A Sustainable, Equitable Food System Needs to be Nourished at the Source
COVID-19 has exposed many of the vulnerabilities in our food system, one of which is just how reliant global supply chains are on people’s well-being at every step of the journey. The small-scale farmers in emerging markets who produce much of the world’s food ingredients, live in countries that face high rates of malnutrition, with many farming households unable to eat healthily themselves.
The strong link between health and agricultural productivity is one of the reasons nutrition has moved up the sustainability agenda for Olam. Malnutrition is said to cost the private sector as much as $850 billion a year in lost productivity, according to a recent Chatham House reporti, with much of this borne by the ag sector given the labour intensity of farming. So as a business that plans to run efficiently for the next 30, 50 years and beyond, helping to reduce malnutrition in the communities where we operate is actually a down payment on future productivity.
Financial incentive aside, addressing poor nutrition is non-negotiable when it comes to our sustainability commitments and achieving the UN SDGs. As former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon put it, “Nutrition is both a maker and a marker of development.” This underscores that good nutrition is not only evidence of success in other priorities, but also is a prerequisite to making progress in women’s empowerment, health, poverty reduction and much more. Improved nutrition brings massive advancements in education and economic growth by supporting ‘grey matter infrastructure’ – the brainpower needed for children, sectors and countries to reach their full potential. Climate change too is impacted if you consider how shifts to healthier diets can limit carbon emissions.
Within our operating groups Olam Food Ingredients and Olam Global Agri, we’re working to tackle the causes of poor nutrition in farming communities. Our efforts have made meaningful progress, revealed new challenges and our experiences can serve as useful lessons on what we, and other businesses, can continue or change, to improve the health and well-being of those who contribute to a sustainable and food secure future for all.
Understand the barriers and enablers to healthy eating
Olam’s long-standing commitment to improving the livelihoods of the farmers that grow our cocoa, coffee, cashew, rice and other ingredients, has typically focused on providing technical training and support geared towards increasing productivity and incomes. And while it’s proved effective in doing just this, it doesn’t necessarily translate into helping them meet their nutrition needs year-round.
Many of these households can be considered food secure from a calorie perspective, but often these calories come from only a few food groups and primarily starchy staples, which lack many of the micronutrients needed for normal functioning of the immune system and optimal health. In Côte d’Ivoire, where about 1 in 5 children under the age of five are stunted (a result of chronic malnutrition), we conducted a survey of the cashew households in our sourcing network and discovered that the greatest deficiencies exist amongst women and children, with less than one-third of adult women and 6% of surveyed 6-23 month-olds eating adequate and diverse diets.
Having a better understanding of the eating habits, practices and culture in our communities has prompted new strategies to support farmers on crop diversification and nutrition education, as well as spurring on efforts to address some of other determinants of malnutrition, like limited access to clean water.
Target practical solutions on the ground
While our role in health and wellness might not seem obvious, our close working relationships with farmer suppliers means we’re ideally positioned to tackle the problems head on. We run various initiatives, including distributing vegetable seeds for kitchen gardens to coffee-growing families in Uganda, educating cocoa-farming communities on healthy eating and giving cooking demos using local produce in Nigeria. Our teams are also fortifying common consumer food products like tomato mixes, wheat flour, drinking milk, and most recently our premium long-grain rice brand in Ghana, Royal Aroma, with micronutrients including iron, zinc, and B-complex vitamins.