A bigger bite

A call to reassess the value of cereals in food-systems and nutrition research

The world eats cereals. Maize and wheat alone make up nearly a quarter of the world’s dietary energy intake, and are critical vessels for micronutrient and dietary fiber delivery. However, the essential role they play in global nutrition is concerningly understated when one looks at trends in agri-nutrition research. The number of hungry people globally has also started to increase again over recent years, a figure that has surely been exacerbated by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wheat grain.
Wheat grain.

Undermining the role that cereal crops play in global food security poses risks not just to population health, but also to smallholder agricultural economies as many countries across Africa, Asia, and Latin America aim for self-sufficiency in cereal production. FAO data from 2019 shows that wheat and maize covers over 400 million hectares of farmland worldwide.

In 2020, scientists from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the University of London published an important review of agri-nutrition research and dietary guidance revealing that the health benefits of cereals are often undervalued and overlooked. However, cereal grains will play a large role in reducing global malnutrition.

Current nutrition research focuses mostly on micronutrient malnutrition and stunting, which are indisputably important. However, bioactive food components (BIOFOCS), such as dietary fiber and flavonoids, have beneficial antioxidant, anticarcinogenic, anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties that are very important in the bigger picture of human health. Additionally, food group categorization does not account for the effect that modern crop breeding, food processing and manufacturing can have on nutritional quality — for better or for worse.

Maize grain.
Maize grain.

According to the study, co-authored by CIMMYT economists Jason Donovan and Olaf Erenstein, the argument “is for agri-nutrition research to open up to a broader perspective on the nexus of agriculture, food, nutrition and health. At the heart of this complexity is acknowledgment that foods contain more than the conventional macro- and micronutrients, and that agri-nutrition research should address the nutrition and health requirements for all the essential bioactive food components.”

In a new working paper, the authors look at the links between agriculture, food security, and human nutrition and health, and the contribution of maize and wheat to achieving the nutrition objectives of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Their work builds on previous research from CIMMYT scientists on nutrition and health, an area of increasing importance.

Partners and funders

CGIAR Research Program on Maize (MAIZE) and CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT).

© 2021 International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center
We would like to thank all funders who supported this research through their contributions to the CGIAR Trust Fund.

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Marcia MacNeil, Rodrigo Ordóñez
Project coordination
Leslie Domínguez, Emma Orchardson
Art directors
Alfonso Cortés, Nancy Valtierra
Layout and design
Nancy Valtierra
Web design
Ricardo López
Graphics and illustrations
Marcelo Ortiz, Eliot Sánchez, Nancy Valtierra
Writers and editors
Nima Chodon, Madeline Dahm, Leslie Domínguez, Alison Doody, Wasim Iftikar, G. Michael Listman, Marcia MacNeil, Steven McCutcheon, Marta Millere, Emma Orchardson
T.S. Amjath Babu, Frederic Baudron, Hans Braun, Shiela Chikulo, Olaf Erenstein, Velu Govindan, M.L. Jat, Timothy Krupnik, Sylvanus Odjo, B.M. Prasanna, Harminder S. Sidhu, Jelle Van Loon
Francisco Alarcón, Alfonso Cortés, Wasim Iftikar, Peter Lowe, Ranak Martin, S. Mojumder/Drik, Matthew O'Leary, Love Kumar Singh/BISA, F. Sipalla, Dhruba Thapa/NARC, Szefei Wong/Dreamstime, CIMMYT Archives
Silvia Rico
Correct citation
CIMMYT. 2021. Resilience. Renewal. Transition. CIMMYT Annual Report 2020. CDMX, Mexico: CIMMYT.
AGROVOC descriptors:
Maize; Wheat; Plant breeding; Genetic resources; Innovation adoption; Plant biotechnology; Seed production; Food security; Sustainability; Research policies; Economic analysis; Cropping systems; Agricultural research; Organization of research; Developing countries. Additional Keywords: CIMMYT. AGRIS category codes: A50 Agricultural Research; A01 Agriculture– General Aspects. Dewey decimal classification: 630

© International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), 2021. All rights reserved. The designations employed in the presentation of materials in this publication do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of CIMMYT or its contributory organizations concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city, or area, or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries. CIMMYT encourages fair use of this material. Proper citation is requested.


Asian Development Bank
Accelerating Genetic Gains in Maize and Wheat
Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research
Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics
Bioactive food components
Borlaug Institute in South Asia
CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Security
International Center for Tropical Agriculture
International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center
CIMMYT Maize Genetic Resource Lines
Carbon dioxide equivalent
Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia
Crops to End Hunger
Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research
CGIAR Excellence in Breeding Platform
Executive Management Team
European Union
United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization
Farm Power and Conservation Agriculture for Sustainable Intensification
Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office of the United Kingdom
Fusarium head blight
Innovative Applications in Analytics Award
Indian Council of Agricultural Research
International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas
International Food Policy Research Institute
International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis
International Institute of Tropical Agriculture
Institut de Recherche pour le Développement
International Rice Research Institute
Integrated Tribal Development Agency
Jiangsu Academy of Agricultural Sciences
Kenya Agricultural & Livestock Research Organization
Key performance indicators
CGIAR Research Program on Maize
Nitrous oxide
Nepal Agricultural Research Council
National Agricultural Research Systems
Odisha Rural Development and Marketing Society
Punjab Agricultural University
Program for Growth and Resilience
Mexico's Secretariat of Agriculture and Rural Development (Secretaría de Agricultura y Desarrollo Rural)
Sustainable Development Goals
Seeds of Discovery
Stress Tolerant Maize for Africa
Zimbabwe Resilience Building Fund
United Nations
United Nations Development Programme
United States Agency for International Development
United Nations World Food Programme
CGIAR Research Program on Wheat
Unless otherwise indicated, all amounts are expressed in U.S. dollars

Sustainable Development Goals

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations (UN) Member States in 2015, provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity, for people and the planet. At its heart are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are an urgent call for action by all countries to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.

The SDGs set the pathway for agricultural, social, and economic development. They address the global challenges we face, including poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice.

CGIAR transformed its approach to ensure that its work is aligned with the ambitious goals. CIMMYT, through its research-for-development activities, contributes to empower women, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and improve the health and nutrition of the world's poorest people.

CIMMYT’s work contributes to the following SDGs:


CIMMYT – the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center – is the global leader in publicly-funded maize and wheat research and related farming systems. Headquartered near Mexico City, CIMMYT works with hundreds of partners throughout the developing world to sustainably increase the productivity of maize and wheat cropping systems, thus improving global food security and reducing poverty. CIMMYT is a member of the CGIAR System and leads the CGIAR Research Programs on Maize and Wheat and the Excellence in Breeding Platform. The Center receives support from national governments, foundations, development banks and other public and private agencies.

For more information, visit www.cimmyt.org.