Over two billion people around the world suffer from "hidden hunger" or micronutrient deficiencies.
They do not get enough micronutrients from the foods they eat to lead healthy, productive lives. 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 essential to good health and preventing illness.
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".
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 essential 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?
Approximately 30 percent of preschool-age children are vitamin A deficient, and nearly 5.2 million preschool-age children suffer from night blindness. A recent Lancet article attributed 105,700 childhood deaths in 2013 to vitamin A deficiency. Over 19 million pregnant women in developing countries are also vitamin A deficient, and 9.7 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. The prevalence of inadequate zinc intake is estimated to exceed 25 percent in sub-Saharan Africa and 29 percent in South Asia. Direct measures of the prevalence of zinc deficiency are scarce as the recommended method for measuring zinc deficiency is not used widely. Stunting is commonly used as a proxy to estimate risk of zinc deficiency in a population. Approximately 23 percent of preschool-age children are stunted globally.
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 vital for survival, meaning a deficiency has serious consequences for health, particularly during childhood when zinc requirements are increased. In addition, zinc deficiency can cause stunting and increase the risk of common childhood infections including diarrhea, pneumonia, and possibly malaria.
How is Biofortification Reducing Zinc Deficiency?
- Several 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 and a leading cause of anemia. Because global data for iron deficiency does not exist, anemia is used as an indirect indicator.
Globally, anemia affects 800 million women and children. Yet, the proportion of anemia attributable to iron deficiency varies significantly within each country among population groups and by area. A 2016 meta-analysis based on data from 23 countries estimates that iron deficiency accounts for 25 percent of anemia in preschool-age children and 37 percent of anemia in women of reproductive age.
According to the World Health Organization, 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).
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 can provide up to 75 percent of a women’s daily iron needs.
- In India, high iron pearl millet helps reverse iron deficiency in school-age children and improves their cognitive performance.