SIEM REAP, Cambodia — By the end of 2018, more than 340 biofortified crop varieties rich in vitamin A, iron or zinc had been released in over 40 countries. HarvestPlus, a global agricultural research program part of the Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centre or CGIAR that promotes the use of biofortified food crops in addressing hunger and malnutrition, aims to reach 1 billion people with biofortified food by 2030.
But to do that, the program and its partners need to introduce biofortified crops to more countries and convince farmers and consumers on the benefits of taking up biofortified food — which is not exactly easy.
Keys to success
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HarvestPlus’ experience in countries provides some insights on how the uptake of biofortified crop varieties can be successful. These include government support, farmer buy-in, and education, Lynn Brown, senior adviser at HarvestPlus, told Devex at the Global Child Nutrition Forum in December.
In Rwanda, distributing high-iron bean varieties as part of a broader government agricultural improvement strategy proved a success. The beans were introduced in 2010, and by 2018, the program found that high-iron bean varieties account for 20% of the beans produced in the country, and about 1.8 million people, or 15% of the population, were consuming them.
“One of the biggest indicators I saw … [was] everywhere I went there'd be these shiny silver roofs. And I was like, 'wow, everybody's reroofed their houses,’” Brown said. In addition, she found that many farming households were purchasing health insurance with their increased income.
“That's not just from the high-iron beans, but the high-iron beans were one part of this overall agricultural improvement strategy of government,” she said.
A randomized controlled efficacy study among iron-deficient young women aged 18-27 years old in Rwanda also showed improved cognitive performance, such as improved memory, with regular consumption of high-iron beans for a period of about 5 months.
Working with farmers as early as the breeding stages meanwhile helps increase buy-in by ensuring the crop varieties eventually released have the qualities farmers look for, whether it’s high yielding, pest resistant or drought tolerant.
“When we produce our seeds, there cannot be a trade-off. You cannot be saying, ‘well these have got more iron, but they don't yield as much.’ It's got to have both,” Brown said. “[The seeds have] got to perform better than what [farmers] are growing now. Otherwise, there's no incentive for them to switch.”
A network of breeding efforts in Africa targets the consumption of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes to decrease vitamin A deficiency. Devex travels to Mozambique to witness efforts on the ground.
But educating farmers, particularly women farmers, about the nutritional benefits of biofortified crops could help increase their uptake. In Uganda for example, education means providing women with the knowledge of the benefits of vitamin A and providing them with orange flesh sweet potato vines rich in vitamin A that they can take home and plant.
“My understanding is that … in Africa it's often a husband is allocating land to his wife. So what happened was that largely the sweet potato vines worked so well that there were reports that men were giving women more land to increase the production of the orange flesh sweet potatoes,” Brown said.
Knowledge of biofortified crops’ nutrition benefits also increases acceptance in the population, despite changes in crop color. In Zimbabwe, schoolchildren who’ve tried maize enriched with vitamin A liked it, despite its orange color. In a study conducted in a rural area in Ghana, participants preferred making the traditional dish called “kenkey” using white or yellow-colored maize, but changed preference after learning of the benefits of orange-colored vitamin A-rich maize varieties.
The challenge of seed markets and funding
As with most interventions, money matters when it comes to scaling up the dissemination and use of biofortified crop varieties.
“At the end of the day, whatever we're doing, I mean, whether we're doing school feeding, whether we're doing community nutrition, whether we're doing the dissemination of biofortified crop varieties, they all cost something,” Brown said.
The problem however is that governments often have limited budgets amid competing priorities. Governments, for instance, may not have enough budget to provide agricultural advisory to farmers. Private sector meanwhile may not be so keen on providing agricultural extension services for free.
“The private sector won't provide anything that people can't pay for. I mean it's the private sector, not the charity sector,” Brown said.
HarvestPlus would want to take more crops to more countries and scale up faster, according to Brown, but the organization has a limited amount of funding to do that.
Another challenge is time. Getting enough quantities of biofortified crops and having a viable market for them could take years. Brown explained that agriculture isn’t like a garment factory that can run 24/7 to produce and create and meet growing demand.
“You've got to plant [the seed]. It might be an annual crop. Maybe you could do two crops a year. Maybe you can't, so you might have to wait a year,” she said.
Speaking to Devex ahead of his retirement as HarvestPlus CEO, Howarth Bouis explains why biofortification is such a promising nutrition intervention and the challenges that remain to achieve scale.
Brown said HarvestPlus and partners are working to develop the seed industry to make sure farmers have access to good quality seeds. And they also try to work along the food chain, to discover where the varieties could be used in food product development. In Mozambique, for example, they realized that bread is a staple food item, and were able to convince several bakers to switch to using sweet potato flour rich in vitamin A.
“We're working at every single stage to try and take [biofortified food] all the way through,” Brown said.
Editor’s note: The reporter traveled to Siem Reap, Cambodia, with support from the Global Child Nutrition Foundation. Devex maintains full editorial control of the content.