“Superfoods” is a catchword that has found popularity among the most health-conscious consumers. However, the concept of these nutritionally dense and healthy foods only focuses on one aspect of the complex global food system.
With experts increasingly raising the alarm that our food system is broken, we need a different narrative which captures not only the role of food in nourishing our bodies, but also the connections between agriculture, the environment, and farmers’ livelihoods.
While superfoods provide a useful shorthand for the most nutritious foods available – often only to the most privileged – we need a popular food movement that is accessible to all, from the rural poor and growing urban populations all the way to the global elite.
Transforming the Global Food System
Smart Food is the concept behind such a movement, designed to address all aspects of the global food system by being good for the consumer, good for the planet, and good for the farmer.
Adopting a Smart Food approach can tackle some of the biggest challenges simultaneously, including malnutrition and other diet-related health issues, rural poverty, and adaptation to and mitigation of climate change. The foods that meet these criteria already exist, but how do we use them to transform our global food system?
Climate change and conflicts are set to plunge millions into food crisis https://t.co/mXaTovNdgF pic.twitter.com/ekC6bCkmlL
— World Economic Forum (@Davos) April 5, 2019
To have the greatest impact, Smart Food must be mainstreamed as staples in global diets to complement today’s three most consumed crops: rice, wheat, and maize. This is especially important for Africa and Asia where these “Big 3” staple crops can form up to 70 percent of meals, three times a day. Rice, wheat, and maize account for half of the global calories consumed.
Diversification of Diets: Millet and Sorghum
The biggest challenge to mainstreaming Smart Food is the “food system divide,” in which the majority of investment and research is directed towards the “Big 3:” rice, wheat, and maize. Some 45 percent of private sector investment is channeled into maize alone.
But a focused effort can set the wheels in motion for a smarter food system, starting with just one or two Smart Foods. By slowly increasing the staples from the “Big 3” to the “Big 5” (adding millet and sorghum) and then beyond, we can successfully achieve the diversification that our diets need to be sustainable.
To spearhead this transformation, the Smart Food initiative – led by Asian and African networks – has identified millet and sorghum as the first Smart Foods.
Millet and sorghum were originally the staples across many countries in Asia and Africa before the 1966 – 1985 Green Revolution, which focused energy on developing and improving rice and wheat. And there are enormous benefits to the consumer, planet, and farmer from these crops once again becoming a mainstay of food systems.
Good for Consumers
Some millets are very high in iron and zinc, two of the top three micronutrients that are most often lacking globally. Finger millet, for example, has three times more calcium than milk, and all millets are a rich source of fiber and protein, making it ideal for children.
In one study of 1,500 schoolchildren in India by NGO Akshaya Patra, for example, a random sample of 10 percent of the adolescent children given millet-based school lunches showed 50 percent faster growth than those eating fortified rice-based meals. What’s more, the children rated them as at least 4.5 out of 5 for taste, making millet-based meals not only healthy but also appealing.
Akshaya Patra, in partnership with the Government of Karnataka, introduced millet-based foods in mid-day meals. Millets are rich in nutrients, minerals, vitamins and organic compounds which boost human health, and are thus labelled ‘Smart Foods of the 21st century.’
— Gaurangasundar Das (@gaurangasundard) June 4, 2019
In another study funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Tanzania’s market was tested for its acceptance of Smart Foods. A total of 2,000 school children had millet and pigeon pea meals included in their menu, and 87 percent changed their perception and food choices. The recipes were significantly higher in energy, protein, total fat, iron, zinc, calcium, and magnesium.
A major project in Kenya, funded by USAID, reached the parents of more than 60,000 children under five with Smart Food nutrition messages. In only one year, women and children’s behavior changed significantly, moving towards a more micronutrient-rich diet with a 15 percent increase in diet diversity for women and an almost 80 percent increase for the children.
Good for Farmers
Millet and sorghum are also good for farmers, especially in arid and semi-arid ecologies, because their hardiness in extreme climate conditions helps make smallholders more resilient.
Farmers across Eastern Kenya, for example, used to grow millet and sorghum but became used to receiving maize as government aid during economic downturns. As a result, maize became a popular cash crop despite only surviving once every four years, limiting farmers’ output and economic prospects. Now, however, the maize value chain is well-supported and established. People have forgotten how to cook millets and sorghum, making it more difficult to return to more traditional staples.
Maize also has an uncertain future in South Asia, with the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization noting that climate change could lead to a decline in production of up to 20 percent.
Millet and sorghum, on the other hand, can survive amid water scarcity. Millet only requires around 350mm annual rainfall and can withstand high temperatures. As it can also be used as feed and fodder for animals, millet can support livestock-keeping as well as food and economic security.
Good for Planet
Finally, millet and sorghum are also good for the planet. They allow us to diversify beyond the “Big 3” staple crops, which spreads the demands placed on natural resources.
Millet requires minimal fertilizer and pesticides, which helps lower the impact of food production on the environment, while still producing a crop that is lucrative and nutritious. Sorghum, meanwhile, can produce biofuel, contributing to renewable energy and emission reductions.
Other Smart Foods, like legumes, can fix soil fertility and protect biodiversity, allowing for a diverse global food system in tune with ecological resources.
The case for Smart Food is clear, and the movement has started to drive this change.
Smart Food Approach
There is mounting scientific evidence to support the Smart Food approach. Celebrity chefs are joining the movement, and consumers are beginning to embrace these healthy, sustainable crops.
Eventually, this might also lead to the development of a Smart Food certification scheme to help inform consumer choices and offer traceability, along with Smart Food Entrepreneur Clusters, a kind of cooperative that carries out marketing for key crops such as millet.
Ultimately, Smart Food is an inclusive and practical concept, with minimal environmental footprint but with the potential to have an enormous impact on the sustainability of our diets and planet.
But people do not eat solutions or concepts; they eat food. The proof of Smart Food is in the eating – and this is just the first taste.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.