Diversifying diets


While recognizing the success of delivering cereals and other staple foods at scale, many people in low-income countries still lack affordable access to protein and micro-nutrient rich foods – such as fruits, leafy green vegetables, pulses, seeds and nuts, together with animal and fish products – that they need to complement the energy from cereals. That is why CGIAR is not only supporting the biofortification of important staple crops to improve nutrition, but is also investing in research to introduce nutritious complementary foods that enhance dietary diversity.

Despite rice yields increasing 70% in Bangladesh from 1997 to 2011, diets there remain among the least diverse in the world and many Bangladeshis are still dangerously malnourished: more than 40% of children under five are zinc deficient. To address this problem local nutrient-dense small fish that thrive in ponds and wetlands are mixed with micro-nutrient rich vegetables and fed to children during the first 1,000 days of life to provide a nutrient-rich source of food and replace the traditional thin porridge made from rice powder that lacks key nutrients needed for healthy development.

CGIAR is developing improved polyculture and horticulture technologies and training, targeted to reach 60,000 households in the country. With our partners we developed innovative complementary food products containing this special fish. The first was a food powder containing ground fish, rice, and orange fleshed sweet potato that is rich in iron, zinc, vitamin A and calcium. It’s easy to prepare into a smooth porridge, hygienically and safely, and is ideal for 6–9 month old infants. Next was fish chutney, rich in iron and essential fats, and a high-energy fish powder – rich in iron, zinc and calcium – which can be added to family meals to provide a nutritional boost. CGIAR is now exploring how best to take these innovations to scale.

While perishable foods such as dairy, fish, meat and vegetables are the most nourishing, they are also the riskiest from a food safety perspective. This is a critical issue for the poor, who largely buy and sell their food in informal markets. A decade of research on food safety for animal products in informal markets was synthesized in a book produced by CGIAR and a range of partners in Africa, as part of the Safe Food, Fair Food project. The research summarized key lessons from research spanning the meat, milk, egg, and fish food sectors in Africa, highlighting the importance of incentives, risk assessment, trade-offs and capacity building for safer traditional animal-source food markets to serve poor producers, market agents and consumers.

We don’t always think of forests when it comes to food, but we should. Uncultivated and forested land offer an important source of the nutritious vegetables, fruits, and animal source foods needed to balance diets. In 2014 CGIAR research in over 20 African countries demonstrated the connection between forest cover and fruit and vegetable consumption, and in revealing the crucial roles forests play as a refuge for plant pollinators, regulating climates and protecting watersheds – all of which enhance farm productivity – highlighted the shift that is now needed to move from a debate about trade-offs between forest conservation and crop production to a better understanding of the positive links between forests and nutrition.

By enhancing, preserving and providing access to existing nutrient-rich foods, CGIAR is helping to diversify diets in places where they are crucially needed.

Photo: © WorldFish/ M. Yousuf Tushar

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