The Unspoken - Food System Divide

By Joanna Kane Potaka

By - Website

The Unspoken - Food System Divide

We often talk about ‘divides’ - like the education divide or the digital divide. This is where there is a large gap between those that have access and those that don’t. Those that do have access have many more opportunities open to them and so they then have even more access to resources. And it becomes a cycle that is difficult to break.

What you rarely hear about is the Food System Divide. This is where there is a large gap because you have just a few crops that receive the majority of support - support like R&D, big company investment, policy support, and even development aid. Nedumaran et al (2015) states that about 50% to 75% of the national research funds in developing countries are allocated to rice and wheat alone.

A few crops like the “Big 3” - rice, wheat and maize - have had huge support for decades. Using USDA data, over the last 50 years their production has more than tripled – almost quadrupled - while crops like millets have remained at similar levels and grain legumes grown about 1% per year since 1980 (Nedumaran et al. 2015).

Of the estimated 30,000 edible plant species, the ‘Big 3’ account for more than 42% of the calories consumed by the world’s population of 7 billion people (IRRI, 2017).

The food system divide

The Unspoken - Food System Divide

The cycle is shown in Diagram A. It starts with investment, which has been dominated by the Big 3. This leads to improved varieties and associated agronomic practices of these crops and so higher yields. This translates to better farmer profits, so more investments are made in infrastructure, more products are developed, the whole value chain is more developed and more money is generated. As a result more is invested and the cycle becomes self-perpetuating and the divide becomes bigger.

You could question, “so what - so what if there is a Food System Divide?”. It matters because we know:
• There is a need for more diversified diets - especially among the poor;
• It is not just hunger that is a problem but hidden hunger, that is the high levels of malnutrition that exist;
• The advantages of diversity on farm – it is better for the environment and better for farmers withstanding natural shocks; and
Climate change is real and it is getting hotter and there will be more extreme events like droughts and floods.

A dominance of just a few crops, can make us vulnerable in terms of food security and significantly reduce our chances of coping with and solving some of the biggest global issues of Malnutrition - Diet diversity - Climate change - Water scarcity - and Environmental degradation.

Just one example of the consequences of the Food System Divide, are the farmers I visited in a dry area in eastern Kenya currently grow maize that I was told survives just 1 in 4 years! Three in four year they do not bear a crop because of the harsh climate and lack of water. When asked why they select maize and not a more drought resilient crop, the farmers said, “Well it is just easier. Someone comes to the farm gate and sells the seed and the input. Someone comes to the farm gate and buys the grain.” In short, the value chain is well supported and set up.

This area used to grow millets including sorghum that are hardy crops surviving with little water. Then during difficult economic times nationally, the government gave maize as free food. People became used to eating maize and started to grow it as well. Now a couple of generations have passed and people do not know how to cook sorghum or millets or even what it tastes like.

One study (Nedumaran et al. 2015) on pulses (including some grain legumes), noted that, “… pulses lag behind cereals in terms of area expansion and productivity gains. The main reason for this lag is that pulses are considered secondary to cereals in terms of consumer preferences and consequently, research activities focus more on cereals. Due to the high cereal productivity, pulses are being pushed to marginal areas of cultivation having low rainfall and poor soil fertility. Other reasons responsible for the lag include highly unstable prices of pulses due to high variability in their yield and high competition from cereal crops, such as rice and wheat, due to the government price support policy”.


The solution

We have to close the Food System Divide and to do this, learn from the successes of the Big 3.

We need to mainstream more food so that we have more: diverse diets - healthier diets - sustainable diets (i.e. sustainable on the environment) especially in the developing countries. It is not just about popularizing new foods but mainstreaming them back as a staple in developing countries. Can we move from the “Big 3” and create the “Big 5”?

This is ‘how’ we do it - select a few foods and invest like crazy! But not just any food - we need to select Smart Food.

What is smart food?

You are likely to have heard of Super Food which is food that is highly nutritious. Smart Food goes further, with three criteria:
Good for you (i.e. highly nutritious);
Good for the environment (e.g. they may have a lower water or carbon footprint); and
Good for the smallholder farmer (e.g. they may be hardier, less prone to crop failures; have greater potential to increase yields; and multiple uses and untapped demand).

If we step back a bit in time, you will remember the focus in developing countries was on ‘food security’ which was especially important during the green revolution. Then ‘nutrition security’ was added to ‘food security’ as not just hunger but hidden hunger came into the spotlight.

The changing focus for food in developing countries and what could be the future focus

The Unspoken - Food System Divide

Now the United Nations are talking more about ‘sustainable diets’ - diets that are sustainable on the environment.

The next big and critical focus, as shown in Diagram B, should be on ‘Smart Food’ - combining the requirements of food that is good for you, the environment and the farmer.

Millets & legumes are smart food that we need to bring into mainstream

These crops have characteristics under all the three components of Smart Food. Some examples (ICRISAT 2017) follow.

How are they Good for You? These Smart Food crops are highly nutritious and targeting some of the largest micronutrient deficiencies and needs, especially of women and children. For example:

• Iron, zinc and folic acid - Pearl millet has very high levels and bioavailability1 studies have shown that they will provide the average person’s daily requirement of iron and zinc.
• Calcium - Finger millet has three times the amount compared to milk.
• Affordable protein - provided by grain legumes.
• Low Glycemic Index - which means escalating levels of diabetes - can be avoided or managed by sorghum and millets because they have a low Glycemic Index.
• High antioxidants - fights against heart diseases, lifestyle disorders and cancer.
• Gluten Free
• How are they Good for the Smallholder farmer? Smart Food are good for the smallholder farmers because
• Their climate resilience means they are a good risk management strategy.
• Legumes have an important contribution to soil nutrition and when rotated with other crops, increase the water use efficiency of the entire crop cycle.
• Their multiple uses and untapped demand means they have a lot more potential.
• Unlike the other crops they have not yet reached a yield plateau and have great potential for productivity increases.

How are they Good for the Planet? These are also crops critical in the drylands that will best survive the harsh environments and are most resilient hence climate-smart crops. Basically, millets are the last crop standing in times of drought. Millets, sorghum and legumes have close to the lowest water and carbon footprints of all the crops.

It can’t be busienss as usual - the next steps

To make a major difference and mainstream Smart Food like legumes, millets and sorghum, we need to take a different approach. Many people have worked on alternative crops but still have not broken through the Food System Divide to mainstream them.

The suggestion is we do this through a consumer-driven approach - drive consumer demand by modernizing millets, sorghum, legumes and pulses, create modern convenience products and create a buzz around them. Legumes and pulses are further ahead in this regards compared to millets and sorghum; helped also by the International Year of Pulses in 2016. But there is still a long way to go to bring these more into mainstream.

ICRISAT has started a Smart Food initiative in Kenya thanks to the foresight and support from the USAID Feed the Future program. This includes a Smart Food reality TV cooking show. With a first prize that includes a full scholarship to the hospitality program at the Strathmore University in Nairobi, it attracted young contestants, helping develop a modern image for the legumes, pulses, millets and sorghum covered in the competition. A wellknown Kenyan TV personality leads the show and brings out the drama and fun while also educating the audience about Smart Food.

The Smart Food Reality TV cooking show in Kenya

This is being complemented with social media and other activities. The urban areas are a particular focus as they are the aspirational markets that set the trends and influence even the foods eaten in rural areas. Processors are also being engaged to bring in new modern convenience products with legumes, pulses, millets and sorghum. Branded selected products as Smart Food Signature Products will also be part of this.

There is also another component of the initiative to ensure the rural communities and farmers benefit both nutritionally and with livelihood prospects. Rural health workers are engaged to bring in nutritional information about the local legumes, pulses, millets and sorghum. Women are also being engaged with new agribusinesses with these Smart Food crops.

The Smart Food initiative recently was selected as one of the top 10 food innovations for 2017, in a competition run by USAID and the Australian Government. It was hotly contended with 280 submissions from 74 countries.

The intention is to implement the Smart Food initiative across a variety of African countries, India and also in the Western countries. This is a great opportunity in the early stages for organizations and companies to partner or lead key Smart Food initiatives.


ICRISAT. 2017. Smart Foods. Patancheru, India: ICRISAT. Accessed 1 May 2017. Full.pdf

International Rice Research Institute. 2017. The Global Staple. Ricepedia. Philippines. Accessed 1 May 2017.

Nedumaran S, Abinaya P, Jyosthnaa P, Shraavya B, Parthasarathy Rao and Cynthia Bantilan. 2015. Grain Legumes Production, Consumption and Trade Trends in Developing Countries. Working Paper Series No 60. ICRISAT Research Program, Markets, Institutions and Policies. Patancheru 502 324, Telangana, India: International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics. 64 pp.

1This is based on consuming 100 grams for infants/children and 200 grams for an adult and comparing with the recommended daily allowance from the Indian Council of Medial Research. Daily allowance is reached for infants and adult males and approximately 50-60% is reached for children and women.

The Unspoken - Food System Divide


Disclaimer: The opinions or views expressed in this publication are those of the authors or quoted persons. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Global Pulse Confederation or its members.