Populations around the world continue to struggle with malnutrition – both undernourishment and overweight/obesity – and climate change may exacerbate the problem. In addition to reducing overall agricultural yields, higher temperatures and erratic precipitation could increase spoilage of nutritious and perishable foods like fruits and vegetables. Climate change could even make foods themselves less nutritious; increased CO2 levels can reduce the protein content of certain crops, such as soybeans and grains. All of these changes could spell disaster for human health, particularly for children in developing regions, who already face higher risk of stunting, wasting, and micronutrient deficiency. Experts have estimated that climate change could increase child malnutrition in developing countries by as much as 10 percent.
In a recent chapter of The Climate-Smart Agriculture Papers, IFPRI researchers discuss how the development of more nutrition-sensitive value chains could help producers and policymakers respond to the growing threat posed by climate change. Such value chains could increase local market access to nutritious foods and thus improve household-level nutrition in developing regions like Africa.
The development of these value chains, however, is complex and includes a range of economic, social, and environmental factors. For example, farmers may often choose not to produce the most nutritious crops, such as fruits and vegetables, because these crops can require additional inputs and cannot be stored long after harvest, thus reducing their profitability. Similarly, changing consumption patterns, such as increasing demand for meat as incomes rise, can encourage unsustainable production practices and place pressure on already scarce land and water resources. To be successful, nutrition-sensitive value chain interventions must properly balance producers’ need for profit, consumers’ need for healthy foods, with the need for natural resource management, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and increased soil health.
The paper presents several examples of value chain interventions that could be successfully implemented to enhance nutrition and to improve environmental sustainability. Importantly, value chain interventions may be cheaper and more effective than interventions focused at the household level because value chain interventions tend to involve investments from private sector stakeholders and have the potential to reach a broader set of beneficiaries.
One of the strongest examples of a value chain intervention with significant potential to reduce malnutrition is the development and distribution of biofortified crop varieties. Biofortified crops, such as sweet potato and maize, are bred to have higher micronutrient levels and have started to be included in value chains and markets in several African countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Nigeria, Uganda, and Zambia. The work of HarvestPlus with orange-fleshed sweet potato has been particularly effective, having reached 2. 89 million households in Africa by the end of 2016. However, the authors emphasize the need for strong consumer education and behavior change programs to go hand-in-hand with distribution of improved crop varieties in order to effectively change consumption patterns.
Diverse crop varieties can also be used to help address the challenges of climate change in a way that protects farmers’ income. The paper cites work in Tanzania that found heat-tolerant and disease-resistant tomato varieties to have rates of return similar to those of some staple crops, as well as a study that showed that planting improved pigeon pea varieties can increase farmers’ returns. The authors also emphasize the need for the investment in storage and distribution infrastructure within value chains; this can reduce food loss and limit the impact of climate change on producers’ incomes.
Nutrition-sensitive value chains will play an increasingly important role in responding to climate change by increasing consumers’ access to nutritious foods and by providing farmers with the inputs and market incentives needed to produce these foods. To be successful, however, value chain interventions need to be context-specific, and policymakers must understand and account for the economic, social, and environmental trade-offs that may come from some interventions. It is crucial that future programs are developed to both improve food’s nutrition content and reduce when possible, its environmental impact.
By: Sara Gustafson, IFPRI