Biofortification: Key Answer to Micronutrient Deficiency
and Global Hunger
Dr. Mohammed Sa’id Berigari, Senior Soil and Environmental
Scientist, USA, 01/21/2013
The author of this article has endeavored to portray
the role of some outstanding scientists, together with that of the donor foundations
and international organizations, in saving human lives from the number one
killer worldwide which is micronutrient malnutrition or “hidden hunger”. Their efforts exemplify the power of creative
ideas when backed up by generous resources to tackle such a critical world
problem that was recognized many years after the Green Revolution. It is a
remarkable example as a guide to others in pursuing similar approaches in
solving critical problems. The developing nations in particular have a moral
obligation to bear some responsibility to allocating enough human and material
resources to identify critical problems whenever and wherever they may occur
within their boundaries. Then scientists can intensify their research, if
necessary in cooperation with world organizations, to quickly find solutions to
those problems that threaten human lives.
It is well known that populations in affluent societies are
afflicted by excess nutrition and bodyweight, especially in the West and in
other developed countries, while in the rest of the world people suffer from
malnutrition and hidden hunger. Hunger ranks highest as a global health problem
and kills more people each year than the combined deaths from Aids, malaria, and
tuberculosis. One out of seven humans
suffers from hunger and it causes the deaths of five million children per year
especially in Asia, Africa, and the Pacific region where 50% of the world’s
A major component of hunger is micronutrient deficiency which
is known as “hidden hunger”. This is caused by a lack of essential dietary
minerals in such as iron, zinc and iodine and vitamin A resulting in a variety
of conditions such as blindness and brain damage while weakening the immune
system and increasing susceptibility to contagious diseases leading to death. However, a solution of this problem can be
In 1993, a small group of researchers came up with the idea to
solve the problem through crop plants. The idea was to develop crop varieties
by “plant breeding selectively” so that they contained more of the micronutrients
critical to humans. Twenty years of hard research has been successful and it is
now possible to enhance both the nutritional value and the yield of crops by
means of selective plant breeding, known as” biofortification”.
It makes common sense that if you need more of a nutrient,
and your primary source is agriculture, then let the simple answer is to
increase the amount at the source. Ross
Welch, a plant physiologist at the Robert Holley Research Center for
Agriculture and Health, Cornell University (my Alma
Mata) started to gather support systems to achieve that objective
through agriculture and he is a member of the original group that in 1993
identified biofortification as a suitable tool for overcoming malnutrition. Welch stressed that the key to
biofortification is to aim at increasing both the quality and quantity of a
food crop as opposed to the traditional focus on breeding only for higher
yields or pest resistance. He further noted that the Green Revolution provided
some relief to global hunger by feeding people rice, wheat, and corn. The limitation with these efforts, however,
is that these foods are traditionally very low in some essential nutrients and
although they provided the calories people needed they did not provide
sufficient amounts of the essential micronutrients and the human population
suffered from hidden hunger.
Welch explained “As eaten, [rice, wheat, and maize] provided
two of the 42 nutrients we require. They provided carbohydrates for calories
and some protein and very little other nutrients and they displaced nutrient
rich cropping systems”.”[The Green Revolution] saved literally millions, if not
billions of people from starvation, but it had these unforeseen consequences,
like a huge increase in micronutrient malnutrition, especially in south Asia
and other developing nations.”
Biofortification started as a departure from the Green
Revolution and Welch and his colleagues selectively bred crops to have significantly
higher micronutrient content while also increasing crop yields. This focus now
is on higher levels of iron in pearl millet and beans, higher zinc levels in rice
and wheat, and higher amounts of vitamin A in maize, cassava, and sweet potato. In all these cases crops have displayed not
only yield increases but there are new seed strains that may even double the
micronutrient level that has already been obtained. As such, biofortification has made it
possible today for children in Africa and Asia to get their daily requirements
of vitamin A from orange sweet
potato, a concept that no one could even imagine achieving 20 years ago.
Biofortification represented a new approach to the
alleviation of hunger. Traditional nutritionists considered it to be a
nutrition problem while the agricultural community saw it as a quantitative
problem. Biofortification covers both
aspects holistically, as a “systems problem”, that is one that takes into
account the related issues of how plants take up nutrients, how it is possible
to select for those desirable nutrients, and how humans ingest those plants and
assimilate their nutrients. In addition consideration is given to the other
issues involved when introducing new crops to farmers who are accustomed only
to their traditional farming methods.
The research group actively presented the concept of
biofortification around the world and a very active member of the project was
the plant scientist, Robin Graham. The group emphasized the result of early
research which was that improving the zinc content of wheat seeds also improved
crop yields because about 50% of cultivated soils worldwide are deficient in zinc.
Welch, Graham, and their co-workers’ preliminary research into germplasm
screening showed that using conventional
breeding it was possible to produce crops that were both high in nutrients and
in yield. The group succeeded in early
crosses with beans, cassava, corn, rice, and wheat and attracted some funding
from the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA).
The effort of that small group led to cooperation with
HarvestPlus, directed by Bous. HarvestPlus is an impressive organization with
more than 200 research and implementation partners from more than 40 countries.
It has an annual budget of millions of dollars and is funded by the Bill and
Milanda Gates Foundation, UKIDA, the Canadian International Development Agency
(CIDA), the World Bank, USAID, and others.
HarvestPlus and biofortification are almost synonymous terms as the aims
of both are complimentary.
HarvestPlus is part of the Consultative Group on
International Agriculture Research’s (CGIAR) Program on Agriculture for Nutrition
and Health and it is coordinated by the International Food Policy Research Institute
(IFPRI). After two decades of the
biofortification program, HarvestPlus is now entering stage III of the project
which is delivering seeds to farmers and to a greater extent improving people’s
health by feeding them improved crops.
According to Wolfgang Pfeiffer, deputy director of management
for HarvestPlus, by the end of 20013 nearly one million people in farming
households in the target countries will have access to and/or consume
Biofortification: Grafting Concept between Agriculture and
Undoubtedly funding was essential for the new approach to
conquer the problem of malnutrition globally.
However, another early hurdle on the way was to define, and the new branch
of science that was created as an offspring of the merger between agriculture
and nutrition. This began with basic
research to understand how plants metabolized nutrients and in turn how humans process
those plant products after consumption of the crop plant. Mike Grusak initiated some of the basic
studies that focused on how transport proteins carry Fe or Zn through plant
tissues in order to better understand the translocation of these metals from
plant roots into the leaves then into the seeds.
According to Grusak “What
we were trying to do at the time was to identify some of the genes involved
with these processes so that we could then identify molecular markers that the
breeders can use for conventional breeding”
This type of research demonstrated the complicated but
coordinated nature of the joint efforts that led to the success of the
biofortification. Furthermore, Grusak
stressed that while he was uncovering many aspects of the process of
identifying genetic markers, his breeders associates were working hard to put
that knowledge to work.
Biofortified Crop Seeds
Targeted to Farmers’ Fields
Ultimately the work of biofortification must give the results
to the farmers of the target countries.
Efforts will now be shifted from breeding to delivering the seeds of improved
crops to the farmers. Bouis stated that
the process of selectivity breeding for biofortified crops takes many years and
requires significant participation by the scientists of the target countries. The process requires rigorous and independent
approval procedures that take a further two years before a crop is finally
delivered to the given target country.
That is followed by complicated issues pertaining to introduction of new
seeds to farmers whose livelihoods depend on the small areas of soil around
Grusak, explained that some of the soils he saw in Africa
were very low in fertility, citing as an example that a one acre bean plot
planted in Rwanda produced only 10% of the yield obtained from an identical
plot planted in Wisconsin, USA. Early
in Grusek’s career he had contemplated the potential impact that the basic
science carried out in his laboratory could have on human lives thousands of
miles away and he was not satisfied by the publication of his finding alone.
Grusak’s aim was to get plant breeders to use and the information generated in
the laboratory to develop cultivars that farmers would grow for human
consumption. He stated that the efforts have paid off and that early trials
showed that biofortified crops made a real difference. Bouis reported that a recent HarvestPlus
pilot project involving 24,000 households in Mozambique and Uganda showed a 70
to 100% increase in vitamin A in preschool children and mothers had resulted
from the consumption of biofortified orange sweet potato.
Bouis has expressed satisfaction at being able to link the
upstream research results to eventually showing impact on the field. Therefore,
the story of biofortificatin is a perfect example of how laboratory research of
the developed world made tangible differences in human lives in the developing
Welch restated that world hunger is a complex problem that
requires investigation into how plants take up and metabolize nutrients, how
humans assimilate those nutrients after digestion, how to breed selectively for
better nutrition, and how to actually make changes in the lives of the striving
communities throughout the world. All
these areas are prone to more questions to be asked and answers to be found,
but in the final analysis the success of conquering world hunger will depend partly
on holistic solutions such as biofortification.
Bouis concluded “I think we will be successful. We have made
a tremendous amount of progress, but I would say it is another 10 years from
now before you say O.K., it really was a big success. It really worked.”
It is vitally important for all developing countries to
obtain from HarvestPlus, for propagation purpose, new seeds of crops of higher
quality and yield that have been developed by selective breeding to ultimately overcome
micronutrient malnutrition worldwide.
The above article was extracted from the January 2013 issue
of the reference listed below.
Morgan, J. 2013. Biofortification lasting solutions to micronutrient
malnutrition and world hunger. CSA
(Crops, Soils, Agronomy) 58(1): 4-9.