CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts — Eight hundred and five million people in the world do not have enough food to lead a healthy life. Poor nutrition causes nearly half of the deaths among children under 5, while 13.5 percent of the population in developing countries is undernourished. With these stark statistics, there is still an urgent need to step up the efforts to address the nutritional concerns of the world. Apart from policy, aid and education, scientific research is resulting in major strides toward providing solutions and innovations in nutrition.
The Green Revolution is one of science’s most successful initiatives. Research done on selective breeding made several regions in developing nations self-sufficient in wheat production. A dwarf variety of wheat which focuses on kernel production rather than the long unusable stems, has resulted in the production of more grains per acre. Similar work has increased the productivity of rice farming. The doubling of the rice and wheat yields have successfully staved off hunger crises.
In India for instance, high yielding seeds of wheat, rice, corn and millets, along with better farming practices saved the country from chronic famine and food shortages. The Green Revolution in 1960 and subsequently again in 1980, raised food production in India from 55 million tonnes at independence in 1947 to 250 million tonnes in 2011. Plant genetics still have much to contribute to this effort. Making plants more durable in severe weather, flooding and water scarcity, while making them more resistant to certain pests will undoubtedly help increase production.
Currently, the world faces the “hidden hunger” problem. People lack access to essential micronutrients even when they consume adequate calories. Fortification of foods with vitamins and minerals after they are harvested is one approach to incorporating the necessary nutrients into the diet.
Salt iodization is probably the most well known example. The technique was introduced in the 1920s in Switzerland and has since then spread across the world. Iodine deficiency can cause a number of development disorders and miscarriages during pregnancy. Over the last 30 years, iodized salt has been the most widely used strategy to control and eliminate iodine deficiency related disorders. Fortification of cereals with vitamin B complex and specifically, wheat with folic acid has become widespread in the Americas.
This may sound easy but in reality it is quite technically challenging. Fortification has to be accomplished in such a manner that the micronutrients are not lost during washing and cooking of the foods, that they remain stable during transport and finally that they do not affect the taste of the food item.
In rice, for instance, fortification is particularly challenging. DSM, a global science based company active in health, nutrition and materials, has developed a method to encapsulate micronutrients into kernels by a hot extrusion process that preserves the micronutrients during the cooking process. NutriRice looks, tastes and behaves the same as regular rice. It has shown promising results in efficacy studies in China and Bangladesh.
In a similar vein, Micronutrient Initiative, a leading NGO, has developed a fortification device that can work with traditional water mills in rural Nepal in a manner that requires no electricity or additional work. Powered solely by gravity, this device automatically adds correct quantities of iron, folic acid and vitamin A to milled grains.
It is inventions and improvements like these that give unique value to scientific research in the struggle to improve the health of the global population. More funding for such research would go a long way to providing solutions that would work hand in hand with other poverty-alleviation and public health programs.
– Mithila Rajagopal