Getting ahead of the trends in global diets
In agricultural research, time-frames are long and funding often short, so getting the priorities right is crucial. Scientific organizations must be doubly sure they’re focused on tomorrow’s challenges and not yesterday’s, if they expect to remain relevant and effective.
This is the spirit in which CIAT’s Decision and Policy Analysis (DAPA) Research Area has prepared a new policy brief examining the implications for CGIAR research of recent research findings about the changing composition of global diets. The brief was prepared in collaboration with the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), and also represents a thought-provoking contribution to CGIAR’s program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health.
The findings in question – presented last March in a widely publicized article appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) – show how diets around the world, especially in developing countries, have become more homogeneous over the last 50 years. While major cereals and oil crops (notably soybean and oil palm) have become more predominant, various staples playing largely regional and local roles (e.g., millets and yam) have been pushed aside on the global dietary stage.
Driven by globalization, urbanization, and related trends, these shifts have profound implications for human health and for the sustainability of our food systems. More similar diets have, without doubt, delivered more calories and protein to consumers worldwide. But the resulting “nutrition transition” has also contributed to a global surge in diet-related diseases. More uniform diets have also translated into greater genetic homogeneity in farmers’ fields, meaning that food systems are more vulnerable to pests, diseases, and erratic weather.
So, what does all this mean for international agricultural research?
In the first place, global dietary trends support CGIAR’s continuing commitment to research on the “big three” staple cereals – wheat, rice, and maize – which currently receive nearly 70% of CGIAR funding on specific crops plus livestock. As these crops gain ground, research aimed at stabilizing their production (e.g., through increased stress tolerance), enhancing their nutritional quality through biofortification, and reducing their environmental impacts through better natural resource management will become more urgent and important.
Dietary trends also open new windows of opportunity for CGIAR research. For example, given oil crops’ rapid rise to prominence, scientists should arguably pay far more attention to them than in the past, addressing the huge impacts these crops are having on diets, farm incomes, and natural ecosystems.
Another compelling option for some CGIAR centers is to focus more on marginalized, regionally important crops. Having already contributed importantly to the improvement of roots and tubers, dryland cereals, and other species, these centers are well placed to lead a global effort to revitalize underrated staples, thus helping diversify global food supplies.
Finally, the policy brief calls for a “systems approach to agricultural research,” aimed at creating the conditions needed for a wider range of crops to flourish. This is essential, the brief argues, for enhancing human health, improving crop productivity over the long term, mitigating agriculture’s negative ecological impacts, and enhancing its resilience in the face of climate change.
Now is the time for CGIAR to get ahead of the trends in global diets and exert its considerable influence to help build sustainable food systems for tomorrow.
reposted from the CIAT blog authored by Nathan Russell