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CGIAR Commits to Getting Nutritious Foods to People
April 10, 2014

Cross posted from cgiar.org

When HarvestPlus started ten years ago as a joint program of CIAT and IFPRI, with the goal of tackling hidden hunger caused by a lack of vital minerals and vitamins in the diet through biofortification, they faced some big challenges: Would it be possible to develop staple food crops with high enough mineral or vitamin content, without paying the price in terms of lower crop yields or increased susceptibility to pests and diseases? If staple crops would have higher mineral and vitamin content, would it be taken up by people to make enough of a difference in their nutritional status? If it were possible to develop such crops, and they had a positive health impact, would it be possible to scale up adoption of these crops by farmers, and consumption by consumers, to the level of many millions?

In a nutshell: Over the last ten years HarvestPlus has been remarkably successful. Through the program, CGIAR Research Centers and partners have been able to develop and release Orange Fleshed Sweet Potato, Vitamin A Cassava, Iron Bean, Vitamin A Maize, Iron Pearl Millet, Zinc Rice and Zinc Wheat that will eventually provide up to 50% or more of daily need for the target nutrient. HarvestPlus’ target was to reach 100 thousand farm families in 2013, but the program managed to reach 1.5 million farm families, over 7 million people, instead. And studies in Uganda and Mozambique of Orange Sweet Potato consumption have shown a measurable improvement in the Vitamin A levels in the bodies of children.

The first of the above two questions have been answered positively – it is the third that the program is now focusing on: scaling up and out. HarvestPlus goal is to reach 100 million people with biofortified crops by 2018 and a billion people by 2030. Given the success of HarvestPlus as a “special program” within the overall CGIAR program portfolio (it is a key part of the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health) the question was whether it was now time to mainstream biofortification.

Today, at The 2nd Global Conference on Biofortification: Getting Nutritious Foods to People in Kigali, Rwanda, the CGIAR Consortium and its members, the CGIAR Research Centers, confirmed that: An essential role of agriculture and food systems is to provide the minerals, vitamins and other compounds that are essential for good health. As one way to contribute to this objective of agriculture, the CGIAR Consortium and its members, the CGIAR Research Centers, commit to mainstreaming breeding for mineral and vitamin traits into conventional food crop development programs. A number of CGIAR Research Centers also made detailed commitments to mainstream biofortification for specific crops, i.e. CIAT (iron beans and Vitamin A cassava), CIMMYT (nutritious maize and zinc and iron wheat), CIP (Vitamin A orange fleshed sweet potato), ICARDA (iron, zinc and selenium lentils), ICRISAT (iron and zinc pearl millet and sorghum), IITA (nutritious cassava and maize) and IRRI (zinc rice). Of course, CGIAR Research Centers cannot achieve HarvestPlus’s ambitious scaling up targets alone.

Close collaboration with national programs is critical, such as with EMBRAPA (the Brazilian biofortification program); HarvestPlus China; the India Biofortification program; and national partners in many African countries, particularly Nigeria, Rwanda, Uganda, Zambia, Mozambique and the DRC. Strongly supported by the Rwandan government, more than half of Rwandan farmers have already adopted biofortified iron climbing beans – that are nutrient dense as well as high yielding.

HarvestPlus is also pioneering partnership with small and medium size private sector seed companies as a distribution channel to reach large numbers of farmers, and exploring contacts with large food companies that could process biofortified crops into food products. This is the area where the CGIAR Consortium and its members have made least progress to date. While our new Intellectual Asset Principles (approved in 2012) allow CGIAR to work with the private sector – and allow restricted licensing deals (if justified by the potential impact) – in practice we still have much to learn on how to work effectively with private sector food companies. It is clear, though, that to be successful at the scale of our ambitious goals, we will have to invest time and energy to make partnerships with the private sector work for both sides.

Today in Kigali the enthusiasm and energy – to get nutritious food to people – was palpable, from the Prime Minister of Rwanda who opened the conference and personally chairs a committee of ministers on nutrition, to the Nigerian farmers who participated in Vitamin A cassava trials. While there is still much to learn, we can credit HarvestPlus with bringing lots of energy to the global effort to improve nutrition and public health through biofortification. And today the CGIAR Consortium and its members committed to mainstream that effort, to make breeding for mineral and vitamin traits in their regular food crop development programs the norm.