Elizabeth Mitcham, director of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Horticulture, provided the closing keynote speech "From Feeding to Nourishing a Growing World" on March 27, 2019, at the Horticulture Research for Development Conference, "Colorful Harvest: From Feeding to Nourishing a Growing World," held in Washington, D.C.
Global nutrition goals and opportunities
"We have a lot of work to do to improve nutrition," Mitcham said near the beginning of her talk. Data from the Global Nutrition Report show that some progress has been made on stunting and wasting of children, and even overweight in children. But the statistics for anemia in women, adult overweight, adult obesity and adult diabetes do not show much progress toward meeting global targets.
Fruits and vegetables are one of the few — if only — food groups associated with both reduced stunting and reduced death from heart disease. They are good sources of vitamin A, C, and K, as well as anthocyanins and other phytonutrients. Dietary recommendations suggest we should eat a range of colorful fruit and vegetable groups every day.
"I really think we need to change the dialogue," Mitcham said. "We need to start talking about nutrition security instead of food security. And we need to lead by example by what we choose to eat, what we serve at conferences and meetings, and what we give as gifts. We need to talk about the benefits of fruits and vegetables for national security, civil unrest, health implications and lost productivity from diet-related diseases."
Mitcham spoke about the need to drive demand for consumption of fruits and vegetables, to better meet dietary needs and drive product demand, citing a New York Times article about advertising healthful foods more effectively.
Successes and solutions along the horticulture value chain
Farmers need to be connected to markets to have the incentive to invest in improved practices. In Cambodia, a farmers' cooperative markets their own vegetables in towns and neighborhoods via a tuktuk fitted with an insulated cooler box. The vegetables are produced using conservation agriculture methods and are marketed under a special brand that recognizes the benefits to the environment and the community. Customers buy the products quickly.
Other options to develop market linkages including using the Participatory Market Chain Approach and hosting trade fairs that connect producers and buyers.
Postharvest challenges and opportunities in horticulture
Mitcham discussed several aspects of postharvest handling, including challenges that have yet to be solved. In many developing countries, postharvest handling of fresh produce is rudimentary with little temperature management, leading to high postharvest losses. Handling is very rough and packaging offers little to no protection.
When it comes to improved packaging for fresh produce, what is the best choice? Cardboard is less expensive, but susceptible to moisture and intended for single use. Single-use plastic crates are available in some countries, but cannot be used for transport without transferring the product upon transfer to the buyer. Can we make returnable plastic crates feasible? How can we implement a successful reuse system in emerging economies – theft issues, cost to return and wash.
The cold chain is essential to full development of the horticulture sector. The Horticulture Innovation Lab's network has used CoolBots for lower-cost cold rooms in several countries, including India, Bangladesh, Honduras, Cambodia and Tanzania. Where can these cold rooms be most effectively used? What use-models for cold rooms are most effective? More cost-benefit data is needed for these technologies.
As important as the cold chain is the new concept of a "dry chain." Thorough drying of harvested produce, followed by effective dry storage is essential to prevent losses and to prevent growth of aflatoxin-producing fungi. This is critical for safe drying of any dried product after harvest, including seeds, fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains and legumes — and is especially challenging in warm, humid environments. Once products are dried to 60-70% moisture content, they must be kept dry to prevent increase in moisture content in humid climates, which can lead to mold, insect activity, and aflatoxin contamination — a critical anti-nutrient.
"If we're going to go to all of this trouble of people eating enough fruits and vegetables, but they're still eating aflatoxin-contaminated maize or groundnuts, we're probably not going to make a lot of progress toward our nutrition goals," Mitcham said.
How to increase production of fruits and vegetables
Production of vegetables tends to be very seasonal, so irrigation is a key input especially during period of low rainfall or erratic weather. The Horticulture Innovation Lab has projects in Guatemala and in Uganda, focused on ways to adapt irrigation technologies to farmer needs. As a complement to drip irrigation systems, adoption of conservation agriculture practices — including no till and continuous mulch — has been shown to be successful for vegetable production, maintaining or increasing productivity and reducing labor.
Genetic resistance to diseases and pests has potential, and other methods of biological control for pests and diseases are critically needed. Protected culture offers many benefits for horticulture crop producers ranging from greenhouses with full environment control to simpler nethouses — which the Horticulture Innovation Lab has helped to adapt and scale in Cambodia. Nethouses provide protection from potential rain damage and can reduce insect pressure.
Grafting seedlings is a powerful tool to take advantage of the genetics of the rootstock and the scion, true for fruit trees as well as vegetables. Grafting provides an opportunity for agribusiness development and employment. Women are often considered suited to this work, but ongoing research is required to select the best scions and rootstocks for new pest challenges as they develop.
Financing, capacity building, networking for horticulture
Creative strategies for providing low-interest financing to farmers can allow them to more easily invest in their farming operations and in new technologies. The Horticulture Innovation Lab has seen some success with shared-interest savings groups with farmers in Cambodia. In Guatemala, the program is working with a youth cooperative loan program to help finance drip irrigation as a low-cost mechanism for farmers to invest.
Curriculum development and youth training is needed when it comes to building horticultural knowledge in students, faculty members, extension agents, NGOs and farmers to advance fruit and vegetable production. Entrepreneurial and agribusiness training is especially important as a sustainable way to build local capacity that can extend solutions for the problems of tomorrow.
"The Horticulture Innovation Lab’s global network of researchers is ready to collaborate with donors, development implementers, and other researchers who share our passion for fruits and vegetables for development," Mitcham said. "Thank you all for being here. Go forth and eat fruits and vegetables; serve fruits and vegetables; and talk about all the benefits of fruits and vegetables."