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A pandemic of malnutrition calls for new food policies in Africa

Policy, aid and private investments should go towards growing nutritious crops that are adapted to climate extremes.

Nutritious food is medicine. It is at the center of health. When that center is missing, it leaves a vortex of suffering and disease. Africa knows all too well that children and adults with immune systems weakened by malnutrition are especially at risk of deadly diseases, from COVID-19 to HIV.

Yet, today, in the midst of a global pandemic, when good health is more important than ever, malnutrition and hunger are on the rise. Globally, an additional 6.7 million children under the age of five could suffer from wasting – and become dangerously undernourished – in 2020 due to the socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. An estimated 80 percent of these children would be from sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. In East Africa, it is estimated that 41.5 million people are likely to be food insecure in 2020, an increase from 24 million prior to the pandemic.

The pandemic creates an urgent need for African governments to rethink their agricultural policies. For too long, they have focused on so-called “food security” crops—like maize and rice—that are high in calories but low in nutritional value. Calories alone cannot sustain a healthy population—nutritious food for all is essential.

Agricultural policies and investments must include an expanded focus on nutrient-rich but neglected crops, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where maize increasingly dominates production. From 2007 to 2017, the area planted with maize increased by almost 60 percent. It is time to break with an over-reliance on calorie-rich but nutrient-poor crops like maize, rice, and wheat, which together comprise 60 percent of global food calories. Import tariffs, market price support, fertilizer subsidies and other policies that one-sidedly promote these standard staples must change.

To be sure, these crops will remain a significant part of the global food supply. But the continued neglect of known nutrient-rich crops, many indigenous to the areas where malnutrition is most acute, is unacceptable.

Government policy, multilateral aid, and private investments should be designed to encourage farmers to grow a biodiverse variety of nutritious crops that are adapted to climate extremes and not dependent on large applications of expensive inputs like fertilizer.

Crops that meet these criteria are well known and include cereals like sorghum, millet, fonio, and pseudo-cereals like quinoa and amaranth.