Whole Grain: Solution for Global Food Insecurity

Dec 4 , 2022
By David Kamau , Peiman Milani

A simple shift from refined grains to fortified whole grains would produce nutritious food for billions without increasing production costs and help reduce malnutrition and hunger, write David Kamau, managing director of the Fortified Whole Grain Alliance, and Peiman Milani, director of the Food Initiative at the Rockefeller Foundation.

The world is facing a global food crisis like none other time, with food prices at historic highs, supply chains disrupted by war and disease, and climate change threatening harvests in all geographies. Global food insecurity is rapidly rising, and hunger pushes one child every minute into severe malnutrition. Up to 828 million people were affected by hunger two years ago.

In refined form, 60pc of the global calories come from the big three grains - wheat, maize and rice. The processing of these grains reduces their volume by 20pc to 30pc, removing more of their nutritional value. Diets dominated by these refined grains, sugar and ultra-processed foods have become the leading cause of preventable deaths globally, linked to rising rates of non-communicable diseases such as cancer.

In nearly every country, these unhealthy foods are common and cheap.

A simple shift from refined grains to fortified whole grains would produce nutritious food for billions without increasing production costs and help reduce malnutrition and hunger. This shift would save many cash-strapped governments billions of dollars in food import costs and agricultural subsidies without requiring a single additional acre of farmland or one more ounce of fertilizer.

Concerns have been raised about the shelf life of whole grain products, their costs, and consumer acceptance. Advances in food processing technology make it possible for many whole-grain foods to have six-month or longer shelf life. It has been demonstrated that the production of whole grain in bulk costs less than that of refined grain. But despite these apparent benefits, food production remains centred on refined grains.

Consumer preferences are changing with increased acceptance of whole-grain foods across different demographics. There has been increased adoption of whole grain in school meals in Rwanda. In trials undertaken in 18 public schools where 13,700 children were served entire grains in the daily corn meal served for lunch, many children reported that it made them feel fuller and more energetic. Over 90pc of children in grade six preferred the whole grain meal when they were sensitised about its benefits.

In Denmark, consumer education, including through packaging logos, increased consumption of whole grains by 75pc in the seven years beginning in 2007.

With the world facing an escalating food and hunger crisis, action must be taken to save lives and steer food systems toward healthier outcomes. Today much is known about the nutritional value of whole grains and the ramifications of refinement.

Three key actions could support the transition from refined to whole grains within a relatively short time.

A shift by institutional purchasers to buying whole grain is a powerful means of increasing demand. African governments feed an estimated 10pc to 30pc of their populations through safety-net and school feeding programs (which alone reach more than 60 million children on the continent), hospitals, prisons and other public institutions. A shift from refined to whole grain purchasing within these institutions could significantly impact and influence broader change across the chain.

Shifting government subsidies from refined grains to whole grains would also help control the market.

The other is about the fortification of whole grains, which has been shown to have significant nutritional benefits. Public agencies and private companies should promote whole grain consumption among consumers, sharing evidence of the nutritional benefits. Whole maize flour has 24pc more protein, almost quadruple times more fibre and more than triple times calcium than refined flour. That is just for starters. It is also richer in iron, zinc and vitamin E.

With added micronutrient fortification, whole grains could help overcome devastating malnutrition, strengthening bodies and minds.

Finally, modest investments are needed in the milling sector to switch from refined to whole grain. Millers also require affordable financing, as partners, governments, development organizations, and private food companies should be at the forefront to drive these investments. In Rwanda, mid-sized and small milling operations have started to make this switch based on initial investments in the tens of thousands of dollars, and expect to see these investments recouped and turned into a profit within a few years.

The global food crisis and its underlying causes, which are deep and systemic, would not be solved by the switch from refined to fortified whole grains. More considerable transformations are needed, including enabling the development of diverse, equitable, and regenerative food systems that nourish people and the natural ecosystems essential to growing good food. However, shifting to whole grains is an important and highly feasible step, even as we come to grips with the profound dysfunctions of the broader food system.

Its benefits would begin immediately and grow over time. A whole grain transition today will take us one step closer to a world that provides good food for all.

PUBLISHED ON Dec 04,2022 [ VOL 23 , NO 1179]

By David Kamau ( Managing director of the Fortified Whole Grain Alliance ) , Peiman Milani ( director of the Food Initiative at the Rockefeller Foundation. )

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