Article written by Thom Sprenger, HarvestPlus
I recently met a farmer who feeds her family on the maize she grows on just a hectare of land – a challenge made more difficult by warmer temperatures and unpredictable rains. Hunger and its most damaging effects – the “hidden hunger” of micronutrient deficiency – do the most harm in rural areas like hers. There are too many kilometres to walk between her village and the semi-annual “child health day” events where vitamin supplements are provided to strengthen children’s immune systems. Packaged foods fortified with extra nutrients are also out of reach, both physically and financially. However, this farmer now has a tool in her hands that will help bridge these gaps: a cost-effective, innovative approach to growing food that already includes much-needed vitamins and minerals.
This breakthrough is known as biofortification – using traditional crop breeding techniques to make plants, and the food they eventually become, healthier. When this concept was first pioneered twenty years ago, sceptics predicted that it could not be done. Fortunately, two decades of research have demonstrated that these crops can deliver micronutrients to the farm families who need them the most. Today, 10 million people in rural household are growing and eating biofortified foods, and peer-reviewed clinical trial results show improved nutritional status. We now have a historic opportunity to support a fast-growing global movement to scale up this intervention to reach millions more.
The Green Revolution boosted calories but not balanced nutrition
Half a century ago, the Green Revolution in agriculture greatly increased the yield per hectare of the staple crops most widely consumed by low-income people around the world, such as rice, wheat, and maize. This was a remarkable achievement, but it took several more years before health experts realised that a full plate of starchy food did not prevent children from going blind from vitamin A deficiency or from suffering the lifelong effects of stunted growth due to a lack of zinc. Women suffering from anaemia were still giving birth to underweight babies whose start in life was permanently compromised. Ideally, these nutritional requirements should be met by a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and protein. With prices for those much-needed foods currently out of reach of the poorest, however, we must empower them with affordable solutions they can control. Biofortification offers that promise.
Over the long term, biofortification will be one of the nutritional interventions that will make communities and entire countries not only healthier, but more prosperous and resilient. Increased micronutrient intake improves cognitive function and makes workers physically stronger. Writ large, this improves overall productivity and GDP. Prevention is always a better investment than trying to fix problems down the road. By the time an undernourished child turns two years old, it is already too late. Better nutrition not only saves and improves lives, it saves money. The Copenhagen Consensus, a gathering every four years of top economists from around the world, consistently ranks micronutrient interventions as the best use of public funds.
Nutrition meets agriculture
At the crossroads of agriculture and nutrition, biofortification has been endorsed by the G-7 and embraced by health and agriculture ministries in countries like Colombia, Nigeria and Bangladesh. Biofortified sweet potatoes high in vitamin A have even been grown in the White House kitchen garden in the USA to demonstrate their importance in combating micronutrient deficiency. Researchers on every continent are developing new varieties that will not only improve nutrition, but be resistant to drought, heat, viruses and pests. Most importantly, this innovation has been adopted enthusiastically by smallholder farmers who not only grow and eat these crops, but share their biofortified seeds and vines with eager neighbouring farmers. Biofortification is also naturally sustainable. Once these beneficial traits are bred into the crops, they remain there permanently.
In Rwanda, high-yielding beans rich in additional iron are becoming so popular that they will soon capture 50% of the market. Like other subsistence crops, beans tend to be grown by women (men usually take over the growing of cash crops). These biofortified beans are helping women farmers raise healthier families and improve their livelihoods. Rwandan farmers have already sold some of their surplus high-iron beans to the World Food Programme’s local procurement initiative, known as Purchase for Progress. Donor countries should consider doing this wherever possible, providing an incentive to smallholder farmers to grow even more biofortified crops and expand their nutritional benefits more widely.
Taking biofortification global
The European Community and other donors have wisely invested in biofortification, enabling it to move from research to results. Developing countries are providing leadership to bring biofortified crop varieties to their farmers. The private sector is engaged, including seed companies in Africa and India. Food processing companies are considering options to source these crops in their products.
What is needed now is to support scale-up to make biofortification truly global. Biofortified crop varieties have been approved by national agricultural research authorities in 25 countries and are being tested in 43. This is good news, but there is a hitch. Without sufficient funds to accelerate seed multiplication and other start-up costs, developing countries cannot expand access quickly and broadly enough to meet demand. Donors can help build capacity, strengthen food systems, and monitor impact. Private and non-governmental partners can introduce these nutritious varieties into their operations, reaching more people in more countries.
Nine billion people by 2050 means two billion more people to feed, and not just feed – to nourish. They will benefit from access to the full spectrum of nutritional interventions, including sustained breastfeeding, vitamin supplementation, fortified foods, and dietary diversity. Biofortification is an additional weapon with the potential to impact the people who need it the most.
About the author
Thom Sprenger is Global Head of Strategic Alliances for HarvestPlus, an international program that seeks to improve nutrition and public health. HarvestPlus is part of the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH). CGIAR is a global agriculture research partnership for a food secure future. HarvestPlus is coordinated by two CGIAR centers, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).
Thom served in India and Yemen with the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was the first manager of the Amsterdam Initiative against Malnutrition/GAIN, and also worked at the BoP Innovation Center and the Munich-based Institute for Development Strategy. He holds a M.Sc. from Wageningen University, with specialisations in Environmental Economics and Public Administration.