Howarth Bouis, former CEO at HarvestPlus. Photo by: Joslin Isaacson / HarvestPlus / CC BY-NC

WASHINGTON — Former HarvestPlus CEO Howarth Bouis wants to let the plants do the work.

Bouis has dedicated his career to increasing biofortification of crops around the world, a gradual process that has resulted in better nutrition outcomes at a fixed cost. More crops — and by extension, hungry people — could benefit from biofortification, he said. He hopes to see more biofortification of the crop supply to add essential vitamins and minerals that people otherwise can’t afford to eat.

“Over time it’s sort of like putting fluoride in the water system: You just take over a higher and higher percentage,” Bouis said.

Bouis founded HarvestPlus, a global nonprofit agricultural research program that develops and promotes biofortified crops, in 2003. He won the World Food Prize in 2016 for that work and said that even though there’s evidence proving the process doesn’t reduce yields, it can still be difficult for both agricultural producers and consumers to warm to it.

“Agriculture research can cost tens of millions of dollars, but you develop the crops, you get them in the system, you figure out the science, and then the plants do the work.”

— Howarth Bouis, former CEO, HarvestPlus

As he prepared to retire from HarvestPlus in June, Bouis sat down with Devex to talk about why biofortification is such a cost-effective nutrition intervention and the challenges that remain to achieving it to scale.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

In educating people on the merits of biofortification, is it important to distinguish biofortified crops from GMOs? How do you do that?

You can produce biofortified crops using either technique. You can use transgenic techniques or you can use conventional breeding techniques. We decided not to use transgenic techniques because of political constraints. If we were to invest our funding in GMOs, it might just sit on the shelf. Probably it would have just sat on the shelf.

We’ve released the crops in more than 30 countries, we think we’ll have 60 countries in the next 4 or 5 years. And none of that would have happened probably if we’ve used just exclusively transgenic techniques, so we decided to use conventional techniques. We don’t think that transgenics are dangerous. All the political constraints I find very frustrating. We just decided that’s the way the world is and we’ll just use conventional breeding.

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A lot of people just assume when you show up talking about biofortification you’re all about GMOs and so, of course, we have to explain as we’re making our presentation that we only use conventional breeding techniques and people say “oh,” and then you move on.

Why is biofortification a solution to growing malnutrition around the globe?

Plant breeding is addressing the underlying problem. The underlying problem is that the food systems, the agricultural systems, are not producing the minerals and vitamins people need at an affordable cost. So the short term solutions to fix the problem are supplementation and food fortification.

But in the long term, you can use biofortification as a very cost-effective and sustainable way of helping to reduce those deficiencies. We started the plant breeding in 2003 and we have a lot of breadth right now. It’s available in a lot of countries but it’s only over time that we’re going to scale up, that we’re going to have the depth. If we do achieve the depth there’s very little you can do on the planet that’s more cost-effective than biofortification. That’s what our niche is.

What makes biofortification so cost-effective?

When the nutrition community found out that these minerals and vitamin deficiencies were such a huge public health problem, they started giving out vitamin A capsules. The research showed that giving a preschool child one capsule every 6 months would reduce preschool mortality by 23%.

Now, 20 years later, 10 billion vitamin A capsules have been given out. And what are you going to do over the next 20 years? You’re going to give out another 20 billion vitamin A capsules. It’s the same with commercial food fortification. It’s like with Iodized salt, you have an annual recurring cost per person for everybody in the nation. When you multiply each year, you keep multiplying even if it’s only a few cents per year per person, so you have these recurrent costs. It adds up to billions over decades.

Agriculture research can cost tens of millions of dollars, but you develop the crops, you get them in the system, you figure out the science, and then the plants do the work. And once you get the plants to do the work, you don’t have any recurrent costs. If you introduce the crops in the system and you only take over 1% of the total supply it’s probably not that cost-effective. But if you take over 99% of the total supply, it’s just about one of the most cost-effective things you can do.

That’s our challenge now, what percentage of the total supply can we take over. Why are we optimistic that we can take over the total supply? What happens is that agricultural research centers, public agricultural research, private seed companies, they keep producing better and better varieties over time. Farmers give up the varieties they’re currently using and they adopt the varieties that are higher-yielding and more profitable. And all we’re doing is piggybacking on those. They not only improve the yields and profitability, at the same time they add the vitamins and the minerals in the breeding process.

What challenges remain to achieving scale for biofortification?

One of the huge challenges is we’re still getting to the point where the agricultural research establishments are saying “yes, we will make all of our crops biofortified.” We’ve made a lot of headway with that, the donors have agreed to do it; our centers that do the public agricultural research for developing countries, they agree now that it’s a good idea. They’ve seen all the evidence.

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The donors are starting to fund it. But it takes 10 years. It’s a big effort to make your whole breeding program biofortified and will the donors continue to sustain the funding that’s required for that? That’s the first challenge, on the supply side.

The other challenge, on the demand side, is when you have a pro-vitamin A crop you change the color. Africans eat white maize. We want all the maize to be orange 25 years from now. We have to get consumers to understand why orange is better than white. It costs the same when they go to the market, they don’t have to pay more. They get vitamin A at no extra cost to the consumer. To change people’s habits takes time and effort to make people understand why they should prefer orange.

Why isn’t this being adopted everywhere? What are the main arguments against widespread biofortification?

When we first started in 2003, [people asked] “is this important? Will it work? Prove to me that when a person eats a biofortified crop their nutrition status improves. I’m not sure that that’s true.” So we had to commission 14 efficacy trials where we feed people a control group and an intervention group. We’ve shown people that yes, they do improve. They even show improved functional outcomes, better cognitive ability, lower mortality, when they eat the biofortified crop.

We’ve published those studies in the nutrition literature. So people say “oh, they do help people don’t they?” The plant breeders, in the beginning, said there might be a trade-off when we breed for better nutrient density, we’ll get lower yields and you won’t be able to get both at the same time. And we have. You just have to invest some funding in a bigger breeding program and keep getting higher and higher yields and add nutrient density at the same time.

The final thing was “can we get farmers to adopt?” In the case of the orange crops, Africans will never touch orange maize. They strongly prefer white. People would laugh at you until you had some product that you could actually go out and convince people to try it and they liked it. So there’s all those sources of skepticism on the breeding, on the nutritional, and on the consumer.

How are biofortified crops poised to meet a growing food need along with climate change?

Generally in agriculture, apart from climate change, what’s been happening is you’ve had a lot of yield increases for the cereals. And cereal prices have gone down or at least remained constant. But for vegetables, fruit, animal products, those prices have doubled, tripled over the last 40-50 years, so it’s gotten more and more expensive to try to have dietary quality. That’s been the general trend. That’s the main underlying reason why you have so much vitamin and mineral deficiencies. It’s much harder for the poor to afford dietary quality.

Now, overlay climate change on top of that. This makes it worse. The agricultural production isn’t increasing as fast as it could because of climate change, so that just makes the prices rise more even faster. That’s the first effect. The second thing that research is showing now is that carbon dioxide levels are going to be elevated or are elevating already in the atmosphere. Research shows that mineral densities in crops goes down as CO2 levels rise because it helps the vegetative part of the crop grow.

When a consumer buys the staple food crop that’s biofortified, it’s the same price as the non-biofortified. So at zero extra cost to the consumer, they add minerals and vitamins to their diets. That counteracts the rise in the nonstaple food prices and it obviously also counteracts the density, the CO2 is making it less dense and the biofortification making it denser.

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh is a Senior Reporter at Devex. She has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.