Knowledge for a sustainable world

Yams look similar to sweet potatoes – they both grow herbaceous vines and produce edible tubers. Their taste, however, is quite different – yams are starchier and more potato-like whereas sweet potatoes are sweeter with a creamy texture. In West Africa, yam (Dioscorea spp.) is a preferred staple food for over 300 million people where the crop is prepared in different ways to make a variety of dishes.

Despite progress in many aspects of global development over recent decades, 690 million people experienced hunger in 2020. Degradation of our natural resources – land, water, forests, and biodiversity – continues at alarming rates. The food supply chain faces a series of global issues concerning sustainability, safety and innovation.

It is estimated that 10% of the world’s population rely on cassava as a staple food. Cassava is one of the world’s most versatile crops, with uses for both food and industry –for example, it can be used to make animal feed, ethanol, or adhesives. As a food, although cassava is probably the most energy-dense of all staples, it is lacking in micronutrients.

Over the last 15 years, there has been a significant expansion of private-sector agricultural investments in low- and middle-income countries. Too often, such investments have led to dispossessions, forced resettlements, lost livelihoods and human rights abuses for smallholders and local communities, with few real beneficiaries.

Gender equity may not immediately come to mind when thinking about crop breeding. However, the influence of gender roles and social relationships on crop breeding is considerable, particularly with root, tuber and banana (RTB) crops which are vital for people’s food and income across sub-Saharan Africa.

The sustainable development agenda is a response to a new class of challenges that call into question current patterns of human activity in relation to production and consumption, access and distribution of resources, and the way these processes and patterns of human activity are governed and directed.

With over 200 million people, Nigeria has the largest population on the African continent, which is projected to double over the next 30 years. Current crop production is barely keeping up with these rates of population growth. With weak national food controls, and high levels of postharvest physical, nutritional and quality losses due to poor infrastructure, sub-optimal marketing information systems, and increased food consumption outside the home, how might closing the food security gap be achieved?

Aquaculture, which involves farming aquatic animals and/or plants in the oceans or freshwater, is one of the fastest growing food-producing sectors and currently contributes over 40% of world fish supplies. The benefits of this development are real and visible, both for producing countries and for consumers in the form of lower prices and access to healthy sources of fatty acids.

UNICEF estimated that approximately 10.4 million children were at risk of suffering from acute malnutrition in 2021 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, northeast Nigeria, the Central Sahel, and Yemen. Along with Sierra Leone, these countries or regions have experienced humanitarian crises, conflicts, intensifying food insecurity, and pandemics, raising the threat of severe acute malnutrition (SAM).

In January 2021, NRI hosted a virtual international seminar to share research insights and to discuss the challenges relating to food and nutrition security in sub-Saharan Africa. This was part of NRI’s Food and Nutrition Security Initiative (FaNSI), through which the institute has been expanding its research capacity and partnerships with a specific focus on addressing climate change, food loss and waste, sustainable agricultural intensification and food systems for nutrition.

Self-confessed ‘foodie’ Eli Gasgil wanted to keep as many career options open as possible, but found herself being drawn irrevocably towards working in the food industry. Now happily in her dream job, she credits NRI for giving her the necessary skillset to make the move. Eli takes up the story.

NRI’s Dr Uche Okpara is leading a ‘Prosperity and Peace’ conference in Nigeria in July 2022, bringing together civil society groups, local leaders, practitioners, academic researchers and policymakers. The aim is to provide a space for frank and honest discussion in a bid to find workable pathways towards sustainable prosperity and positive peace.