In 2015, the United Nations outlined 17 sustainable-development goals aimed at ending poverty and protecting the planet. By 2030, the U.N. hopes to see those 17 goals stimulate change by addressing economic, social and environmental problems.
The International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), based in Hyderabad, India, has been working for the past 40 years to reduce poverty, hunger, malnutrition and environmental degradation in the dryland tropics, areas highly susceptible to the effects of climate change. ICRISAT is a prime example of an international nonprofit organization aiming to achieve these sustainable-development goals. Through partnerships with many industries, ICRISAT collaborates around scientific research on innovative and sustainable development.
ICRISAT’s efforts focus on agriculture in developing nations, where 90 percent of the world’s farmers live. Because 65 percent of agricultural land is considered dry land, ICRISAT’s partnerships are based in dry parts of Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, places where many of the 2.5 billion poorest people in the world live. ICRISAT recognizes that the majority of the world’s poor grow and/or eat wheat, rice and maize (corn). Many of these dryland farmers simply cannot expect sustainable yields given weather patterns. If they cannot grow enough to sell, they cannot feed their families, their children cannot go to school, they cannot contribute to a local economy, and their overall health and well-being diminishes. These problems clearly perpetuate cycles of poverty.
ICRISAT’s sustainable farming practices bring innovative solutions to empower farmers and people dependent on agriculture. ICRISAT is developing smart foods and creating diets with low environmental impact that contribute to food and nutrition security. ICRISAT aims to bring smart food into mainstream agricultural markets by promoting investment in research and development for grains like millet.
Millet is a smart food, meaning it is good for the planet, good nutritionally and good for the farmer. Comparatively, in semi-arid areas, major crops like maize often produce crops once in four years. Many farmers need a different solution. Millet is a much heartier grain that has a low glycemic index and is helpful in fighting and preventing diabetes. It has two to three times the amount of calcium as milk per unit, is high in fiber and antioxidants and is gluten-free. Millet has a small water and carbon footprint, requiring 30 percent less water than maize and 70 percent less water than rice. Millet matures in half the time it takes wheat to grow and it requires fewer fertilizers and pesticides. In addition, millet has an above-average yield potential and multiple uses including biofuel.
Market potential can be high for a smart food like millet. All that it lacks is investment and development of a brand (like milk has developed as a brand). In addition, ICRISAT is working to help farmers in local and regional economies build the knowledge and infrastructure to support a more sustainable agricultural industry based on millet.
If the food system of a few crops that receive the majority of investment and development can be diversified with smart foods like millet, then the cycles of poverty, hunger and unsustainable practices can be influenced and innovation can effectuate positive change.
Governmental farm aid currently supports the big three crops which, unfortunately, often do not help the most impoverished as much as they should. It is incumbent upon us to learn about organizations like ICRISAT and crops such as millet.
Climate change and the difficulties facing drylands farmers arguably affect the entire global food market, including those of us in first-world nations. This is why collaborative efforts and investments in smart foods like millet are critical. By the way, try some millet. It is probably available at your favorite store.
John Hoffmire is director of the Impact Bond Fund at Saïd Business School at Oxford University and directs the Center on Business and Poverty at UW-Madison. He runs Progress Through Business, a nonprofit group promoting economic development. Rachel Gilman, Hoffmire’s colleague at Progress Through Business, did the research for this article.