Base of the pyramid food strategies

On Wednesday this week I attended the GAIN Business Alliance Forum in Amsterdam, where I gave a presentation on the future prospects for global food production. I was not aware of GAIN before receiving the invitation to present at the forum, but it turns out to have a tightly focused and potentially very effective purpose. GAIN stands for Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, and is a Swiss foundation that aims to reduce malnutrition through food supplementation and related strategies. It was created in 2002 at a special UN session on children, and funders include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The premise is that malnutrition stunts the physical, cognitive and economic development of almost a billion people worldwide and can be prevented for about 10 cents per person per year. Micronutrient deficiencies – such as iron, iodine and zinc – can be remedied by simple food fortification of the kind common in developed countries, and can make an enormous difference – particularly during the early months of a child’s life.

GAIN’s objective is to accomplish this on a very large scale through public-private projects using base of the pyramid (BoP) business models. So Bert Koenders, the Netherlands Minister for Development Co-operation, was at the forum to launch the Amsterdam Initiative on Malnutrition, a Dutch public-private partnership that aims to eliminate malnutrition for 100 million people in Africa by 2015.

This emphasis on improved food quality is very much in line with the findings of the Chatham House food supply project last year. If in future agriculture will be forced to reduce its dependence on energy and inputs derived from fossil fuels, it will be difficult to maintain the existing yield-maximizing approach. The alternative is to innovate in ways that reduce oil-based inputs and also address issues such as water scarcity and soil degradation. Approaches of this sort, which might be high-tech or systemic, such as so-called biological farming, have the interesting side effect that they tend to improve food quality – that is, its micronutrient content.

My underlying message at the forum was that, while GAIN’s existing strategy is based on supplementing the products of conventional agriculture, if we look ahead the real emphasis may need to be on helping people move to farming methods that emphasize food quality over quantity. This will be particularly relevant for the 2.5 billion people worldwide dependent on small farms of less than two hectares, which will be one of GAIN’s primary BoP target markets.