In an effort to tackle hidden hunger, a team of researchers led by the University of Nottingham analyzed thousands of cereal grains and soils to test their nutritional value. The analysis revealed that the amount of nutrients people are getting from crops is a type of “postcode lottery.”
The research is shedding new light on the relationship between soils, crops, and nutrient deficiencies.
“It is important to have good quality evidence on the nutritional quality of diets if we are going to support public health and agriculture policies to improve peoples’ health and well-being,” said Professor Martin Broadley. “Mapping the quality of diets is an important part of this evidence.”
The study was focused on the grain of more than 3,000 cereal crop samples from farmers’ fields in Ethiopia and Malawi. The experts found that the amount of the dietary micronutrients calcium, iron, selenium, and zinc in the cereal grain varied substantially by location, with some areas linked to much lower levels of micronutrients.
While it is known that some crops are more nutritious than others, the soils and landscapes can also predict whether deficiencies are likely in an area.
Micronutrient deficiencies, also known as hidden hunger, affect more than half of children younger than 5 years of age. These deficiencies are particularly prevalent in areas where access to sufficient food is limited for socioeconomic reasons.
Hidden hunger is a serious risk to human health, impacting the growth and cognitive development of children. A diet that is lacking in nutritional value also increases the susceptibility to infectious diseases.
The new study suggests that location is fundamentally linked to the quality of diets, with the nutritional value of crops varying by location. Rural households who consume locally sourced food will be affected the most.
Furthermore, the researchers noted that in many smallholder farming communities, location may be the largest influencing factor in determining the dietary intake of micronutrients.
“Nutritional surveillance work on the quality of staple cereals is an important part of wider public health policies to address micronutrient deficiencies and we hope that this type of work is now adopted in more countries,” said Dr. Nalivata.
“By learning more about how the nutritional quality of cereal grains is linked to soil types and landscapes, as we have in this study, we are now better able to advise farmers how to choose and cultivate more nutritious crops.”
The study is published in the journal Nature.
By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer