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 population lives.
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 achieved.
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 biofortified crops.
Biofortification: Grafting Concept between Agriculture and Nutrition
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 their homes.
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 world.
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.