EDITORIAL

Zero hunger

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Science  01 Aug 2014:
Vol. 345, Issue 6196, pp. 491
DOI: 10.1126/science.1258820
PHOTO: PUNJAB AGRICULTURE UNIVERSITY, LUDHIANA

The United Nations (UN) designated 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming, recognizing that an estimated 500 million family farms, involving over 2 billion people, play a key role in food production and consumption worldwide. It is thus an opportune time to encourage a shift in tackling global hunger—from a “food security” focus to an agenda that promotes “nutrition security” instead. The drive to reduce hunger in the world has largely relied on crops such as wheat and rice that provide calories. But an increase in calories alone is not good enough. Improved diets and good health require bolstering nutrition.

Food security programs begun since World War II, both by national governments and international agencies such as the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the UN World Food Programme, were generally designed to address undernutrition. Ironically, this approach has led to malnutrition in some cases. For example, support for the growth and distribution of high-yielding cereals has led to predominantly cereal-based diets with deficiencies in proteins and micronutrients. Consequential health problems have been seen in several parts of India and South Asia. Such hidden hunger is ample reason to pursue crop planning that fulfills the macro- and micronutrient needs of populations in an integrated manner. Diet deficiencies of iron, zinc, iodine, vitamin A, and vitamin B12 deny nearly two billion people a healthy life. Commercial farming tends to promote market-driven monoculture of food crops, in which prioritizing nutrient need is generally absent. Without mainstreaming nutritional criteria in large-scale agricultural cropping and farming systems, the prospect for meeting the UN's Zero Hunger Challenge by 2025 will be dim.

“Family farming offers an effective and economic solution to…making sure that each person has access…to nutritious food.”

PHOTO: FERTNIG/ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

Family farming is characterized by diversified crops and hence can be harnessed to support nutrition-sensitive agriculture. The steps needed to achieve such a change include survey and identification of the major nutritional problems prevailing in an area. Appropriate changes in crops to address the deficiencies can then be made on family farms. Also needed is the standardization of measurement tools to estimate the impact of the nutritional interventions on human health. This can be done by using internationally accepted measurement criteria, such as stunting among children below 2 years of age. Members of elected local bodies could be educated in the nutritional deficiencies that can be overcome through a food-based approach. These efforts are being implemented in several hunger hotspots in India such as the tribal areas of Odisha, Kerala, and Maharashtra.

In March, encouraging examples of how to enrich staple crops with desired micronutrients were presented at the Second Global Conference on Biofortification held in Kigali, Rwanda, reflecting a growing interest in biofortification among scientists and public health professionals. Many plants such as sweet potato, breadfruit, moringa, and various berries are rich in micronutrients such as iron, zinc, vitamin A, and vitamin C. Such naturally biofortified plants should find a larger place in family farming. In addition, food crops can be enriched with specific nutrients through plant breeding, as has been done with rice, wheat, cassava, beans, and pearl millet under the Harvest Plus program of the CGIAR Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centers. CGIAR works with partners to distribute technologies and resources, including to small farms, and is a model for the development of similar efforts. In the meantime, our knowledge of how to assess risks and benefits regarding genetically modified crops will hopefully grow. Golden rice, genetically enriched in vitamin A, demonstrates the potential of this approach. But regulatory mechanisms are needed to assess the biosafety of such varieties in a scientific and transparent manner.

Family farming offers an effective and economic solution to help meet the challenge of making sure that each person has access not just to calories but to nutritious food. With an estimated 8 billion mouths to feed by 2025, we must think much more precisely about the best solutions for reaching zero hunger.

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