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Never underestimate THE POWER OF PRODUCE

Human health and the health of our planet must be at the center of how we produce and consume food. As the demand for healthier diets expands around the world, farmers and businesses can tap THE POWER OF PRODUCE to fulfill this most basic and essential of human needs.

(left to right) John Bowman, Elizabeth Mitcham, David Johnson, and Tony Castleman.

Early on a recent Wednesday morning, a packed meeting room in Des Moines, Iowa buzzed with intriguing conversations about the role of vegetables and fruits in improving nutrition and providing income-generating opportunities around the world.

The discussions were sparked by The Power of Produce: How Vegetables and Fruits Can Conquer Malnutrition and Poverty, one of several side events held during the 2018 World Food Prize Borlaug International Symposium, 17-19 October 2018 at the Downtown Des Moines Marriott Hotel.

The topic was particularly pertinent given the symposium’s focus on nutrition and the urgent need to change global food policies to encourage production of a diverse range of foods naturally rich in vitamins and minerals. As 2018 World Food Prize laureates David Nabarro and Lawrence Haddad said: “This is the big challenge of our time. It’s not about how to feed our world. It’s about how to nourish our world.”

Hosted by the World Vegetable Center (WorldVeg), Catholic Relief Services (CRS), and the University of California – Davis Horticulture Innovation Lab, The Power of Produce featured a distinguished panel of speakers who examined the challenges of bringing the benefits of the horticulture sector to people in need of healthier diets and more resilient livelihoods.

The panel was moderated by Julie Howard, WorldVeg board member, who set the stage by citing recent statistics showing malnutrition affects 1 in 3 people in the world—whether undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies (“hidden hunger”), or overweight conditions. She also pointed to a recent argument that a rise in obesity in African countries may be related to investments that have been skewed toward cereal grains and animal proteins over the past 50 years, downplaying fruits, vegetables and other nutrient-dense plant foods.

“Our cereal- and animal-heavy diets are having a negative effect on not only human health, but on the environment,” Howard said. “A big push for dietary diversity, including fruits and vegetables, is needed.” She also highlighted the contribution of researchers and advocates in elevating nutrition on the USAID Feed the Future agenda.

Rob Bertram, Chief Scientist, USAID Bureau for Food Security, called increasing fruit and vegetable consumption “a must-have if we’re serious about reducing malnutrition and poverty.”

He pointed out that appealing to consumers’ aspirations for premium, quality foods is an important strategy.

“Let’s face it, a lot of these foods are attractive on the plate and that makes for a good nutrition outcome when you have a lot of colors on the plate,” Bertram said. “In doing this we can check our poverty reduction box, but also very importantly our nutrition box.”

Rob Bertram opened the event.

John Bowman, USAID Bureau for Food Security Senior Agriculture Adviser, moderated a session on the role of research institutions and NGOs in getting more nutritious food to the public. The discussion began with brief overviews of the three organizations. David Johnson, WorldVeg Deputy Director General – Research, spoke about the economic and nutritional impact of WorldVeg activities in Mali, India, Myanmar and Tanzania in breeding improved vegetable varieties and scaling distribution of seed through consortia of seed companies in Asia and Africa. “Linkage to the private sector is critical,” he explained.

As an agronomist and plant geneticist, Johnson noted that tomato and African eggplant grown in East Africa and Southern Africa showed that about half of the tomatoes grown commercially and 98 percent of the African eggplant were derived from WorldVeg lines. He also introduced a project integrating seeds and household gardening with training in nutrition, water sanitation and hygiene.

Elizabeth Mitcham, Director of the Horticulture Innovation Lab, discussed the importance of universities in the Horticulture Innovation Lab’s global research network, bringing researchers from U.S. universities together with researchers in developing countries to not only advance horticultural science but to build future capacity for this knowledge-intensive value chain.

“Horticulture is a complex group of crops and even if we solve the problem of today, there will be a new problem tomorrow—and we need those scientists to be able to solve those problems,” Mitcham said. As a postharvest scientist herself, Mitcham also discussed the problem of food losses after harvest. She said these challenges also represent business opportunities related to equipment and services such as packaging, cold storage, drying, transport and processing. She also noted the spread of Postharvest Training and Service Centers, a concept piloted with WorldVeg in Tanzania that is now moving to other locations and serves to expand basic postharvest knowledge and good handling practices.

Tony Castelman, Director of Programming for Agriculture, Microfinance and Water, Catholic Relief Services, shared the approach of empowering adolescents as horticultural entrepreneurs and strengthening farmers’ associations to benefit smallholders.

“With horticultural innovations, I want to focus on the role of youth in horticulture, including capacitating and empowering adolescents to become entrepreneurs in horticulture,” he said. “Youth can also be important agents of change in consumption patterns.” Castleman also discussed CRS activities with homestead gardens, which “can be important tools in nutrition” and require access to seeds, clean water, understanding of household decision making, processing support, and market options. He pointed out that as a development organization, CRS assesses the right garden type for the specific context, before launching new garden-related activities.

In a session on traditional and indigenous vegetables, Erin McGuire, Associate Director, Horticulture Innovation Lab, observed: “We know people like these crops and the nutrition is there, but the big challenge we see right now is the frequency of consumption.” McGuire also shared highlights from the Horticulture Innovation Lab project focused on improving nutrition with African indigenous vegetables in Kenya and Zambia, with researchers from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, Purdue University, University of Eldoret, AMPATH Family Preservation Initiative, the World Vegetable Center, and others.

Alexandra Towns, Technical Advisor of Research and Learning, Catholic Relief Services, shared her career inspiration from her time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger assigned to work with gardening vegetables such as carrots, tomatoes and cucumbers. “Each day walking home from the gardens, I would see women collecting plants on the side of the road,” Towns explained. Eventually one woman took the time to share information about these plants and brought Towns inside to show her how to cook these indigenous vegetables, and told her to “write this down,” which became a mantra for her ongoing work learning from rural women and families about underutilized foods.

She also discussed household seed collection of indigenous vegetable landraces. At one point, Towns interviewed women in a refugee camp and asked if they brought seeds with them. “They said, ‘Of course we brought our seeds!’” Towns recalled. “They left behind their clothes and other belongings, but they brought along their indigenous vegetable seeds.”

Betty Bugusu, Director of Purdue University’s Food Processing Innovation Lab, pointed out that she grew up on a small farm in Kenya, eating the foods discussed by the panel. “I attribute my health to the African indigenous vegetables that I grew up consuming,” she said.

Bugusu discussed the research her program does related to postharvest handling and processing of indigenous crops, to make these foods more available and accessible. When it comes to processing, her researchers often focus on how to process so that specific nutrients remain bioavailable—such as Vitamin A in mango.

Bugusu and Towns mentioned that more research is needed related to traditional cooking methods for some African indigenous vegetables, which are typically boiled for long periods or cooked with sodium bicarbonate, both of which can result in reduced nutrients. Processing – drying, pickling or fermenting, making sauces, etc. – are good ways to improve storage, enhance nutrients and extend the availability of these important food sources.

In the final session, Julie Howard welcomed Shibani Ghosh from the Nutrition Innovation Lab at Tufts University to discuss how government policies can stimulate the production, marketing and consumption of a more diverse, nutritious set of foods.

One recent Nutrition Innovation Lab publication that Ghosh discussed is a price index of nutritious diets, “Measuring the Affordability of Nutritious Diets in Africa: Price Indexes for Diet Diversity and the Cost of Nutrient Adequacy,” led by Will Masters of Tufts University.

Ghosh discussed preliminary findings from various studies in Uganda, Bangladesh and Nepal related to dietary diversity.

In Bangladesh, the Nutrition Innovation Lab is working with the Horticulture Innovation Lab to examine nutrition impacts of agricultural interventions—including three specific horticulture-related technologies and also aquaculture-related practices. She noted that findings so far are showing children under 24 months of age in households that were involved in the agricultural interventions—whether horticulture, aquaculture or both—have better dietary diversity than other surveyed households.

Beth Mitcham wrapped up the event with a look ahead. “Produce is powerful but it’s also very perishable,” she said. “There’s room in horticulture for entrepreneurs, from production to packaging, cold storage, transport, processing and marketing.”

The global food system is out of alignment; the time is now to put human health and the health of our planet at the center of how we produce and consume food. As the demand for healthier diets expands around the world, farmers and businesses can tap the power of produce to fulfill this most basic and essential of human needs.

Audience members took part in the discussion.

A version of this article originally appeared on the Horticulture Innovation Lab website.

Return to FRESH!

Julie Howard: Government policy can drive a more diverse, nutritious set of commodities.

Symposium attendee Russ Webster chats with panelist Betty Bugusu.

Alexandra Towns: Women refugees left behind everything — except seed of indigenous vegetables.

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