In the early 1990s, researcher Jari Valkonen travelled to Uganda. His teacher Richard Gibson was in Eastern Africa, investigating the region’s cassava problems. People in rural areas were starving due to the blighting of the cassava crop by viruses.
Fortunately, a cassava variety that was popular in western Africa was found to be resistent to the virus epidemic. In Uganda, members of parliament brought new, healthy cassavas to their home villages. This solution had one major drawback, however.
“The cassava must be boiled to remove toxic substances, which the western African cassava has more of than its eastern counterpart. No one thought to tell the Ugandans to boil the new cassava for longer than they were used to doing,” says Valkonen, who is professor of plant pathology.
People fell ill and even died of cassava poisoning. This crisis made it impossible to study cassava for some time, leading to an increase in the cultivation of sweet potato.
This story is far from unique. Food is connected to everything: politics, farming conditions, local cultures and know-how. Half of the people facing starvation in the world are food producers. They are poor small farmers in the agrarian areas of developing countries.
A better sweet potato
The sweet potato, cassava and potato are among the world’s top five most important food plants. They are all tubers, grown through cloning, which Jari Valkonen says makes them more susceptible to diseases than plants which are grown from seeds.
Together with his team, Valkonen’s work focuses on the sweet potato, which has risen to a status similar to that of the potato and cassava in eastern Africa.
“The sweet potato is hardy, but it does have its pests. We’ve identified a virus that can infect all varieties and disables the sweet potato’s defence mechanism.”
The research is part of an international research effort funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, aiming to produce healthy seedlings to send to rural areas in developing countries in particular. The University of Helsinki team focuses on the plants’ resistance.
“We’re trying to find compounds that could prevent the cassava’s blighting virus from functioning. We have a few candidates.”
The best-case scenario is that sweet potatoes could be injected with an otherwise harmless compound, which would prevent the harmful viruses from functioning.
“We have already made significant progress in terms of plant disease,” says Valkonen.
Researcher Qiaochun Wang has developed a cold treatment that is a sure-fire way of generating healthy seedlings of sweet potato and similar plants. Tissue in the top of the plant is frozen to the temperature of liquid nitrogen, which means that only non-differentiated cells survive. The plant cells are then gently thawed and cultivated under laboratory conditions.
The method produces healthy, farm-ready seedlings practically every time.
“In Finland, the only way we were able to make a new high-yield raspberry variety ready for market was to use this method to clear it of a disease,” explains Professor Valkonen.
“Finish your plate, there’s starving people in the world.” The cliché remains true: even children know that not everyone gets to eat their fill.
In 2017, up to 815 million people suffered from a persistent calorie deficiency, 38 million more than in 2016. This was the first time that the number of the hungry increased during this decade.
Despite scientific breakthroughs, we have yet to eradicate hunger. And yet the world has food: if we were to evenly distribute the food produced in the fields, gardens, pastures and animal sheds, no one would have to suffer calorie deficinency.
“We can’t beat hunger if we don’t beat poverty,” says Kaisa Karttunen, researcher at Think Tank e3.
In addition to calories, we must count money. A person cannot buy food if it costs more than what’s in their wallet. A recent study by the World Food Programme (WFP) compared the cost of a meal of beans and rice, finding that the cost represented less than 1% of an average New Yorker’s daily income, while a person in South Sudan would have to hand over 1.5 times their daily income for the same dish.
Peace feeds us
Three in four starving children live in conflict areas. War often halts food production in areas that should otherwise be doing well. Fleeing war, epidemics and the destruction of the environment erode food systems.
“Unlike floods and droughts, you can’t just wait for a conflict between people to run its course,” says Arif Husain, chief economist at the WFP.
Persistent hunger means despair and no prospects. Hunger, conflict and instability are part of a vicious circle. For example, the extended drought that preceded and accelerated the Arab Spring depleted crops in Syria, and the government had no way to recoup the losses. More people moved to the cities, which fomented unrest. The hunger resulting from the drought and the failure of social structures was one of the factors that triggered the Syrian crisis.
“Syria is now facing its seventh year of war. For children and young people, the situation is dire,” says Husain.
The tools for fighting hunger and poverty are also the tools for peace. Arif Husain believes that we can foster both food security and peace by supporting smaller cities in agrarian areas. There must be opportunities outside the major urban centres.
“We have to focus on infrastrucutre, education and crop assurance in rural areas.”
Food without nutrition
Food scientist Liisa Korkalo has studied the nutrition of teenage girls in both rural and urban areas of Mozambique. “Urbanisation has positive aspects, but it’s possible that the diet of urban dwellers may develop in a poorer direction. In Mozambique, teenagers in the cities have less folate in their blood than girls in rural areas,” Korkalo explains.
The main sources of folate in Mozambique are dark green leafy vegetables and fruits.
“This may be a question of availability or culture. The vegetables that are popular in rural areas may be perceived as food for poor people, meaning that urban dwellers prefer white bread due to its association with western culture.”
Two billion people in the world suffer from malnutrition. Many of them have a sufficient calorie intake, but have severe deficiencies in many essential vitamins and minerals.
The problem is only heightened by the fact that three quarters of the world’s food comes from twelve plants and five animals. These dominant foodstuffs will represent most of the diet if people cannot afford to make other choices.
Meanwhile, obesity is increasing everywhere, also in the growing cities of developing nations.
No more waste!
Approximately 1.3 billion tons of food go to waste every year. In developing countries, food waste is primarily the result of crop failures, while in wealthy nations, it is a question of food being thrown away. Every year, consumers in wealthy countries waste as much food as the entire Sahel region produces in a year: 222 million tons.
Looking at current trends, the UN’s sustainable development goal to eradicate hunger by 2030 seems unfeasible. Ten years ago, the price of food spiked dramatically and unexpectedly.
“Food security became a topic of international debate in the late 1990s, but it was only the poor crop years of the 2000s that made the international community notice the weak points in the global food system,” says Kaisa Karttunen, who has worked in the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN.
Many things contributed to the crisis: overall crops were lacking, the bioenergy boom took over fields from food production and China was buying large quantities of soy and grain as animal feed to fuel its economic growth. Investor speculation also played a part.
But the situation is not hopeless. Steps have already been taken to remove the trade regulations that are distorting global trade in food.
The right varieties and methods
More farming and more help in choosing the right varieties is most needed in areas where the population is growing most rapidly. A more diverse crop helps small farmers.
Potato is now becoming increasingly popular in Africa and Asia.
“I’m a potato researcher so I may be biased, but I would bring potato with me on a desert island. It can grow on highlands and it has a better balance of nutrients than other tubers,” states Jari Valkonen avidly.
NGOs, such as the Via Campesina, the International Peasants’ Movement, prefer the term “food sovereignity” to “food security” to highlight the people’s right to make decisions regarding their land and food production. The sovereignity pertains to the opportunities of both the individual and the community: if there is no money, the farmer cannot afford decent hoes.
“Ideally speaking, it could be very simple to lift people out of hunger. If suitable varieties are farmed in the right areas with the appropriate methods, we’ll get far,” says Kaisa Karttunen.
The article was edited 21.3. 13.45
The article has been published in Finnish in Yliopisto magazine 01/18.