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Cambridge Global Food Security

An Interdisciplinary Research Centre at the University of Cambridge

Many people throughout the world endure multiple forms of malnutrition. Some face a lack of food altogether whilst others have poor access only to healthy food. This can lead to a number of health problems including iron deficiency, especially amongst pregnant women and young children.

MillNETi (Millets and Nutritional Enhancement Traits for Iron bioavailability) is a cross-disciplinary research programme, led by the University of Cambridge, with partners in the UK, The Gambia, Ethiopia and India. We are working together to improve the iron nutrition status of people living in Ethiopia and The Gambia by focusing on the potential for pearl and finger millets to address micronutrient deficiencies. These crops are not only well-suited to drought-stressed dryland conditions but also have higher levels of micronutrients than other staples, such as rice, wheat and maize. The pearl millet variety which we are working with, Danashakti, has been conventionally bred by HarvestPlus and ICRISAT to have even higher levels of iron and zinc than local varieties.

This summer our team of crop scientists, social scientists and nutritionists had a lot of fieldwork planned in The Gambia and Ethiopia – but COVID-19 had other ideas. Travel and work restrictions have required the team to develop a number of ways to keep our research going. Whilst nothing will really replace being together to share ideas and conduct fieldwork in person, we have tried to make the most of a bad situation – and generated some novel research in the process.

Surveying from a distance

The social science aspect of the study is an international collaborative work package involving the University of Cambridge alongside partners in The Gambia (MRC Unit The Gambia at LSHTM and the Gambian National Nutrition Agency) and Ethiopia (Bahir Dar University and a local NGO, JeCCDO, with coordination from the Centre for Global Equality in Cambridge).

Under the guidance of Dr Carla Cerami (MRC Unit) and Dr Shailaja Fennell (UoC), Dr Richard Sidebottom and Dr Sarah Dalzell are conducting household surveys to investigate the role of millets and other staples in 400 households in Ethiopia and The Gambia. These surveys were originally due to take place in person, but now they will either be face to face with a local team under social distancing protocols or remotely via mobile phone. The objective of these studies is to try to appreciate the multiple dimensions of food security and malnutrition across time and place. Understanding the complex relationships between nutrition, consumption, production, exchange, traditions, migration and livelihoods across different ethnic groups and geographical locations is essential in designing nutrition-sensitive policy interventions.

After COVID-19 took hold, Richard and Sarah developed a new remote longitudinal study of a further 150 households in urban and rural Gambia - complete with new consenting and data collection protocols - to assess the ongoing effects of the pandemic on food security and livelihoods more widely. Together with Carla, Wuri Jallow and the data and field staff in The Gambia, Richard and Sarah have worked hard to get this survey off the ground, which has not always been easy. A new verbal, phone-based consent and audio-recording process had to be developed which will now help to underpin further remote surveys at the MRC Unit. The training of field workers was also a novel, hybrid affair led by Richard and Sarah from the UK, and Wuri in person in one Gambian research site, to field workers located elsewhere.

Researchers can’t travel? Send the lab instead

Our Ethiopian partners at Bahir Dar University were due to travel to MRC Unit in The Gambia in July, to meet Dr Mohamad Farshard Aslam from King’s College London. There Mohamad would have led a 6-week training course for the BDU team and colleagues from the MRC Unit in how to conduct a Caco-2 cell analysis – using human gut cells in vitro to look at how much iron is absorbed from different millet recipes.

Of course, the July training had to be cancelled, and instead we sent the lab to the BDU team, rather than bringing them to the lab! Programme Manager Joanna Wolstenholme sourced and shipped key pieces of second-hand lab equipment out to the team in Ethiopia, so that they can develop the Caco-2 iron uptake analysis in their own labs. Mohamad is working with a body-mounted GoPro to record the Caco-2 analysis protocols, and these videos, alongside written materials, will be shared with our collaborators in Ethiopia and The Gambia. Whilst not what was initially planned, we hope that this solution will have a longer term impact, as the new lab set up in Ethiopia, and the training materials, will allow for more Caco-2 work to be conducted at BDU in future, and a ‘train the trainer’ model to be developed at both institutes.

So, whilst this summer has certainly not been what we had hoped for, it has been amazing to see what can be salvaged with some lateral thinking and a lot of hard work. The wonders of Zoom have also allowed us to host a couple of workshops, one for the internal team (30 academics, 5 countries), and one to reach out to external stakeholders (30 academics, 10 stakeholders, 6 countries!), all from the comfort of our own desks. Whilst not quite the same as a proper gathering, these have been much easier to organise than international workshops, and with far lower carbon emissions. However, we are all really looking forward to a time when we can finally meet in person again!

Article by Dr Richard Sidebottom and Joanna Wolstenholme.

Image by Dr Richard Sidebottom: Dr Sarah Dalzell (L) and Dr Wanjiku Gichohi (R), two of the MillNETi researchers, meeting with key stakeholders in one of the Gambian communities that MillNETi is working with. 

MillNETi (Millets and Nutritional Enhancement Traits for Iron bioavailability) is led by Professor Howard Griffiths, and funded by GCRF via BBSRC. The programme runs from April 2019 to September 2021. Our partners are: MRC Unit The Gambia at LSHTM, ICRISAT (India, Ethiopia and Malawi), Bahir Dar University Ethiopia, King’s College London, NIAB, Rothamsted Research, and the Centre for Global Equality.

For more information please contact Joanna Wolstenholme.