‘Game Changing’ Campaign Could Improve Food Security For Africa

Food & Drink

As the world grapples with the complexities of food security in an ever-changing climate, global discourse has evolved from stressing on calories alone, to focusing on nutrition and food pathways. This transformative wave— a head nod to indigenous wisdom— is particularly relevant to Africa, a continent brimming with potential for a more resilient and nourishing food future.

“Historically, and particularly for Africa, we’ve been interested in making sure that people get enough food. It’s really been a production and quantity challenge, and we haven’t always succeeded at that,” says Dr. Cary Fowler, U.S. Special Envoy for Global Food Security, speaking on the global development sector’s typical approach to addressing food security issues, by focusing on supply.

“Going forward, I think we are all beginning to realize that the challenge is not just about filling people’s bellies, but it’s about providing good nutrition. That’s what a food system really ought to do. It ought to be based on nutrition, and you should really be working your way backwards to figure out, what kind of agricultural system do we need to accomplish that?”

In keeping with this approach, VACS (Vision for Adapted Crops and Soils)— a campaign of the United States Department of State (USDoS), the African Union (AU) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) has unearthed the hidden treasures of Africa’s agricultural landscape.

Through two reports that emphasize the identification and championing of frequently overlooked climate-resilient crops that meet a multitude of criteria— such as cultural relevance, climate resilience and nutrition— VACS has the potential to revolutionize food systems from their very core.

“As far as I know, this is the first time that anyone has actually done this,” says Dr. Fowler. “We’ve figured out which of the crops that are essential, critical for nutrition, and how they are going to do with respect to climate change. We’ve done that with individual crops, here and there, but not for a whole food system.”

Dr. Fowler heralds VACS as a “game-changer.” With its comprehensive crop analysis, collaborative approach, non-prescriptive tone and focus on indigenous culture, VACS isn’t your “meat and potatoes” kind of food security campaign.

It in fact, intentionally tries to steer clear from potatoes— and their likeness.

VACS eschews the familiar protagonists of food security interventions—the calorie-dense staples like maize, potatoes, and rice. Instead, it charts a new course, guided by an “indicative list” of indigenous crops brimming with potential for both productivity, nutrition, and deeply rooted in Africa’s rich cultural tapestry.

Think crops such as fonio, pearl millet, pigeon peas, taro, yams and lablab— a shortlist of 20 in all.

The report’s indicative list of “opportunity crops” was curated using a comprehensive methodology that bridged disciplinary divides— from plant breeders to nutritionists to climate scientists.

Each of the crops was then profiled, according to six broad and 24 more narrow criteria associated with climate resilience, nutritional value, cultural significance, geographic applicability, business case and environmental benefits.

In the face of mounting challenges—from climate variability to entrenched infrastructural barriers— VACS offers hope and direction. It is a testament to the power of collective action and shared purpose in shaping a more nourished, resilient, and prosperous future for Africa and beyond.

In the words of Dr. Fowler, “It is an all-hands-on-deck moment.” The time for transformation is now, and VACS is leading the charge towards a brighter tomorrow— one seed, one harvest, one meal at a time. Beginning with the African continent.

The heart of Africa bears the heaviest burden in the face of global food insecurity and climate crises. Relentless floods and prolonged droughts ravage farmlands, depriving millions across sub-Saharan Africa of vital nourishment.

Among the most vulnerable are women and children.

“More than 80% of people in Sub Saharan Africa are iron deficient,” says Dr. Fowler. “You know, we think about the first thousand days for children and how important good nutrition is, but we ought to bake in the nine months before that, because that’s terribly important too. You can see, academic reports that link stunting and childhood nutrition problems to droughts that took place during the pregnancy of the mother. It just shows you how central this issue is, particularly to children.”

Fundamental to VACS’s vision is the acknowledgment of women’s pivotal role in agriculture. For centuries, women have nurtured and cultivated traditional crops, passing down knowledge through generations. By empowering women and investing in the crops they have long tended, VACS not only addresses food insecurity but also confronts the pervasive issue of childhood malnutrition— a major barrier to prosperity and development.

“Women are disproportionately affected by food insecurity. If we want to have a vibrant agricultural system, we need to empower women. And how can we do that? Well, one of the ways is by giving them the tools to be more productive in the crops that they themselves are growing,” explains Dr. Fowler.

According to the authors of the report, supporting women in cultivating traditionally grown crops and integrating them into food systems— such as through school feeding programs— is likely the best strategy to combat childhood malnutrition. This approach also upholds the cultural importance of these crops and creates institutional demand that ripples into the wider market.

Through the power of public-private partnerships and the creation of institutional demand, VACS aims to catalyze a transformative shift in agricultural practices. The objective is clear: to create a resilient, diversified, and nutrition-centric food system capable of withstanding the challenges of climate change and fostering inter-generational prosperity.

“For the first time, we have a rational basis for making investments in agricultural development,” explains Dr. Fowler. “It means that we in the state department, for instance, can go to other governments, to development agencies, to the private sector, to philanthropies, and say, we’ve gone through this scientific process, and we now have a rational basis for making investments that will pay the maximum, biggest bang for the buck, if you will, for nutrition and health, in Africa.”

Also groundbreaking, is a focus on the enabling environment— or demand-side factors— influencing the adoption of indigenous crops.

“I don’t think we are in the business of telling farmers what to grow or people what to eat,” says Dr. Fowler. “I’ve had that question thrown at me. How dare you advise or tell or force people to eat these crops? My response is twofold. One is that they’re already eating these crops if you look closely. And the second thing is that agricultural systems in Africa are changing, and sometimes we don’t see that because the change is not from day to day but can be from year to year. I would also say that there’s a hidden demand for some of the crops in the sense that many of them are already really embedded in the culture. The demand would already be there for want of higher supply.”

Dr. Fowler believes that, over time, changing climate will be one of the greatest drivers towards dietary change— particularly as production levels of staple crops decline, causing them to become more expensive.

“We know from our modeling work that that climate is already having a pretty big impact on the current choice of foods in Africa, and it is projected to have a much bigger impact,” he explains. “So as that happens, you will see that crops that are adapted to the climate, and are also more nutritious, will gain in importance and interest among people.”

By harnessing the potential of public-private partnerships, production can be ramped up and investment opportunities can be created. This, in turn, would motivate farmers to opt for VACS’ opportunity crops over conventional staples. And while the VACS reports are agnostic to technology, they present great opportunities for investment in innovation.

Dr. Fowler emphasizes that VACS is not a prescriptive solution but a catalyst for change— a rallying cry for stakeholders from research, advocacy, and policy to unite in reimagining Africa’s agricultural landscape. It is about embracing innovation, breaking down barriers, and fostering a culture of collaboration and creativity.

“We’re not a dictator of what other institutions are going to do. We hope they read this report, the priorities behind it, and then make their own informed decisions,” he says, emphasizing that the writers of VACS are not its gatekeepers. Each stakeholder can take VACS and make it their own.

“We think there’s a lot of room for civil society, for the private sector, for governments to come in and take pieces of this puzzle. If we work together and if we use this VACS framework to communicate with each other, based on a set of common values and aspirations, then I think we’ll really accomplish something.”

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