Potatoes and Food Security: Measuring Interventions with Dr. Melgar-Quiñonez

Dr. Hugo Melgar-Quiñonez has a background in medical sciences and is a physician by trade. After moving to the United States to work at the University of California, Davis and at The Ohio State University getting involved in public health and nutrition, he began his work on food security, improved seed varieties, and the health consequences of not having enough food.  

How did you get into food security research in the first place?

I helped develop a food insecurity experience scale based on data used by the USDA report Household Food Security in the United States. That tool helped us take the same approach with other food security interventions in rural communities in Ecuador, Bolivia and Mexico. Other development agencies got interested in these measurements and took us to Burkina Faso and the Philippines to see if the same measurement tools would add value when applied in other continents within different contexts. Later on in 2007, we launched the Latin-American and Caribbean Food Security Scale in Colombia.

That was about the time the United Nations and the FAO became interested in our work, and by 2012 they invited me to collaborate with them on an indicator for sustainable development goal number 2 which is for zero hunger. Through that, we got access to food security data at an individual level and we were able to collaborate on a project – Voices of the Hungry— that carries our measurement system in 150 countries.

Having access to such a data set was an excellent opportunity for us to learn more about how food security relates to many other things in people’s lives. We also learned more about food insecurity in the developed world because the data included North America, Europe, Japan and so on.

Do you have an example of where improved varieties helped to improve food security?

We did an intervention with smallholder farmers from the Colombian Andes by the border of Ecuador. They manage hundreds of potato varieties and the idea was to work with them to identify varieties that through their own experience, had beneficial characteristics. Researchers from the National University of Colombia were consulted as well.

We wanted to identify potatoes that are more resistant to pests and drought and could therefore have higher yields. The three varieties that were identified are yellow potatoes which are of particular interest to Colombians because they are used to prepare a stew called Ajiaco, among other things. People in Bogota consume the dish at least once a week, and Bogota has a population of roughly 10 million.

The three varieties performed well for the growers in lab tests but they also showed desirable traits for us in the food sciences. We determined that the potatoes have more iron than other varieties and more zinc. We labeled them more nutritious potatoes or papas mas nutritivas and moved onto scaling these to be grown by the farmers. Unfortunately, there were challenges because the farming communities are very far away from large markets there is no infrastructure in the area.  Since they are smallholders, even if they had the ability to bring the potatoes they produce to the capital city market, they don’t have the land to meet the demand for such a product.

So we decided on a simple idea that worked well for us and for the farmers. We trained the farmers to select and grow certified quality potato seeds and created for them an entrepreneurship opportunity in their communities. With a few connections and a good marketing campaign, the demand for the potatoes grew and in the end, about 8 million Colombians consumed these potatoes.

This story shows the varieties we identified maintained the desirable characteristics and at the same time, we were able to promote the potatoes in a way that people wanted to consume them. It is their own product, it is from their country, and a result of the work from their own farmers and so it worked well to reduce food insecurity and improve the availability, access, and utilization of such products.

What is one thing agriculture as an industry can do to help these specific initiatives?

Industry plays a role in the three main dimensions of food security: availability, access, and utilization. The industry keeps the food available and from there, the guarantee that the food will be of good nutritional value and have a stable market from which people can access it. All of this allows us to enhance the products that tap into the dimension of the utilization.

It sounds simple but there are multiple dimensions of food security where agriculture industry has an impact and the dimension of economic stability becomes a central element to these efforts.

In the classes that you teach, what are your students most concerned about in the global conversation on food?

Students worry about many different things these days but one of their big concerns right now is issues related to climate and how climate change is affecting food security. Their questions differ depending on the discipline they are in. The nutrition students come with worries over the quality of the food, concerns about alarmingly increasing rates of obesity and chronic disease. Some want to know why we have higher rates of obesity now in the developing world than in some industrialized countries.

There is a group of students that come from the social sciences and they have worries about the structural determinants of food insecurity, poverty and so on. As they learn about food security, their concerns increase because the numbers we share with them are not very good. We have seen more food insecurity in the last couple of years at a global level and we have more hungry people now than three to four years ago.

I am happy to see by the end of each semester that not only do the students leave class with a knowledge about the problem of food insecurity, but they want to get involved and do something about it. I really enjoy that class a lot, sharing knowledge and experience with the students.

What is the one thing you wish everyone knew about the work you do?

I would love people to know that we are arming the next generation with the strongest foundation on food security we can offer. It is not just the research we do, education is a strong pillar and where we will have a clear impact. The outreach work we do with development and international agencies, as well as with food producers strengthens our presence and the knowledge we regularly gather.