Experts who gathered at the Second Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development (GCARD2) in Uruguay say they want to march into a future where agricultural research remains fast paced, innovation ratchets up production, and the welfare of small-scale farmers is assured. They call for a science that not only fuels development but improves the lives of farmers producing on a small scale. Farmers must be equal partners in the goal to raise food production and improve lives.
The attendees are paying close attention to Brazilians who say they have a successful partnership model for collaboration between development professionals and farmers that has a lesson or two for the rest of the developing world.
The Brazilian government has involved smallholder farmers in one of the largest school-feeding programs to date. The government empowers the farming community by making it mandatory for national school-feeding programs to buy at least 30 percent of their produce from smallholder farmers.
“This creates a community of mutual beneficiaries,” says Marilia Nutti, coordinator of the Brazilian Biofortification network and a researcher at Embrapa (Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation). Embrapa is committed to developing and improving local agriculture by providing additional means of income and improved seeds to farmers, while also helping establish diverse cropping systems.
The feeding program aims to provide a diversified diet using nourishing local food products to school-aged children. Nutti says many schools in pilot cities have begun buying crops such as cassava and sweet potato with higher levels of vitamin A, as well as high-iron and high-zinc beans. Incorporating crops rich in these micronutrients into school lunches has become an innovative tool to provide better nutrition.
“In Brazil this is a very successful pilot program,” says Nutti. “We have developed these nutrient-rich seeds and stems with conventional crop breeding methods, and we are working with local municipalities who multiply these stems and seeds and distribute them to the local farmers.”
This ensures that small-scale farmers cultivating crops biofortified with vitamins and minerals have a secured market in school-feeding programs that are ready to buy from them. Nutti says it did not take long to convince the farmers to try out the improved stems and seeds. “We told farmers that these biofortified seeds will give better yields when they produce them and will provide more nutrients when they eat them.”
Farmers in the two Brazilian states with the lowest human development index in Brazil were prioritized to receive free biofortified stems and seeds. The results of a household-level food consumption survey in these states revealed that the energy these diets provided to children and teenagers were inadequate and much below the recommended level. These children were in dire need of intervention and justified the launch of pilot program.
The Brazilian program has won praise from specialists. Dr. Howarth Bouis, director of HarvestPlus, an international program dedicated to reducing hidden hunger in Africa and Asia says, “Brazil is a great example of how a country can take ownership of biofortification and get these more nutritious foods out to children through school feeding programs.”
Experts echo the need to transform agricultural research by building effective partnerships between researchers and farmers. They also stress how important it is to involve all stakeholders along the agriculture value chain and increase awareness of the positive impact innovation can have on development.
Nutti has worked closely with HarvestPlus and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) on projects in Latin American and Caribbean countries (LAC). She believes that integrating biofortified crops into school lunches is the future of best practices in agriculture. “The pilot program implemented in schools in Brazil can play a key role in increasing South-South Cooperation and can facilitate expertise sharing among developing countries striving to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. This will also provide an opportunity to gauge the support needed to develop such programs that favor smallholder farmers.”
Blogpost by Vidushi Sinha (HarvestPlus).