Cultivating nutrition: Fortified crops and good nutrition in the first 1,000 days

A woman holds sweet potato fortified with vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency accounts for more than 600,000 deaths globally among children under 5. Photo by: HarvestPlus / CC BY-NC

In a rural village in northern Uganda, Aron, a bright-eyed and playful 15-month-old toddler, eagerly gobbled up a lunch of sweet potatoes and greens. His mother, Brenda, a smallholder farmer like many women in sub-Saharan Africa, cultivated and harvested this meal in her nearby fields.

These sweet potatoes, though, weren’t the ordinary sweet potatoes of Africa, which have white or yellow flesh that provide calories but little in the way of nutrients. These are biofortified, betacarotene-enriched orange sweet potatoes, developed by Ugandan scientists, and being disseminated by an organization called HarvestPlus to combat Vitamin A deficiency.

Vitamin A deficiency affects 200 million women and children worldwide, and is associated with increased risk of death among children, as well as vision disorders which can lead to blindness. Vitamin A deficiency accounts for more than 600,000 deaths globally among children under 5. In Uganda, about one-third of children under 5 and women of childbearing age suffer from vitamin A deficiency. While vitamin A supplements are a treatment option, they are costly, and the supply and distribution can be unreliable, particularly in rural areas.

Biofortification has opened up a new front in the assault on hidden hunger — a lack of micronutrients that isn’t as visible as chronic hunger but is just as devastating. While more than 800 million people worldwide are chronically hungry, more than twice as many people are estimated to be micronutrient-deficient, lacking the vitamins and minerals (though they may be getting enough calories) necessary to grow, learn and earn.

Micronutrients are especially important during the 1,000 days from a woman’s pregnancy to her child’s second birthday. The effects of poor nutrition in this time can be irreversible and last a lifetime. Malnutrition during the 1,000 days leads to stunted physical and mental growth: adults who were undernourished as children are more likely to contract chronic diseases, and earn an average of 20 percent less in the labor market than adults who were not. Malnutrition is responsible for nearly half of all deaths of children under 5 — about 3 million deaths each year.

For decades, micronutrient deficiencies have been combatted by fortifying staple processed foods like salt and flour with vital nutrients (such as iodine and iron), or by supplementing diets with iron and folic acid tablets or vitamin pills or capsules.

Biofortification gets the crops themselves to do the work of delivering essential vitamins and minerals. Through standard breeding methods, HarvestPlus and its partners increase the level of nutrients already found in these crops.

The orange sweet potato is just one of the biofortified crops promoted by HarvestPlus that farmers like Brenda grow, consume and feed to their children. Research has found that these sweet potatoes can significantly reduce vitamin A deficiency among women and young children, and can also reduce the prevalence and duration of diarrhea among children. A study in Mozambique showed that orange sweet potatoes were providing 80 percent of children’s total vitamin A intake in areas where they were grown.

Brenda also grows biofortified beans that are high in iron. Iron deficiency, which leads to anemia, is the most prevalent micronutrient deficiency in the world: the World Health Organization estimates that 1 in 2 preschool-aged children and pregnant women in developing countries is iron-deficient. Severe anemia increases a woman’s risk of dying in childbirth, and iron deficiency during childhood and adolescence impairs mental development and learning capacity. Early research has found that the biofortified beans developed by HarvestPlus can provide up to 45 percent of daily nutritional iron requirements.

Other biofortified crops developed by HarvestPlus and its partners include: vitamin A-enriched cassava and maize; beans and millet fortified with iron; and rice and wheat fortified with zinc. These crops are delivering important micronutrients to farmers and their families in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Nigeria, Zambia, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

In Uganda, Brenda ate her orange sweet potatoes and high-iron beans while pregnant with Aron and while she was breastfeeding him, and they were the first solid foods he ate. They are now a favorite staple of his diet. Brenda believes these crops have kept her son growing strong during his first 1,000 days, and can help him conquer the physical and mental stunting that is prevalent among children in Uganda.

In Roger’s new book, coming in spring 2016, he will tell Brenda and Aron’s story, as well as the stories of mothers and children in India, Guatemala, and Chicago, chronicling their 1,000 days and the essential role of good nutrition.

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.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Roger Thurow

    Roger Thurow joined The Chicago Council on Global Affairs as senior fellow on global agriculture and food policy after 30 years at The Wall Street Journal, 20 of them as a foreign correspondent. Thurow is an expert on agricultural development, and the author of "ENOUGH" (with Scott Kilman) and "The Last Hunger Season."
  • Louise Iverson

    Louise Iverson is a research associate at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, where she shepherds the council’s annual policy report on global food security. Previously, she worked in development programming in Central America. Iverson holds a master of public policy degree from the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and a bachelor's degree from the University of Minnesota.

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