Hidden Hunger and Empty Calories
Hidden hunger is insidious. It strikes people who, on the outside, may appear to be consuming an adequate amount of food—mainly staple crops grown on small family farms. Yet, the calories of many staple crops disguise an invisible hunger that affects the health and wellbeing of people living on the margins. Hidden hunger describes a condition of undernutrition where the body lacks essential vitamins and minerals that keep people healthy. Over two billion people worldwide are affected by hidden hunger.
Deficiencies in micronutrients such as zinc, iron and vitamin A can cause profound and irreparable damage to the body—blindness, growth stunting, mental retardation, learning disabilities, low work capacity, and even premature death.
The effects of hidden hunger are acute during the first 1,000 days of a child’s life—from conception to the age of two years. Micronutrient deficiencies are especially damaging to women. Five hundred million women aged 15 to 49, at the peak of their productive years, are anemic due to iron deficiency. This condition reduces their productivity, decreases their economic potential, and affects their reproductive health outcomes.
"Hidden hunger has no better friend than poverty."
Poverty drives people to consume single staple crops to satisfy their basic hunger but these cannot provide the essential vitamins and minerals needed for a healthy body. This problem is exacerbated during periods of rising food prices when consuming a more varied diet—a problem even in the absence of economic shocks—is economically prohibitive.
Poverty, then, becomes both a cause and effect of hidden hunger. Consuming poor diets of primarily staple foods lacking in essential vitamins and minerals has a negative effect on health. Poor health not only decreases the productivity of the people, but can drain the limited resources of the household, the community and, ultimately, the nation.
Enter Howarth Bouis: It’s More than Just Calories
Dr. Howarth (Howdy) Bouis was an economist at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington, D.C. His research focused on the diets of poor households and nutritional outcomes in Asia, particularly how nutrient intakes were influenced by food prices and household income. Economists believed that the number of calories was the primary dietary factor constraining better nutritional outcomes in developing countries. This was the underlying premise of the “Green Revolution”. Through research and technology, the “Green Revolution” in the late 1960s allowed farmers to increase their agricultural output, mainly cereal grains such as rice, maize, and wheat.
Yet, Dr. Bouis’ research showed that differences in diets between the rich and the poor were explained overwhelmingly by the level of non-staple food consumption. Moreover, the extra vitamins and minerals in these non-staple foods and animal products were more highly correlated than calorie intake with health outcomes such as better height and less frequent illnesses. Dr. Bouis concluded that mineral and vitamin deficiencies (and not calories) were the main constraints to better nutrition and, therefore, to healthy and economically productive lives.
As Dr. Bouis grappled with the implications of his research results, a gnawing question would not go away. What if we could make plants to do some of the work for us? In other words, what if we could produce a new variety of seed that was higher in, say, iron or zinc? Farmers and consumers would not see or taste the extra iron or zinc, but their intakes would be substantially increased. In addition, smallholder farmers growing the more nutritious staple crop would be consuming it as well.
Further, what if plants needed minerals for their nutrition as much as humans do? Research had shown that wheat seeds with higher zinc content were more vigorous and viable. Seedlings got a better start and yields were higher.
The intersection between nutrition and agriculture suggested that if we could find a way to increase the vitamin and mineral content of staple foods grown and consumed by smallholder farmers, we could solve the problem of hidden hunger. The intersection between nutrition and agriculture led to biofortification.
Can We Feed the World through Biofortification?
Biofortification of staple crops is an effective option to reach large numbers of rural poor scattered across isolated areas of Africa and South Asia. After the initial outlay of funds, the recurrent costs are minimal. Biofortification of staple crops is a cost-effective method to reach tens of millions of people on a sustainable basis. The advantages of biofortification are many. First, biofortification is built on what poor households grow and eat—staple foods. Second, the one-time investment to develop seeds that fortify themselves keep recurrent costs low and the germplasm—the living tissue from which plants can be grown—can be shared globally, making it highly cost-effective. Third, biofortification is sustainable. Long after people stop thinking about biofortification, farmers continue to grow and eat their biofortified crops—now thought of as just crops. Fourth, biofortification reaches the country’s most vulnerable people, living in remote rural areas with no access—or money—for commercially marketed fortified foods. And finally, biofortification produces higher yields in an environmentally friendly way. Biofortification is one solution to reducing hidden hunger worldwide. It is the process by which the nutritional quality of food crops is improved through agronomic practices, conventional plant breeding, or modern biotechnology.
The answer is yes, we can better feed the world through biofortification.
The Science of Biofortification: Producing Nutrient-Rich Food
Conventional plant breeding is not new—it began hundreds of years ago. Farmers have been altering the genetic makeup of the crops they grow for the past eight to ten thousand years—since the dawn of agriculture. Early farmers chose the best looking plants and seeds and saved them for next year’s planting. As the science of genetics became better understood, plant breeders were able to select certain desirable traits in a plant to create improved varieties of plants.
HarvestPlus focuses on three crucial micronutrients that are most limited in the diets of the poor—vitamin A, zinc, and iron—and breed these into key staple crops. HarvestPlus screens thousands of different types of crop seeds stored in seed banks that have naturally higher amounts of iron, zinc, and vitamin A. Our nutritional genomicists use tools such as marker-assisted selection to help speed up the breeding process. We use these more nutritious seeds to breed new crop varieties with higher micronutrient content that are also high yielding and have other traits farmers want.
HarvestPlus, together with farmers, test these new varieties in the target region. We partner with farmers during the testing phase to ensure buy-in from the farming communities. We also conduct studies to ensure that these new crops have sufficient amounts of the nutrient needed to improve nutrition. The national government then officially releases the best-performing varieties of micronutrient-rich crops for farming communities to grow, eat, and sell in local markets.
Delivering Nutrient-Rich Food: From Farm to Table
In target countries—Rwanda, Uganda, Nigeria, Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan—HarvestPlus works to ensure farmers not only grow the more nutritious food but consume it as well. Delivery managers work with national partners to register and release new micronutrient-rich crop varieties in target countries. We engage with seed and extension systems to ensure that the crops are widely available and promoted to farmers. Our teams include marketing experts and behavior change specialists who collaborate with local organizations and communities to educate consumers on the benefits of eating these new crops. These new varieties must satisfy consumer tastes and have enough micronutrients to reduce malnutrition among rural communities that will grow and eat these foods regularly.
In most cases, these foods look and taste the same as the most commonly eaten variety. When there is a detectable change, as in the case of vitamin A-rich crops that tend to be yellow to orange in color, HarvestPlus and our partners educate consumers on the nutritional benefits of these new varieties and encourage people to make the switch. When eaten regularly, these micronutrient-rich foods work to contribute to body stores of micronutrients—reducing hidden hunger in malnourished communities.
Ending Hidden Hunger: Reaching a Billion People by 2030
Howarth Bouis dared to dream big. There were others like him as well—breaking down artificial barriers between academic disciplines, shifting paradigms and imagining what could be.
Just imagine a world where staple foods such as potatoes, rice, wheat, and maize re micronutrient-rich—ending the hidden hunger that takes such an enormous toll on the health and wellbeing of poor households.