1. What is biofortification?
Biofortification is the process of breeding food crops that are rich in micronutrients, such as vitamin A, zinc, and iron. These crops “biofortify” themselves by loading higher levels of minerals and vitamins in their seeds and roots while they are growing. When eaten, they can provide essential micronutrients to improve nutrition and public health.
2. Is biofortification a ‘silver bullet’ to improve undernutrition?
No. The process of biofortification has never been presented as a single or only solution to undernutrition. It is a food-based approach that improves the nutrient value of foods that are often low or lacking in certain micronutrients. It complements efforts to increase dietary diversity and other interventions such as fortification and supplementation.
3. What is the evidence that biofortification actually works?
There is a growing body of evidence that vitamins or minerals from biofortified foods are absorbed by the body, and show measurable improvements. One study in Mozambique found orange sweet potato (OSP) to be effective in providing vitamin A to consumers; on average, vitamin A intakes doubled for both children and women. Another study found that vitamin A intakes increased by two-thirds for older Ugandan children and nearly doubled for younger children and women who fed on OSP. A recent study in Zambia established that ‘orange’ vitamin A maize increases vitamin A storage in children’s bodies. In India, iron pearl millet was found to provide young children not only with their full daily iron needs but also their full zinc requirement. All the studies were published in leading, peer-reviewed nutrition journals, and more efficacy studies are in the pipeline.
4. Who is likely to benefit, and how much, from biofortification?
Biofortification should be most beneficial to groups who are vulnerable to deficiencies in micronutrients such as vitamin A, zinc or iron, especially children and pregnant and breastfeeding women. Its greatest benefit is in contributing to the prevention of micronutrient deficiencies, rather than treating acute or established deficiencies. Most biofortified varieties will eventually provide from 50 percent to 80 percent of a woman’s or child’s daily needs, depending on the nutrient. Orange sweet potato can provide 100 percent of daily vitamin A needs.
5. Are biofortified nutritious crops cost-effective?
The 2008 Copenhagen Consensus, composed of the world’s leading economists, estimated the ratio of health benefit-to-cost ratio of biofortified nutritious crops as $17 of benefits for every $1 invested. Once a particular micronutrient is bred into a crop line, that trait remains. This makes the process of biofortification, over time, sustainable and cost-effective.
6. Are biofortified crops developed through transgenic modification (GM)?
All of the nutritious crops released or in the near pipeline through the efforts of HarvestPlus and its partners were or are being developed using conventional plant breeding. Because conventional breeding does not face any regulatory hurdles and is widely accepted, HarvestPlus considers it to be the fastest route to getting more nutritious crops into the hands of farmers and consumers.
7. Who is leading efforts in developing, utilizing and scaling biofortified crops?
HarvestPlus leads the global biofortification effort, working with the CGIAR network of international agricultural research centers, and a wide variety of partners, including governments, NGOs, and the private sector. As biofortified crops continue to gain acceptance and uptake, HarvestPlus will take on more of a coordination role, with country governments leading the way forward.
8. Where have biofortified crops been released?
As of 2015, biofortified crops under the HarvestPlus program have been officially released, or are being grown by farmers under other arrangements, in all eight target countries: Bangladesh (zinc rice), Democratic Republic of Congo (iron beans, vitamin A cassava), India (iron pearl millet), Nigeria (vitamin A cassava, vitamin A maize), Rwanda (iron beans), Uganda (vitamin A sweet potato, iron beans), and Zambia (vitamin A maize). HarvestPlus plans to expand its activities to Ethiopia, and to disseminate biofortified crops to several more African countries through its partnership with World Vision. In addition, these crops are being grown in many other parts of the world.
9. Will farmers adopt these new biofortified nutritious crops?
Two studies published in the British Journal of Nutrition (2011) and in the Journal of Nutrition (2012) found that in project areas, 68 percent of households in Mozambique and 61 percent of households in Uganda adopted vitamin A orange sweet potato. In addition, the share of sweet potato-cultivated area devoted to orange sweet potato increased from 9 percent to 56 percent in Mozambique and from 1 percent to 44 percent in Uganda. Field experience with other crops is also indicating that famers will adopt these crops, as not only are they more nutritious but they are also high-yielding.
10. Will farmers have to buy seeds every year?
Many crops, such as sweet potato, cassava, pearl millet, and beans, can be replanted every year from plant cuttings or seed that the farmer has saved. In the case of hybrids, farmers usually purchase fresh seed for each planting season in order to maintain high productivity. Biofortified nutritious crops are being made available as public goods to national governments. Wherever these seeds are typically sold in markets, they are competitively priced so that subsistence and smallholder farmers can afford them. In the long run, the cost difference for these seeds should be negligible from non-biofortified varieties.
11. How will biofortification improve agronomic properties of crops?
Adequate nutrition is as important to plant health as it is in human health. Micronutrient deficiency in plants greatly increases their susceptibility to diseases, especially fungal root diseases of the major food crops. Efficiency in the uptake of mineral micronutrients from the soil is associated with disease resistance in plants, which leads to decreased use of pesticides and fungicides. Roots of plant genotypes that are efficient in mobilizing surrounding external minerals not only are more disease resistant but are also better able to penetrate deficient subsoils and, so, make use of the moisture and minerals contained therein. This reduces the need for fertilizers and irrigation. Plants with deeper root systems are also more drought resistant.
Micronutrient-dense seeds are associated with greater seedling vigor, which, in turn, is associated with higher plant yield. A significant percentage of the soils in which staple foods are grown are “deficient” in these trace minerals, thereby keeping crop yields low. In general, these soils, in fact, contain adequate amounts of trace minerals, enough for hundreds or thousands of crops. However, because of chemical binding to other compounds, these trace minerals are “unavailable” to staple crop varieties presently used.
The HarvestZinc Fertilizer Project is exploring agronomic biofortification, which is the application of zinc-enriched fertilizers, to improve the zinc concentration of cereal crops. Agronomic biofortification further encourages and ensures plants to produce zinc-dense seed, and also contributes to yield.
12. Can biofortified crops reduce soil fertility?
A soil is said to be deficient in a given nutrient when the addition of fertilizer produces better growth—even though the amount of nutrient in the fertilizer added may be small compared with the total amount of the nutrient in the soil. This seeming paradox can occur when only a small part of the nutrient in the soil is available to plants, owing, for example, to the chemical properties of the soil.
Alternatively, the view can be taken that there is a genetic deficiency in the plant rather than a deficiency in the soil. Rather than adapting the soil to the plant, breeding can adapt the plant to the soil.
Trace minerals are present in much greater concentrations (compared with plant needs) even in a nutrient-impoverished soil. It is logical, then, to concentrate breeding efforts on these elements with low requirements or low availability but large reserves in the soil.
Biofortification should be most beneficial to groups who are vulnerable to deficiencies in micronutrients such as vitamin A, zinc or iron, especially children and pregnant and breastfeeding women.