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A Completely New Approach to Crops Could Boost Nutrition across Africa

Agriculturist Cary Fowler is best known as former executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust and co-founder of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which houses more than 1.2 million seed samples covering every crop variety imaginable on an island in the Norwegian Arctic. Now he’s engaged in an ambitious new plan to use the genes in neglected seed varieties that he fought to save to produce crops that will feed hungry people in Africa and help farmers there prepare for the climate-changed future.

In 2022 Fowler joined the U.S. State Department as special envoy for global food security. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said at a World Economic Forum event in January that the program Fowler helped launch—the Vision for Adapted Crops and Soils (VACS)—marks a “genuinely revolutionary” shift in food policy.

In the past Fowler was a critic of U.S. policies that promoted the spread of what he deemed destructive, chemical-intensive monoculture farming to the global south. Now, in partnership with the African Union and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, he is championing more diverse and locally based farming through VACS.

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VACS will be researching how to improve scores of “opportunity crops”—indigenous, nutrient-rich foods such as cowpea, pearl millet, taro and African eggplant, which were mostly replaced during the 20th century by international staples such as corn, wheat, soy and rice. The program will also be looking at ways to enhance soil health in Africa and breed crops that can adapt to climate change, which Fowler calls “the biggest challenge to food security we’ve ever faced.”

Scientific American spoke with Fowler, who says that current agricultural research and development is inadequate. He is calling for a “moonshot” effort to produce healthier food for Earth’s rapidly growing population. Global hunger is on the rise, he says, and nations need to act fast to solve the growing crisis.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

The so-called green revolution greatly increased yields of a few staple crops. You’ve said we now need a new kind of revolution in agriculture. What do you have in mind?

The major crops that the international community invested in during the 1950s and 1960s and up until the present—corn, wheat and rice—remain the backbone of a lot of food systems, so no one in their right mind would say that they ought to be replaced. But they are facing future challenges because of climate change. We can see that the rate of increase in yields of some of those crops is leveling off. The VACS program wants to emphasize that there are other crops out there that haven’t had that level of investment and therefore have a lot of untapped potential. We’re at a place now when we need to tap into that potential.

Some of that potential is nutritional, right?

Several decades back the big problem was just getting enough food produced to put in people’s belly. I wouldn’t say we’ve fully accomplished that goal, but we’ve certainly made big strides in terms of these major crops. Now we need to be thinking also of making sure that people can have a good balanced diet that meets their nutritional needs, which is really critical for developing countries.

In some African nations, 20 or 30 percent or more of children under five years of age are stunted, which has lifelong physical and mental effects. Obviously, from a humanitarian standpoint, that’s a disaster. [It’s the same] from a development standpoint, too; you can’t have good economic and political development with such a high percentage of people who can’t fully contribute to the life and productivity of a country. To reduce childhood stunting, people need access to a wider range of foods that supply micro- and macronutrients: vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts and seed crops.

You use the term “opportunity crop.” Can you give an example of what you have in mind?

These opportunity crops, which were primarily tended by women have been part of diets in Africa for thousands of years. One that I love because I grow it on my farm in upstate New York is grass pea. I first saw it [flourishing during a drought] in a field in Ethiopia. It’s the most drought-tolerant [legume and has the] and highest protein content. If we could improve the grass pea for various agronomic and nutritional qualities, we would have a real winner in terms of enriching the soil and enriching people’s diet.

Other opportunity crops that show tremendous promise includes cereals such as fonio, legumes such as Bambara groundnut and tubers such as cassava. VACS will work to build value chains and consumer demand to encourage uptake of these kinds of nutritious crops. We’ve spent billions of dollars and engaged thousands of scientists in research on the major crops. But we are yet to have any [serious] investment in one of these indigenous African crops.

In Africa 300 million people are deemed severely “food insecure.” What has to happen for the continent to feed itself?

African soils are notoriously poor, degraded and eroding. Soil is nutrition for the plant. Poor soil means plants are vulnerable to pests and disease. It also means the soil can’t retain moisture; any drought that comes along will be disastrous. The starting point to a sustainable system in Africa is to improve the soil.

We’ll work toward improving soil management to build healthy soils, promote greater efficiency in the use of scarce inputs such as fertilizer and avoid irreversible land degradation. At the moment, many farmers don’t have the kind of data they need to manage their plot of land. So we’ll aim to empower communities with information that people can access on their phone about local soil types and what to plant for productivity and nutrition.

The other problem is that some of the [staple] crops people are planting in the fields now may not be adapted to the climate that will be there in the future. People need to be planning ahead. In agriculture, if you want an adapted crop with a particular trait 10 years from now, you need to start that plant breeding program today. We don’t snap our fingers and get a solution.

The U.S. Agency for International Development played a big role a few decades ago in pushing African farmers to grow cash crops for the international market. Less food was grown for domestic consumption. Was that a mistake?

The cash crops are actually important to African countries, which need export earnings. At the same time, we’ve got hundreds of millions of small farmers out there that are not cash-crop producers. So what we hope to do is raise all boats by helping farmers grow a more diverse group of crops, which provides more resilience, both nutritionally and for the farming system.

Even though global hunger went down for years, it is going up again. Why?

We had Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a country that has been a breadbasket for the world. We also experienced supply issues with COVID that caused a lot of disruptions. We’re seeing drought exacerbated this year by El Niño. We’ve experienced a perfect storm of challenges in the last few years. So you’re right; the numbers have gone up.

You are best known for establishing the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Is your role at the State Department an extension of that earlier work?

The genetic diversity that we’ve been able to collect in our seeds is a bank of all the traits that crops can have in the future. If we want crops that are adapted to climate change, it means the leaves have to be adapted to higher heat, the roots need to be adapted to less water—every part of the plant has to be adapted to radically new conditions. One of the things that I’m saying with this VACS program is, we’ve got that diversity; let’s use it.

What relevance does your work in Africa have for Americans?

Why should people care about it? There are a couple of reasons. One is obviously the humanitarian issue. The second is there is this tight connection between food insecurity and civil strife and war. Seventy percent of people who are food insecure live in conflict areas. So you can say that conflict is one of the causes of food insecurity, but you can also say that food insecurity is a cause of conflict. It’s a vicious cycle we need to break. If we want to live in a peaceful world where we don’t see terrorist groups recruiting in food-insecure places, we’ve got to solve this problem.

It’s not just farmers in Africa—American farmers also face massive challenges, don’t they?

I frankly don’t think we fully understand yet how profound climate change is going to be for all of our crops, for every part of the plant and for every part of the growing season. We are headed toward climates that [have] never existed [since farming began]. It represents the biggest challenge to food security we’ve ever faced. We need to be thinking in big terms and in long-range terms, and that’s not always easy for governments, policymakers and scientists to do. But that’s what we need now.


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