Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Millet and sorghum - the Smart Food

Joanna Kane-Potaka – Director of External Relations and Strategic Marketing at ICRISAT, came to ACIAR today to give a presentation on ‘Smart Food’ – a winning project under the DFAT and USAID LAUNCH Food Innovations for 2017.

Smart Food fulfils three criteria:

·         It is good for people’s health
·         It is good for the planet
·         It is good for farmers 

More than 50 percent of global protein and calorie intake comes from the ‘big three’ staples: wheat, maize and rice.  The Smart Food project is looking to incorporate more crops into this mix – crops that offer better nutrition, less environmental impact and greater resilience to climate change, and opportunities for small holder farmers.

Joanna Kane-Potaka ICRISAT and Mellissa Wood ACIAR
Pearl Millet, Finger Millet and Sorghum and examples of traditional crops fulfil the ‘Smart Food’ criteria. They offer potentially rich sources of the major micronutrients amongst the ‘hidden hunger’ burden, including zinc, iron and folic acid. Finger millet has three times the calcium content of milk.  Further clinical research is required to determine the actual bioavailability of these micronutrients, but they present huge promise. These alternatives also have a low Glycemic Index (GI) – therefore offering a solution to the growing and serious burden of diabetes affecting developing and developed countries alike.

The project is looking at how to tap into existing health extension efforts through community health workers and volunteers to increase the dissemination of information about the nutritional benefits of these foods. Health worker extension is often limited to monitoring for malnutrition, water sanitation and hygiene advice, or advice about HIV. Integrating more nutritional health promotion into these outreach services can work to increase the demand and interest in growing these crops.

Joanna Kane-Potaka presented the Smart Food project to ACIAR
In terms of being good for the planet, and offering resilience to climate change – millet and sorghum crops are more drought resistant, and have a lower carbon footprint than crops such as maize. Through revitalizing the cultivation of these traditional crops, that are suited to the agro-ecological conditions – this presents an opportunity to use less agricultural inputs such as water and fertilizer, and for rainfall dependent farmers to have more drought and heat resistant crops – an important trait as climate changes. With more investment in research and development there is a potential for yields of sorghum and millet to increase three times. The traditional three are reaching their yield plateau.

In terms of being good for farmers – the value chains of these crops remain undeveloped. This project is starting at the consumer demand end. Crops like maize, rice and wheat have well established value chains set up for farmers. They know where to get seeds, they know someone will come and buy the product, they know there is a market. This is less developed for these other crops.

The project is looking to develop these value chains to create a steady supply and demand. Food trends in urban settings in Africa and India are moving towards ‘super foods’; gluten free foods, and foods with a low GI – these crops offer that. Markets for health food in the west also present huge export potential, if the demand for them can grow in the west.  

Smart Food would like to see more millet and sorghum products available
They are looking at accreditation labelling of “Smart Foods”. If they can combine accreditation systems that show things that are good for the planet (like the existing sustainable fisheries or forestry stickers); good for your health (The Heart Foundation stickers) and good for farmers (the Fair Trade logo) – then that could see great results.

Watch out for new products in your local shops as Joanna Kane-Potaka and ICRISAT work to drive consumer demand for millet and sorghum - the Smart Foods that are healthy for us, and don’t harm the environment.

By Annie Sanderson

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