Staple Crop Biofortification Might Be the Key to Solving Hidden Hunger

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SEATTLE — An estimated two billion people suffer from a nutrient deficiency or what is known as “hidden hunger.” In the past, this has been typically combatted with pill supplements; however, staple crop biofortification is a potentially more sustainable alternative to help those in developing countries acquire essential vitamins and minerals at an affordable price.

Hidden Hunger

Populations in developing countries who depend on subsistence farming often fall victim to an unvaried diet that lacks essential nutrients like Vitamin A, Iron and Zinc. These nutrients are necessary for normal cognitive and functional development. Undernourishment puts people are a greater risk of contracting chronic diseases that drastically reduce the quality of life and increase the prevalence of severe morbidity and high mortality rates.

Subsistence farming families are particularly susceptible to hidden hunger due to the lack of variation in their diet. It is expensive to buy diverse fruits and vegetables with high nutritional value, so those families are forced to consume cheaper staple crops that are not as nutritious. In 2013, 29 percent of children in low- to mid-income countries had Vitamin A deficiency (VAD), which can often result in blindness and other functional issues.

The population is expected to grow to nearly 10 billion by 2050. With that kind of growth, the problem of hidden hunger will only be exacerbated. It is often difficult for crops to absorb minerals like iron and zinc from the soil and transform them into nutritional value. Staple crop biofortification would enhance the density of nutrients in crops like wheat, maize, rice, cassava and sweet potatoes without compromising their other traits. This ensures that those in developing countries acquire the nutrients they need to thrive.

What is Staple Crop Biofortification?

Staple crop biofortification is steadily becoming a recognized solution to solving the problem of hidden hunger along with pill supplementation and genetically modified crops. However, biofortification should not be confused with genetic modification. Unlike genetically modified crops, staple crop biofortification is achieved through conventional breeding techniques to enhance a crop’s micronutrients content above that of a standard crop. This nutrition revolution started in the 1990s, but improvements in biotechnology have increased the rate at which biofortified crops are being bred.

HarvestPlus is a pioneer in staple crop biofortification. The company has been active in creating biofortified crops in 30 countries, and that number expected to double in the coming years. HarvetPlus CEO Howarth Bouis believes that biofortification is the most cost-effective of all solutions to improve nutrition because once you have developed the crop, “the plants do the work…you don’t have any recurrent costs,” unlike pill supplementation. Although agricultural research can be quite costly initially, biofortified crops do not cost more for consumers than the standard crop, so minerals and vitamins are essentially cost-free.

Biofortification Around the World

Staple crop biofortification has already seen successes in many developing countries. Research has shown that biofortification has increased the consumption of Vitamin A, Iron and Zinc in target countries and is earning its right as a viable solution to hidden hunger.

To combat VAD, farmers in Mozambique and Uganda have adopted sweet potatoes fortified with Vitamin A. In a four-year study, 24,000 households adopted these sweet potatoes with encouraging results. General health and children’s health were greatly improved with a reduction in diarrhea in children under five. There was also a significant improvement in visual health in these populations.

Anemia has a disproportionate prevalence in Rwanda, particularly in its female population. Just four months after the introduction of iron-fortified beans into their diet, these women showed significant increases in hemoglobin and blood iron. Iron-fortified pearl millet showed the same results for secondary school children in Maharashtra, India after just four months of consumption.

Challenges to Staple Crop Biofortification

Research and studies have shown that biofortification works. However, there are some barriers that have slowed down the spread of these life-saving innovations. There is some skepticism surrounding its efficacy since biofortified crops generally look the same as standard crops. It is necessary to get research establishments, companies and farmers on board with the idea of biofortified crops. Agricultural research establishments are hesitant to overhaul all of their existing crops and make them all biofortified. It would require structural change and significant funding.

Challenges exist at the household level as well. It is difficult to deliver these seeds of biofortified staple crops at affordable prices to those in developing countries where infrastructure is already weak. Additionally, there is a general lack of awareness and education of staple crop biofortification. This creates obstacles to enticing farmers to buy these new, more nutritious crops.

HarvestPlus Around the World

HarvestPlus has tried to address these issues of delivery in several ways. In Zambia, Vitamin A- fortified maize would drastically improve the health of the population; however, there were many barriers to distributing the seeds. Private companies charged with distributing seeds would sell them at prices too high for farmers to afford. So, HarvestPlus put in regulations that capped the price at which they were sold. It also created a program called “Farmer Input Support Program” that would help poorer farmers get these seeds. It was incredibly effective, increasing the amount of distributed maize seeds between the first and second year by 400 percent.

To increase awareness of biofortified maize, HarvestPlus worked with farmer’s unions and government services to spread information. The company also used social marketing campaigns and advertised on television, radio and newspapers to increase acceptance and awareness. HarvestPlus was also keen on the idea that it would need to create a market for farmers to sell their surplus biofortified products, so it linked farmers to major grain buyers.

Staple crop biofortification may be the key to fighting hidden hunger. There are still significant barriers to a full overhaul of regular crops with biofortified varieties. However, with passionate companies like HarvestPlus at the helm, hidden hunger may well become a thing of the past.

Julian Mok
Photo: Flickr

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