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UN World Food Day 2019

Researchers using a drone to investigate crop and soil micronutrients to improve human health.

The theme for World Food Day 2019 is ‘Healthy Diets for a #ZeroHunger World’, linking to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (UN SDG) 2; ‘Zero Hunger’ – by 2030. The target includes:

  • increasing investment and international cooperation in rural infrastructure and agricultural research;
  • ensuring sustainable food production systems;
  • ending all forms of malnutrition.

The Royal Society-DFID Africa Capacity Building Initiative (ACBI) supports 10 five-year collaborative projects through a consortia-based approach. The projects comprise UK- and Africa-based scientists researching key issues of development in low-income countries: soil science, renewable energy and water and sanitation.

Each grant funds PhD students, research costs, travel, training, and equipment. The 10 grants support 30 African partners who are based across 18 sub-Saharan African countries in almost 30 different institutions. The Royal Society-DFID Africa Capacity Building Initiative is funded with UK aid from the UK government. 

We spoke with researchers working on ‘Strengthening African capacity in soil geochemistry to inform agriculture and health policies’ to understand how their research is contributing towards the goals of World Food Day. 

Tell us about your research

We are seeking to understand how mineral micronutrients behave in soils and crops, with a focus on smallholder farming systems in sub-Saharan Africa. This subject is of critical importance, because many people don’t get sufficient micronutrients, such as iodine, iron, selenium and zinc in their foods.

Our research involves working in the field where we can look at how different soil management approaches can be used to improve the availability of micronutrients in soils. By improving the availability of micronutrients in soils, the crops take them up through their roots and deposit them into their edible parts which humans can then consume. One soil management approach we are investigating in particular is to increase the use of organic matter, such as cattle manure, which has been shown to improve the micronutrient availability and to provide wider benefits in terms of climate and water.

What challenges do you see at a local and global level with your research?

At a local level, people must have access to sufficient and diverse food so that they have an optimal balance of energy, alongside nutrients such as protein and micronutrients. This balance remains a huge challenge for many, especially where incomes are low and where people rely primarily on a localised food system which is often dominated by energy-rich, but frequently nutrient-poor, staple crops. There are more than two billion people with micronutrient deficiencies worldwide and we need to continue to find ways to produce crops that are more nutritious.

Globally, we need to ensure that the wider food system is more climate resilient by promoting more balanced water management strategies for crop production. We also need to reduce the environmental footprint of the food system to minimise greenhouse gas emissions, habitat loss and soil erosion.

What impact will your work have?

We hope that our research will ultimately benefit many millions of people living with food and nutritional security in sub-Saharan Africa.

The first step for all effective policy making in this area is to have a good understanding of baseline micronutrient deficiency rates. The second step is to generate a solid evidence base of ‘what works’ in terms of potential interventions, such as new soil management practices. We are making good progress in disseminating both of these activity areas to government. Critically, both these activities still require considerable increased in-country capacity for research and development.

How do you work with the community in the areas you research in?

All of the field work has involved engaging local communities. Of particular note has been a large survey of 175 smallholder farmers in Zimbabwe, to understand how on-farm practices, such as manure and fertiliser use, can affect crop quality. This work in Zimbabwe builds upon on a longer-term research network where we will ensure research findings are passed back to the communities. 

On World Food Day, what message would you like to communicate about the importance of achieving zero hunger for all?

Whilst there are clearly huge challenges still to address, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, we should remain optimistic that a combination of innovation and effective policy decisions can deliver zero hunger in the context of wider challenges. It is important for individuals to engage as consumers and influencers of this future wherever possible, even when the challenges seem daunting.

 

With thanks to the lead researchers on this project for their contributions to our interview: Professor Martin Broadley (University of Nottingham, UK), Ms Belinda Kanginga (University of Zambia, Zambia), Ms Muneta Grace Manzeke Kangara (University of Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe), Professor Paul Mapfumo (University of Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe), Professor Florence Mtambanengwe (University of Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe), Dr Patson Nalivata (Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Malawi), Dr Godfrey Sakala (Zambia Agriculture Research Institute, Zambia), Ms Ivy Sichinga Ligowe (Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Malawi), and Dr Michael Watts (British Geological Survey, UK), 

 

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