Eating more vegetables as a remedy for ‘hidden hunger’

Published on
September 26, 2014

Although more of the world’s population is now consuming enough calories, the quality of food in many countries still leaves a lot to be desired. The lack of nutrients and vitamins can affect children for the rest of their lives. A seminar held to mark the retirement of researcher Arij Everaarts explored the question of how researchers and the business sector can join forces to boost the production of vegetables. Eating vegetables must also be made a more attractive prospect.

Researchers at Wageningen UR working on the problem of ‘hidden hunger’ are increasingly turning to the Dutch business sector to increase the supply and consumption of vegetables in Africa and Asia. Wageningen-based researchers have been working in Indonesia alongside local researchers and Dutch vegetable seed companies such as East-West Seed for many years. The country still does not produce enough vegetables to supply provide the entire population with a balanced diet. Last year saw the launch of vegIMPACT, a programme backed by the Dutch embassy in Jakarta. This programme aims to train 10,000 smallholders in sustainable vegetable farming, thereby improving their market opportunities. It is hoped that simple interventions, such as learning to use pesticide and artificial fertiliser efficiently, will quickly result in a 50 percent rise in incomes.

The Seeds of Expertise for the Vegetable Industry in Africa programme, funded for 50 percent by the companies Rijk Zwaan and East-West Seed and 50 percent by the Dutch government, is currently underway in Africa. The seed companies are trying to find better varieties of vegetables to grow locally, and increase their resistance to disease. ‘As researchers, we already have vast experience of improving vegetable production in countries such as Tanzania and Ethiopia’, says Arij Everaarts, who worked as a vegetable specialist at Wageningen UR for many years until his recent retirement. ‘We provide facilities for the companies, act as knowledge brokers and train product managers and farmers.’

200g per day is the absolute minimum

Recent research has shown that hidden hunger is particularly alarming in Sub-Saharan Africa. The average African eats 100g of fruit and vegetables per day at the most, whereas 200g is the absolute minimum.

Hidden hunger can be tackled by providing dietary supplements in the form of vitamin and mineral pills. Enhancing food quality is also an option, by growing sweet potatoes with added vitamin A, for example. The researchers from Wageningen are mainly focusing on finding practical ways of getting people to eat more vegetables. But improving the supply is not the only problem; people must also be able to afford to buy them. Furthermore, it can be difficult to convince people of the importance of a daily portion of vegetables, particularly in Africa.

Making vegetable farming more attractive

Various options for persuading people to eat more vegetables were discussed during the mini-symposium in Lelystad. Affordability is an important criterion. Tomatoes, for instance, are common in African dishes but too expensive for most people. Leafy vegetables form a cheaper alternative. They are just as healthy and easier to grow. Bag production is another interesting development for the poorest groups. Large plastic bags with holes in the sides are filled with soil or compost. Fast-growing leafy vegetable varieties can grow through the holes. ‘It’s a great innovation’, says Everaarts, ‘which enables people to grow vegetables on a small surface area, even in the slums.’

Companies can respond to this base of the pyramid market by adjusting their ranges. They can offer improved seed varieties in smaller packs with no more than 10 seeds per type of vegetable, for example. ‘Very important from a nutritional point of view, and the huge turnover will enable companies to make some profit. A company like Unilever has been using this strategy successfully for decades, by selling shampoo in sachets for just one wash.’ Everaarts is seeing growing interest in this innovative approach among the seed companies. East-West Seed, for example, is raising the profile of vegetables among young people by sponsoring school gardens. ‘Mainly in Asia. But it would just as well in Africa.’

Employment and higher incomes

But this innovative approach is not enough; more production per square metre remains essential. Improved production methods and better species are a must. In Asia, vegetable farming is often alternated with rice production. A four-year programme in the Red River Delta, Vietnam, has shown which combinations of vegetables can be grown all year round. The same strategy is now being tested in Java. Everaarts: ‘This dovetails with government policy to make rural areas more popular and stop the exodus into the cities. Permanent vegetable farming does not only benefit health, it also boosts employment and raises incomes.’