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Key point summary: the role of plant-based proteins in addressing food security and resilience challenges in Francophone West Africa

Context of this article

Poverty and animal welfare are at the root of much suffering worldwide. The Effective Altruism movement takes these issues seriously, yet as a predominantly English-speaking initiative, Francophone regions often receive less support and find it more challenging to engage with its discourse. My background in animal advocacy and training in geopolitics/humanitarian management inspired me to explore the potential bridge between these issues in Francophone regions. Thanks to Animal Advocacy Africa for their work, which has contributed to raising my awareness about animal-related issues in Africa.

My thesis focuses on the role of plant proteins in the context of food security and resilience in Francophone West Africa (Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Mauritania, and Togo). Despite invaluable assistance from knowledgeable individuals, I must clarify that my background does not include agronomy or nutrition.

This article presents a brief overview of the key points discussed in the thesis. All sources are cited within the thesis itself.

French version of the thesis.

English version of the thesis translated via Deepl (approximate translation).

The criticality of food security in Francophone West Africa

Food insecurity in Francophone West Africa (FWA) is an issue of grave concern due to its alarming escalation. It is characterized by an inadequate availability of nutritious food. According to the United Nations, 828 million people were facing food insecurity in 2021, indicating an increase of 46 million from 2020. Specifically, in West Africa in 2021, 247.4 million individuals were affected by this plight, equating to a prevalence of 60% within the population. This insecurity is intensified by various shocks and issues such as conflicts, climate change, poverty, and health crises. The goal of Zero Hunger, the second of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the United Nations member states for 2030, seems increasingly unattainable, making the issue of food security even more urgent.

Multifaceted challenges of food security

The causes and impacts of food insecurity in French West Africa (FWA) are complex and multifactorial.

Climatically, West Africa faces significant vulnerabilities, heightening the risks of drought and flooding, which in turn adversely affect agricultural productivity. Post-harvest losses due to inadequate infrastructure further diminish food availability and escalate costs. Deficiencies in transport and storage infrastructure are also major obstacles to evenly distributed food availability.

Economically, food insecurity hampers growth, trapping communities in cycles of poverty. Individuals lacking sufficient caloric or nutritional intake have lower energy levels, fall ill more frequently, and thus struggle to earn income, perpetuating their impoverished and food-insecure state. This cycle is further extended as they give birth to children who also face poor health and poverty.

Health-wise, food insecurity often leads to malnutrition, characterized by nutritional deficiencies, and more recently, to a growing trend of obesity, with long-term consequences on physical and mental health.

These challenges underscore the urgency of implementing sustainable solutions to enhance food security in the region.

Current solutions being explored

To address these challenges, governments, international institutions, and NGOs are considering various strategies.

Enhancing agricultural productivity through the use of inputs, expanding cultivable land, and adopting new technologies are priorities in public policy, despite environmental and health concerns associated with excessive input use. Strengthening agricultural infrastructure is vital to reduce post-harvest losses and improve market access. Crop diversification is encouraged to decrease reliance on a few staple crops and promote a more balanced diet. Sustainable agriculture is increasingly advocated by NGOs and international institutions as an environmentally friendly, socially equitable, and economically viable production method, incorporating practices like agroforestry and permaculture.

Among these strategies, increasing the production of legumes for human consumption is currently a minor focus, even though their numerous beneficial characteristics make them a highly relevant solution.

Potential of plant-based proteins in addressing food security challenges

Plant proteins, particularly legumes, emerge as a promising solution to the multifaceted food security challenges in French West Africa. Their cultivation presents significant potential to address current and future challenges such as climate change, poverty, conflicts and political instability, health risks, and the transformations accompanying economic and demographic growth, including westernization of lifestyles, and increasing tertiary sector employment and urbanization. To meet food needs while considering these challenges, plant proteins are appealing due to the following characteristics:

  1. Environmental sustainability and agronomic benefits: plant proteins, particularly legumes, require fewer water and land resources compared to animal protein sources. They are also resistant to climatic variations, such as temperature fluctuations, and emit very low levels of greenhouse gases per kilogram of protein. This resource-efficiency is especially advantageous in the context of climate change and population growth, where water and soil management are critical. Additionally, legume cultivation contributes to soil fertilization by fixing nitrogen, reducing the need for external inputs. This is beneficial for decreasing greenhouse gas emissions and enhancing the resilience of the agricultural production model in French West Africa, especially in reducing dependence on inputs mainly imported from Russia.
  2. Economic advantages: promoting the local cultivation of legumes stimulates rural economies and creates jobs, thereby supporting local communities. Legumes are a financially accessible protein source (as food insecurity is more an issue of access to food than quantity available) and require minimal investment and infrastructure for production, storage, and transportation.
  3. Public health benefits: plant proteins do not contain saturated fats and are significantly richer in fibers and essential nutrients (such as B vitamins, iron, and minerals) compared to animal proteins. Incorporating them into diets can help combat malnutrition, improve essential nutrient intake, and reduce the risks of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. 
    Moreover, plant proteins do not carry the risk of developing zoonoses or causing foodborne infections, which are significant public health concerns.

Despite their numerous benefits, it is important to acknowledge that legumes, unlike other animal protein sources, do not provide essential nutrients such as vitamin B12 and vitamin A. They also offer a lower zinc content. These nutritional shortcomings can be addressed through supplementation policies, akin to iodine supplementation in France.

Why, then, if legumes possess such advantageous qualities, are they not more extensively cultivated? It appears that dietary habits, which include minimal consumption of legumes, are a primary impediment to their expanded development.

In conclusion, the production and consumption of plant-based proteins hold significant potential for enhancing food security and resilience in Francophone West Africa. However, this requires an integrated approach, engaging governments, civil society actors, and the private sector to shift dietary habits and stimulate production. By implementing targeted public policies and measures to raise awareness about dietary practices, the region can aspire to a future where plant-based proteins play a vital role in building sustainable food systems, thereby contributing to the well-being of its populations and the overall development of the area. With this progression, the region could serve as a model for other parts of the world transitioning to drier climates due to climate change.

A few sources

CICR. (2017). Farming through conflict. https://www.icrc.org/en/doc/assets/files/other/farming_through_conflict.pdf 

Faivre-Dupaigre, B. & Goura Soulé, B. (2023). III / L’insécurité alimentaire en Afrique. Dans : Agence française de développement éd., L'économie africaine 2023 (pp. 45-60). Paris: La Découverte. https://www.cairn.info/l-economie-africaine-2023--9782348077654-page-45.htm 

FAO, FIDA, OMS, PAM, & UNICEF. (2022). L’État de la sécurité alimentaire et de la nutrition dans le monde 2022 : Réorienter les politiques alimentaires et agricoles pour rendre l’alimentation saine plus abordable. FAO, IFAD, WHO, WFP, UNICEF. https://doi.org/10.4060/cc0639fr 

FAO (2016). Légumineuses, des graines pour un avenir durable. https://www.fao.org/documents/card/fr?details=0cf730b3-b1b9-4590-978d-168d9ac1f3a1 

Paliwal, R., Abberton, M., Faloye, B., & Olaniyi, O. (2020). Developing the role of legumes in West Africa under climate change. Current Opinion in Plant Biology, 56, 242‑258. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pbi.2020.05.002 

Willett, W., Rockström, J., Loken et al. (2019). Food in the Anthropocene : The EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. The Lancet, 393(10170), 447‑492. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(18)31788-4 





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Executive summary: The thesis discusses the potential for increased cultivation and consumption of plant-based proteins, especially legumes, to enhance food security and resilience in Francophone West Africa. It concludes this could significantly benefit the region if paired with policies and measures to shift dietary habits.

Key points:

  1. Food insecurity in Francophone West Africa is an urgent, worsening issue with complex climatic, economic, and health impacts.
  2. Current solutions like improving infrastructure and sustainable agriculture help but incorporating more plant proteins could also be beneficial.
  3. Plant proteins, chiefly legumes, offer environmental, economic, and public health advantages for the region.
  4. These include climate resilience, soil benefits, affordability, nutrition, and reduced health risks.
  5. But dietary habits limit legume consumption, so public policies and awareness campaigns are needed.
  6. If implemented properly, increased plant proteins could significantly aid food security, nutrition, public health, and overall development in the region.



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