Research and development has, since the green revolution, focused on a calorie-centered approach to food security, promoting only a few high-yielding varieties of a few cereal species. However, food security does not necessarily mean nutrition security and “hidden hunger” has emerged as a direct effect of the loss of dietary diversity and a shift toward imbalanced “western-style” diets rich in fats, salts, sugar and processed foods. Now the world faces a double burden of undernutrition and obesity, which is demanding more nutrition-sensitive agriculture and food systems.
Neglected and underutilized species could be central in more nutritious agriculture and diets. Currently only 18 crops provide 90% of calories, proteins, fat and weight for human consumption but thousands of edible crop species exist that could contribute to greater dietary diversity and more complete nutrition.
Neglected and underutilized species, from cereals and pseudo-cereals to legumes, fruits and vegetables, usually show comparable or higher nutrient values than global crops. For example, minor millets have comparable protein levels to other staples like wheat, rice and maize but their balance of essential amino acids is better. Millets also contain important vitamins such as thiamine, riboflavin, folic acid and niacin and have a low glycemic index, so they do not contribute to disorders of sugar metabolism. Other grains like teff, fonio or quinoa also have valuable nutritional qualities like a high content of fiber, calcium, iron or protein. Many other underutilized fruit, vegetable and legume species have important vitamins and minerals like beta carotene or iron, which makes them an asset to fight the deprivation of these micronutrients. The high nutrient value of some of these underutilized species has given them recognition widely internationally as “superfoods”.
NUS can be a strong component in diets to help fight undernutrition and malnutrition, particularly for the poor in rural areas where fortified foods are not available or in urban settings which are more prone to a transition towards western diets.
A goal of our research is to stimulate consumption and cultivation of nutritious underutilized species so that their nutrition benefits are extended to those in need. Value chain development can help bring nutritious food to urban centers regionally and around the world. We are exploring nutrition-sensitive value chain interventions to ensure nutrition benefits are optimally secured, promoting the most nutritious varieties and preventing unnecessary losses of nutrients in processing. To increase the use of nutritious species in rural communities, our approach focuses on increasing awareness through education and promotion, as well enhancing cultivation and productivity through agronomic interventions.
Nutrition is a major focus of the IFAD-EU-CCAFS project in Mali, India and Guatemala. It has also been a focus of past phases of work supported by IFAD on neglected and underutilized species in Latin America and South Asia. Bioversity International has many other efforts to enhance the role of local agricultural biodiversity in nutrition, which you can read more about on the Bioversity webpage.