Pioneering research on our three most important cereal grains — maize, rice, and wheat — has contributed enormously to global food security over the last half century, chiefly by boosting yields and making these crops more resilient in the face of drought, floods, pests and diseases. But with more than 800 million people living in chronic hunger and many more suffering from inadequate diets, much remains to be done.
The importance of transforming food systems is the message of the 2019 EAT-Lancet Commission report, which defines specific actions to achieve a “planetary health diet” enhancing human nutrition and keeping resource use of food systems within planetary boundaries. With major cereals still supplying about one-third of calories required in the proposed diet, the way they are produced, processed, and consumed must be a central focus of global efforts to transform food systems. There are three main reasons for this imperative.
1. SCALE AND ECONOMIC IMPORTANCE
The critical importance of these crops in global food systems can be seen in the sheer extent of major cereal production and its value. According to 2017 figures, maize is grown on 197 million hectares and rice on more than 167 million hectares, mainly in Asia and Africa. Wheat covers 218 million hectares worldwide, and the total annual harvest of these three crops amounts to about 2.5 billion tons of grain.
Global production had an estimated annual value averaging more than US$500 billion in 2014-2016. The prices of the major cereals are especially important for poor consumers. In recent years, the rising cost of bread in North Africa and tortillas in Mexico, as well as the rice price crisis in Southeast Asia, imposed great hardship on urban populations in particular, triggering major demonstrations and social unrest. Reducing dependence on cereal imports to avoid such troubles, many countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America have made staple crop self-sufficiency a central element of national agriculture policy.
2. CRITICAL ROLE IN HUMAN DIETS
In developing countries, maize, rice, and wheat together provide 48% of total calories consumed and 42% of total protein. As staple foods, maize and wheat make up close to two thirds of the world’s food energy intake. In every developing region except Latin America, cereals provide people with more protein than meat, fish, milk, and eggs combined, making them an important protein source for over half the world’s population.
These cereals also serve as a rich source of dietary fiber and nutrients. CGIAR research has documented the important contribution of wheat to healthy diets, linking the crop to reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and colorectal cancer.
3. ENCOURAGING PROGRESS TOWARD BETTER NUTRITIONAL QUALITY
In recent years, cereals have improved in nutritional quality through a conventional crop breeding approach called ‘biofortification,’ which boosts the content of essential vitamins or micronutrients. Dietary deficiencies of this kind harm children’s physical and cognitive development, and leave them more vulnerable to disease. This is believed to cause about one-third of the 3.1 million annual child deaths attributed to malnutrition. Diverse diets are the preferred remedy, but the world’s poorest consumers often cannot afford more nutritious foods.
While not a replacement for diverse diets, ‘biofortified’ crop varieties developed by CGIAR help address hidden hunger by providing higher levels of zinc, iron and provitamin A carotenoids as well as better protein quality. These offer an immediate solution for the many subsistence farmers and rural consumers who depend on locally produced foods and lack access to industrially fortified products.
TOWARD A SUSTAINABLE DIETARY REVOLUTION
Compared to other crops, cereal production has relatively low environmental impact. However, it is both necessary and feasible to further enhance the sustainability of cereal cropping systems. Any improvement in resource use efficiency will have a major impact on greenhouse gas emissions and water conservation, while also freeing up vast amounts of land for natural vegetation and other crops to allow for diversified diets and farmer incomes.
Future-proofing global food security requires bold steps. Policy and research need to support a double transformation centered on nutrition and sustainability, and this requires greater investment in cereals as well as smaller crops. Agriculture, from farm to fork, creates more than 25% of global GDP but attracts less than 5% of global investments in research and development (R&D).
The impact of our work depends on the growing resolve of countries to promote these themes through strong policies and programs, as well as global investments in R&D. If agriculture is not prioritized, it is unlikely that future demand for sustainable, affordable, and more diversified diets will be met.