What is hidden hunger?
Micronutrient deficiency is known as hidden hunger because it is an under-recognized problem, and because some of the 2 billion people who suffer from it may have enough food to eat — but that food is not very nutritious.
Low-income farming families in developing countries can’t afford fruits and vegetables and high-quality protein foods, or vitamin supplements, or processed food that has been fortified with micronutrients. They rely on inexpensive but not very nourishing staple foods like corn or rice or cassava, which lack the right nutrients to sustain good health. This less visible type of malnutrition can lead to a devastating array of problems, including blindness, stunted development (in both brain and body), physical weakness from anemia, diarrheal and respiratory infections, and even death.
What is biofortification?
Biofortification is the process of conventionally 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.
Is biofortification a "silver bullet" to improve undernutrition?
The ideal solution for hidden hunger remains a diverse, nourishing diet. Biofortification was developed to target rural farming families with limited access to healthier foods or other interventions such as fortification and supplementation. It is a food-based approach that improves the nutrient value of the staple foods these families often depend on. It complements these other efforts. This breakthrough innovation received international recognition when four biofortification pioneers, including HarvestPlus’ founder Howdy Bouis, were awarded the prestigious World Food Prize in 2016.
What is the evidence that biofortification actually works?
There is a robust body of evidence that vitamins or minerals from biofortified foods make a difference in nutrition and health. We have shown that crops enriched with vitamin A can dramatically reduce diarrhea in young children and improve night vision. We have shown that crops enriched with iron can completely reverse iron deficiency and make a significant difference in physical and cognitive performance. All these and other studies were published in leading, peer-reviewed nutrition journals.
Who is likely to benefit, and how much, from biofortification?
Biofortification benefits those most vulnerable to deficiencies in micronutrients such as vitamin A, zinc or iron, especially children and women of childbearing age. 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 and amount of food consumed. Vitamin A orange sweet potato can provide 100 percent of daily vitamin A needs.
Are biofortified nutritious crops cost-effective?
Yes. The 2008 Copenhagen Consensus, composed of the world’s leading economists, estimated the health benefit-to-cost ratio of biofortified nutritious crops as $17 of benefits for every $1 invested. Once a micronutrient is bred into a crop line, that trait remains. This makes the process of biofortification, over time, sustainable and cost-effective. These varieties don’t cost more or require more water or fertilizer. They are just as high-yielding as the regular varieties. They are just as resistant to diseases and pests; and they are designed to cope with the effects of climate change.
Are biofortified crops developed through transgenic modification (GM)?
To date, all of the biofortified crops released through the efforts of HarvestPlus and its partners were 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. In addition, only a handful of countries in Africa permit genetic modification in agriculture. We respect the regulatory environments in all countries where we work.
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, researchers, 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.
Where have biofortified crops been released?
More than 290 varieties of 12 staple food crops have been released or are being tested in a total of 60 countries, a number that continues to grow. To date, the largest number of crops are available or being tested in Africa.
Will farmers grow these crops, including the ones that change color?
Peer-reviewed published studies have demonstrated that farmers are willing to grow and eat these crops, even when they are a different color, because they see the immediate benefits in their children. (In vitamin A crops, alpha and beta carotene turn the food from white to yellow or orange.) Field experience indicates that famers will adopt these crops, as not only are they more nutritious but they are also high-yielding. We also have strong evidence of continued adoption over a period of years.
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 to maintain high productivity. Even low-income farmers prefer to purchase hybrid seeds because of their higher yield. However, we have also developed what are known as “open-pollinated varieties,” which can be re-planted for more than one season, to benefit farmers who cannot afford hybrid seed. 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.
How does the process work – how do the seeds get to the farmers?
- The process begins by looking through the “libraries” of thousands of seed varieties in CGIAR crop breeding centers around the world to identify naturally nutritious varieties that are high in vitamin A, iron and zinc.
- Plant breeders then spend five to seven years crossing them with other varieties that can be adapted to grow in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, where they are most needed.
- Varieties are then sent to a country’s National Agricultural Research System (NARS), which then tests them for approximately two years (i.e., several planting seasons) to ensure that they have all the traits we promise that they do — yield per acre; resistance to diseases, pests, and the effects of climate change; and ability to grow in local soils, terrains and micro-climates. The NARS then “releases” the varieties.
- Some seeds will reach farmers through private seed companies, because even in low-income countries, farmers will purchase their seeds rather than re-using their existing seeds.
- Some seeds and other planting material (sweet potato vines; cassava stems) reach farmers from government agricultural extension services; from NGOs that work with farmers; and from other farmers, including family and neighbors, who share leftover vines or stems set aside from the previous harvest.
- Since vitamin A (beta carotene) turns food yellow or orange, like carrots, we work with the seed suppliers (government, NGOs, farmer cooperatives, companies, etc.) to provide educational information about the benefits of these healthier crops. The orange color has now become a marketing advantage, and children prefer the sweeter taste.
- The farmers then grow and harvest the crops, keeping most for home consumption (and therefore for improved nutrition for the family) and selling any surplus in local markets. Further along the value chain, some food processers have begun to source biofortified ingredients to benefit more urban consumers.
- The end result of this whole process: healthier children who are better able to survive, to learn, and to lead productive lives, improving the well-being and productivity of their families, communities and countries.
Do people like to eat biofortified foods?
From the very beginning of the research process, we take consumers’ preferences (including taste, smell, texture, and cooking time) into account. We have solid evidence that people like eating biofortified foods even before they know they are more nutritious. They like them even better once they know about the nutritional benefits. People in rural and urban areas, of all genders and different age groups, including children, like food made with biofortified crops at least as much as food made from non-biofortified crops. This includes vitamin A crops, which turn yellow or orange from alpha and beta carotene and can have a sweeter taste, as well as iron crops, which do not change foods’ color or taste.
How do we know that biofortification can be scaled up over the long term?
What makes biofortification so sustainable is that we and our partners are working in harmony with existing systems, simply plugging into an ongoing process. We work with international and national agricultural research institutes to introduce the new varieties, which farmers then access from private companies, NGOs, or government programs, depending on the crop.
Our job is to put biofortification into farmers’ hands by getting biofortified seeds and technical information to as many organizations as possible that work with farmers. We and our partners are not asking farmers to change behavior, and we are not fundamentally changing seed systems, whether commercial or informal. We are asking farmers to grow their staple crop with a new and better seed variety. We are inserting new seed varieties into functioning seed systems — both commercial and informal. We and our more than 400 partners have gone from zero to 33 million beneficiaries in a decade, which demonstrates the relative ease and simplicity of this approach.
We don’t give away seed for free; these are “living loans.” We require the farmers to pay it forward to other farmers. They also share with family and neighbors, and the momentum continues in the existing systems. We give away free samples at demonstrations, just like any other seed marketer would do, but this represents a small percentage and catalyzes diffusion. We have carefully researched and validated biofortification’s diffusion and have solid evidence on the “walkaway point” when a crop is solidly anchored and has saturated an area.
Some partners are now undertaking biofortification projects independently, without our direct involvement.
How does biofortification relate to climate change?
Because yield per acre is of great importance to farmers, we ensure that all biofortified varieties released are “competitive” with existing high-yielding varieties. This includes resistance to diseases, pests, the effects of climate change through heat and drought tolerance.
Recent data suggest that one of the effects of climate change may be a reduction in the level of protein and zinc in some food crops. While we have not conducted any specific research on biofortification’s ability to address this problem, the relative increase in zinc concentration of biofortified cereals would persist as an advantage over the average concentration in non-biofortified varieties.
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.