A global initiative to create a new industry to bring some smart foods back as major staples has been launched by leading agriculture organisations from Africa and Asia. The inaugural meeting and signing of agreements by agricultural associations took place on 13 January 2019.

The agreements resulted in the formation of the Smart Food Executive Council led by the Asia-Pacific Association of Agricultural Research Institutions (APAARI), Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), West and Central African Council for Agricultural Research and Development (CORAF), Food Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN), along with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) which had set in motion the Smart Food initiative in 2013. This partnership is part of a new effort to make a major contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Targeting staples helps impact health and the agri-food system. Staples typically constitute around 70 per cent of a meal and are often eaten three times a day. Diversifying them can help reduce malnutrition and poverty, and also have an impact on coping with climate change and environmental degradation.

Joanna Kane-Potaka, assistant director general – external relations, ICRISAT, informs CauseBecause that the first priority for this initiative is to bring millets and sorghum back into mainstream consumption by showing the benefits of these two staples when prepared in the right way. They will implement marketing strategies and work with the entire value chain to achieve the same.

Aside from research work to scientifically prove the benefits of millets and sorghum, currently they have projects across Asia and Africa as well as some global activities. For example, in a pilot with Akshaya Patra millets were introduced into the midday meals for children and the acceptability and health impact tracked through sensory evaluations. Both had positive results and the report will be released soon. They also conducted a survey with 15,500 people in 7 cities in India to understand their views and knowledge about millets. They are now working on a campaign to reach the mass market and are partnering with SMEs and other parts of the value chain including farmers to ensure everyone reaps the benefits.

They also recently worked with Ramaiah University to conduct a competition with student chefs from culinary schools across India, most of whom had never worked with millets and sorghum before. The finale was held at the Organics and Millets Fair in Bengaluru in January. A video series is being made out of this.

They plan to track the production and consumption of millets and sorghum to assess the impact of the projects – the process will also include surveys to compare change in attitudes. Plans are being devised to collaborate with other entities working to popularise such staples, including the Indian government, ICAR-Indian Institute of Millet Research, NGOs like Deccan Development Society, and the state governments of Karnataka, Odisha and Kerala.

In a press release shared with CB, Dr Ravi Khetarpal, executive secretary, APAARI, said, ‘I see how we can make Smart Food a household name. We need to link and synergize other existing programs along the whole value chain. Capacity building will be one opportunity, especially in taking a holistic Smart Food approach where issues around nutrition/health, environment and farmer welfare can be tackled.’

‘Smart Food resonates with the desire to see the power of science translate into reality. I am happy that Smart Food is now institutionalized,’ said Dr Yemi Akinbamijo, executive director, FARA.

 ‘This approach is a fitting response to today’s major global issues. We want to add to the big crops, not displace them. Moving from the Big 3 staples (rice, wheat and maize) to having more, the Big 5 and later the Big 7, is an important aim. Now we have to go from a pitch to reality. Key to this are the nutrition and climate change adaptation needs and this is core to Smart Food. Smart Food crops have been neglected for reasons other than value as they are inherently nutritious and adaptable to diverse farming systems. We need to promote these inherent values,’ said Dr Abdulai Jalloh, director of research and innovation, CORAF.

Dr Peter Carberry, director general, ICRISAT, said, ‘This new partnership strengthens collaborations between Asia and Africa and can open up opportunities to join forces at any point along the value chain, from consumers through to processors, chefs through to farmers, researchers and others.’