Better crops for better nutrition

By Howarth Bouis 23 July 2015

A farmer from Burera District in northern Rwanda is pleased with her harvest of beans that are rich in iron. Photo by: HarvestPlus

When I started my career as an economist 30 years ago, I had no idea that I would eventually work with a global network of partners to develop a new intervention to tackle micronutrient deficiency. That problem was not fully understood then. The Green Revolution’s increased crop yields made it easier for the poor to fill their plates with food staples to keep from going hungry. More calories were assumed to mean better nutrition. Today, we know better. The threat posed by “hidden hunger” from inadequate intake of vitamin A, iodine, iron, zinc, and other minerals and vitamins continues to undermine the health of millions of people worldwide.

My research in the 1980s focused on how low-income people in the Philippines spent their limited food budget. My colleagues and I discovered that better-off consumers ate the same amount of rice as their poorer compatriots, but were also able to purchase the fruits, vegetables and protein that remained out of reach for the majority. This disparity led to serious problems. Low-income families whose diet consisted primarily of rice lacked the micronutrients that could protect them from blindness, anemia, compromised immunity and the lifelong effects of stunted growth. This problem persists today for families around the world who depend on food like rice, maize, wheat, or cassava for most of their meals.

Organizations like GAIN have made tremendous strides in tackling these deficiencies. Micronutrient supplements and food fortification are improving health around the world. Our shared ideal remains a balanced, diverse, nutritious diet for all. However, many rural families in developing countries still subsist on the starchy staple foods that they grow on small plots of land.  They often have limited access to important interventions like fortified food and supplements.  

Fortunately, these farmers now have an additional way to improve their nutrition: growing food staples that now include significantly more of much-needed vitamins and minerals. This breakthrough is known as biofortification — using conventional crop breeding techniques to make crops, and food, healthier. Today, 10 million people in rural households are growing and eating biofortified foods, and with partners, we are scaling up to reach millions more. Because they are high yielding, biofortified crops are attractive to farmers to grow. They are also affordable, as biofortified food generally sell for the same price in the market as nonbiofortified varieties.

How does this process work? First, plant breeders screen thousands of different types of crop seed stored in global seed banks to discover varieties with naturally higher amounts of micronutrients. They create new high-yielding biofortified crop varieties that are also resistant to disease, pests, heat and drought. Working with both international research institutes and national agricultural research systems, researchers have been able to develop, test and release varieties suited to local conditions and consumer tastes. To date, biofortified crops, including vitamin A orange sweet potato, iron bean, vitamin A cassava, vitamin A maize, iron pearl millet, zinc rice and zinc wheat are being grown in 27 countries. Approval of additional varieties is pending in 43 countries.

Once consumers have access to these healthier food, the next step is to measure their nutritional impact. Biofortified crops are designed to have higher levels of micronutrients to help meet the dietary needs of women and children. Our goal is to provide at least half of the daily requirement, and much higher in some cases for vitamin A, iron or zinc. The good news: Peer-reviewed clinical trials are already demonstrating that biofortified crops improve nutritional status in children and women. For example, iron deficiency was reversed in schoolchildren in India who ate bread made from high-iron pearl millet. In another study, young children in Mozambique who ate orange sweet potato rich in vitamin A suffered fewer and briefer bouts of diarrhea, one of the leading killers of children worldwide. More nutrition research is underway on other crops.

While biofortified staples can help provide a significant amount of certain essential vitamins or minerals, it’s important also to promote a diversity of nutritious foods that can provide other essential nutrients.

Donors have responded to this opportunity by investing in scaled up delivery of these nutritious crops. Ministers of agriculture and health in Africa, Asia and Latin America are actively seeking more funding for a growing array of biofortified crops in their countries. They are also incorporating biofortification in their national health and agriculture strategies.

Biofortification complements the other important tools needed to combat malnutrition. Collaboration across all of these interventions will translate into lives saved and improved. I am excited about the launch of Future Fortified, and I appreciate the opportunity to join GAIN and its partners in Tanzania in September for the first global summit on food fortification. Together we can improve the health and livelihoods of millions of people.

Future Fortified is a special online series exploring the impact and importance of food fortification to meet global development objectives. Join Devex — and our partner GAIN — in the conversation using #FutureFortified.

About the author

Howdybouis
Howarth Bouis

Howarth Bouis is the founder and director of HarvestPlus, a global research and implementation program that develops and disseminates nutrient-rich food crops to reduce hidden hunger. Bouis has been advocating widely for improving nutrition through food based approaches since 1995 when he directed the CGIAR Micronutrients Project. He began his career at the International Food Policy Research Institute in 1982. Before focusing on biofortification, his research concentrated on understanding how economic factors affect food demand and nutrition outcomes, particularly in Asia. Prior to entering graduate school, he spent three years in the Philippines with Volunteers in Asia.


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