Billions of people around the world suffer from ‘hidden hunger’ or micronutrient deficiencies.
They do not get enough micronutrients required to lead healthy, productive lives from the foods that they eat. Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals such as vitamin A, zinc, and iron. Although they are only required by the body in very small amounts, they are absolutely essential to good health.
Many of the symptoms of micronutrient deficiencies cannot be seen – such as lower IQ, lower resistance to disease, and fatigue. This is why this form of malnutrition is known as ‘hidden hunger’.
It is estimated that about 1 million of the 3 million child deaths that occur each year as a result of undernutrition are due to hidden hunger.
Micronutrient deficiencies also cause stunting and blindness in children and pose health risks for both mothers and infants during childbirth.
The diets of the poor in developing countries usually consist of very high amounts of staple foods (maize, wheat, rice, etc.) but few micronutrient-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables, and animal and fish products.
Biofortified crops, which have been bred to have higher amounts of micronutrients, can help provide these needed vitamins and minerals. They are effective in reducing hidden hunger and are an integral component of food-based approaches to improve nutrition and food security, including dietary diversification, supplementation, and commercial fortification, among others.
Who Suffers from Vitamin A Deficiency?
Some 190 million preschool children are vitamin A deficient, and approximately 5.2 million preschool-age children suffer from night blindness. The 2013 Lancet report on Maternal and Child Undernutrition and Overweight attributed 157,000 childhood deaths in 2011 to vitamin A deficiency. Close to 7 million pregnant women in developing countries are also vitamin A deficient, and 6 million are clinically night-blind.
Why Do We Need Vitamin A?
Vitamin A is essential for good vision and cell differentiation. Deficiency results in growth retardation, damage to mucous membranes, reproductive disorders, eye damage—and ultimately blindness. Children with vitamin A deficiency are often deficient in multiple micronutrients and are likely to be anemic, have impaired growth, and be at increased risk of severe morbidity from common childhood infections such as diarrhea and measles. Pregnant women with vitamin A deficiency may be at increased risk of mortality.
How Is Biofortification Reducing Vitamin A Deficiency?
Biofortified vitamin A staple crops like maize, cassava, and sweet potato can provide 50 – 100 percent of a child’s daily vitamin A needs.
Eating biofortified orange sweet potato reduces the prevalence and duration of diarrhea in children.
Orange sweet potato consumption also improves vitamin A status in children and reduces the likelihood of vitamin A deficiency in women.
Who Suffers from Zinc Deficiency?
Billions of people – over 17 percent of the global population – are at risk of inadequate zinc intake. In fact, more than 116,000 children die each year due to zinc deficiency. The prevalence of inadequate zinc intake is estimated to be as high as 24 percent in Africa and 19 percent in Asia. Direct measures of the prevalence of zinc deficiency are scarce as the recommended method for measuring zinc deficiency is not used widely.
Why Do We Need Zinc?
Zinc is involved in more body functions than any other mineral. Zinc is essential to more than 200 enzyme systems, normal growth and development, the maintenance of body tissues, sexual function, vision, and the immune system. Zinc is essential for survival, and zinc deficiency has serious consequences for health, particularly during childhood when zinc requirements are increased. In addition, zinc deficiency also causes stunting. Randomized controlled trials showed that zinc supplementation can reduce the severity of morbidity from a number of common childhood infections – including diarrhea, pneumonia, and possibly malaria – by one-third.
How is Biofortification Reducing Zinc Deficiency?
A number of varieties of biofortified zinc rice and zinc wheat are now available or being tested in countries all over the world, including India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.
The zinc absorbed by the body from biofortified zinc wheat is significantly greater than from common varieties.
In India, efficacy studies are underway for zinc wheat and preliminary results are promising.
Who Suffers from Iron Deficiency?
Iron deficiency is the most common micronutrient deficiency in the world. Because global data for iron deficiency does not exist, anemia is used as an indirect indicator. Globally, anemia affects 800 million women and children. In many developing countries, iron-deficiency is the leading cause of anemia, though the proportion varies among population groups and in different areas according to local conditions.
A recent meta-analysis based on data from 23 countries estimates that iron deficiency accounts for 25 percent of anemia in preschool children and 37 percent of anemia in women of reproductive age. According to the WHO, the highest prevalence of anemia is in preschool-age children (43 percent); however, the population group with the greatest number of anemic individuals is non-pregnant women (496 million). The highest prevalence of anemia is in Africa (38–62 percent), while the greatest number affected is in South-East Asia (299 million).
Why Do We Need Iron?
Iron deficiency during childhood and adolescence impairs mental development and learning capacity. In adults, it reduces the ability to do physical labor. Severe anemia increases the risk of women dying in childbirth.
How Is Biofortification Reducing Iron Deficiency?
Biofortified beans contain up to twice the amount of iron as common varieties.
High-iron beans prevent and reverse iron deficiency in young women. When eaten twice daily, they provide up to 75 percent of Rwandan women’s daily iron needs.
In India, high iron pearl millet helps reverse iron deficiency in school-age children and improves their cognitive performance.