of certain macronutrients — especially for the poor — but not of micronutrients, which are given lower priority.

Meanwhile, the agricultural research community has focused on increasing yields of staple crops through prioritization of climate-smart, drought-tolerant, and pest- and disease-resistant varieties. There is limited prioritization or consideration of nutrition traits in most agricultural breeding.

The impact of COVID-19 has revealed the costs of this bifurcated food and nutrition strategy. The reality is that shocks lead to reduced consumer incomes, which force changes in food consumption patterns. This usually involves shifting consumption from higher-nutrient foods to relatively less expensive, but also less nutritious, staples.

This shift is magnified when the shock also directly impacts the food system, particularly the food supply chain. High-nutrient-value food supply chains are more affected by shocks because these foods are generally more perishable. COVID-19 revealed this vulnerability even in high-income countries, where vegetables were seen being plowed back into fields and shortages of eggs and meat left grocery store shelves bare.

One possible response to such shock-induced micronutrient deficits would be to increase supplementation coverage for micronutrient-vulnerable populations. But launching new supplementation campaigns may be challenging in the short run, and COVID-19 shows the vulnerability of existing supplementation campaigns to lockdowns and supply disruptions.

Another option is expanding the coverage of industrial fortification, which increases the micronutrient content of staple grains and oils with additives after harvest and before retail. But this sector has faced challenges similar to that of supplementation during COVID-19 — some countries have waived industrial food fortification requirements, further compromising consumer access to micronutrients.

The case for biofortification

The COVID-19 situation underlines the strengths of a practical, proven response to this micronutrient challenge: increasing the intrinsic micronutrient content of the staple foods themselves instead of through additives.

Delivering this response more widely requires expanding typical agricultural breeding goals to include a focus on nutritional content of key crops. Biofortification — the nutritional enrichment of crops through plant breeding — is based on the same breeding techniques used to increase climate responsiveness and pest or disease resistance.

How to scale up biofortified crops

Biofortification is gaining some traction as countries look for ways to revolutionize their food systems and improve their population's nutrition. But what will it take to get it to scale?

This approach delivers micronutrients to vulnerable rural populations in the foods they grow themselves and eat every day. It also builds their nutritional resilience because the micronutrients come at no extra cost and stay in their crops, harvest after harvest. Thus, when incomes are affected in times of crisis, key micronutrients will remain available to low-resource populations.

This scientifically proven technology, developed and promoted by CGIAR and led by CGIAR’s HarvestPlus program, is already reaching about 50 million people in smallholder farming families who are consuming biofortified, nutritionally enriched staple foods.

Nutrition policies should recognize that staple crops are a critical component of diets — particularly for the poor — and even more so in times of income shocks and crises.

Promoting nutritional enhancement of staple crops — as a valuable complement to dietary diversification, industrial fortification, and supplementation for at-risk groups — puts a healthy, diversified, nutritious diet within reach for more people. For example, if all wheat consumed in Pakistan’s Punjab province were zinc-enriched, the cost of a nutritious diet for an adolescent girl would fall by 25%.

Hundreds of varieties of nutritionally enriched staple foods, which were bred to be one-for-one replacements for commonly grown nonbiofortified varieties, have already been released. Not only do biofortified versions provide more nutrition, but they also have other agronomic traits that are important to farmers in the varieties they currently grow. They are typically bred to yield as much or more under the same growing conditions as commonly grown nonbiofortified varieties.

Changing perceptions

'Completely off track': World hunger numbers rise for 5th straight year

The 2020 "State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World" report finds that the Sustainable Development Goal 2 will remain out of reach if drastic steps are not taken to reduce hunger and all forms of malnutrition.

Yet in most cases, biofortified crop varieties are seen as additional varieties rather than replacements for nonbiofortified varieties — or they are seen as niche, like organic crops.

As a result, governments have not engaged in their dissemination to the degree needed. Government policies should encourage the widespread adoption of nutritionally enriched staple crop varieties and guarantee that official agriculture support or purchase policies do not discriminate against biofortified varieties by exclusion. At best, these policies should promote their adoption by inclusion.

“The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020” revealed that 3 billion people cannot afford a nutritionally adequate diet, and that was before the COVID-19 crisis hit. Nutritional enrichment of staple crops through biofortification is an evidence-based, practical approach to increasing the level of micronutrients in the most resilient part of the food system and helping vulnerable people become more resilient to income and food system shocks.

About the author

  • Lynn Brown

    Lynn Brown is director of alliances and policy at HarvestPlus. An expert on global food and nutrition security issues, she previously worked at the World Bank and at the World Food Programme, including as its first chief economist.