Nutrition, agriculture and innovation: The road ahead

Women in Zambia cook a nutritious meal of nshima — a local staple dish made from maize flour — using vitamin A “orange” maize. In addition to providing consumers with up to 40 percent of their daily vitamin A needs, vitamin A maize offers more competitive yields compared to traditional varieties. Photo by: Libby Edwards / HarvestPlus

A few weeks ago, I was humbled to learn that the World Food Prize had been awarded to four leaders in the biofortification movement, including myself. As I know my fellow laureates would agree, this honor truly deserves to be shared by the hundreds of research and implementing partners who have made this success possible by working together to reach millions of people in farming families in developing countries.

Biofortification is the process of naturally enriching staple foods such as rice, wheat and corn with vitamins and minerals, which benefits low-income subsistence farmers who rely on these inexpensive but not very nutritious staple foods for much of their families’ diet.

Micronutrient deficiencies undermine the health of 2 billion — yes, billion — people worldwide and are responsible for almost half of all preventable maternal and child deaths each year.

Ideally, everyone would have equal access to diverse, nourishing foods such as fruits, vegetables and protein. Other important nutritional interventions include micronutrient supplements and powders and commercially fortified food.

“The road ahead may be a little easier now that biofortification has earned this recognition, but there is more work to be done.”

— Howarth Bouis, founder and director of HarvestPlus

Unfortunately, these lifesaving tools still remain out of reach for millions of vulnerable children and women. Biofortification is one of the tools that can address this gap.

This simple idea — uniting nutrition and agriculture — seemed too good to be true when it was proposed about 25 years ago. Skeptics worried that it simply would not be feasible, and that farmers and consumers would be hesitant to accept these new crops, especially the vitamin A-rich foods whose color turns yellow or orange from extra beta carotene.

This story has a happy ending — or rather, this chapter of the story, since more work lies ahead. Today, more than 15 million people are now growing and eating these healthier crops. More than 100 varieties of 12 micronutrient-enriched crops are available in 30 countries, and are being tested in an additional 25 countries. Peer-reviewed clinical trial data demonstrate that high-iron pearl millet reverses iron deficiency, and vitamin A sweet potato dramatically reduces the incidence and duration of diarrhea in young children.  

Ministers of health, agriculture and education around the world are clamoring for more varieties, and the World Bank is funding an increasing number of biofortification projects. Most importantly, farmers themselves, many of them mothers who care deeply about their children’s well-being, are eagerly adopting these new varieties. Only four years after high-iron beans were introduced in Rwanda, 3 of 10 farm households have grown one of the 10 varieties that have been introduced and that now account for an estimated 10 percent of total bean supply — a remarkable outcome in so short a time.

What made this progress possible?

Initially, few were willing to bet on biofortification. I remain forever grateful to one visionary supporter at the Danish International Development Agency who persuaded his leadership to provide funding that kept us on life support during a decade of increasing scientific momentum but still insufficient funding.

The biofortification movement received a tremendous boost when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the U.K. Department for International Development generously invested a dozen years ago. We also appreciate funding from Canada, the European Union, and from the United States Agency for International Development through its Feed the Future initiative.

Behind these statistics are real families, such as Brenda and her son Aron, and Esther and her son Rodgers, whom I met in Uganda, and whose story is told very movingly in Roger Thurow’s new book “The First 1,000 Days.” These pioneering farmers are growing vitamin A sweet potato and feeding them to their children, whose health has measurably improved as a result.

We applaud the U.S. Congress for its recent passage of the Global Food Security Act, which will strengthen these and other efforts going forward. Biofortification also contributes to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly those related to ensuring access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food for the poor and people in vulnerable situations and reducing maternal mortality and preventable deaths of young children.  

It’s much too soon to rest on our laurels, however. Our ambitious goal is to reach 1 billion people by 2030 — which is still only half of the 2 billion who suffer from micronutrient malnutrition. To get there, we and our partners will need even greater engagement by governments, researchers, private sector actors, civil society organizations farmers, and families.  

Several countries have led the way by including biofortification in their national agriculture, health, nutrition, and education strategies and budgets. Biofortified foods must also be integrated into school feeding programs and ante- and post-natal counseling. National crop breeding programs are increasingly including biofortified varieties in their ongoing efforts to improve the seeds made available to farmers already struggling with challenges such as climate change, diseases, and pests.

Regional seed companies and food processors are also beginning to include biofortified planting material and food into their portfolios. Implementing partners such as World Vision are already scaling up biofortification in their agriculture and nutrition projects, and new partners are increasingly getting involved. These development practitioners are crucial to accelerating access by sharing information about nutrition, training lead farmers and mothers, holding farmer field days, and generating evidence and lessons learned that can be shared globally.  

Success has many fathers, as the old saying goes — and many mothers as well. My fellow World Food Prize laureates and I may be the “faces” of biofortification, but many organizations and individuals are really responsible for taking an idea and turning it into reality — an innovative, transformative tool to save and improve lives. The road ahead may be a little easier now that biofortification has earned this recognition, but there is more work to be done. We look forward to partnering with even more stakeholders to bring biofortification to the millions of families who can benefit.

For more Devex coverage on global health, visit Focus On: Global Health

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

About the author

  • 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.