Biofortified Crops: Where Are We Now? Where Are We Going?

Howarth “Howdy” Bouis is the leading proponent of crop biofortification as a practical solution to micronutrient deficiency, particularly for low-resource and rural communities. Bouis joined the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) as a researcher in 1982 and founded the HarvestPlus program there in 2003. HarvestPlus, working with hundreds of partners worldwide, has so far facilitated the release of more than 200 biofortified crop varieties in 30 countries.

Bouis was awarded the World Food Prize in 2016 for his seminal efforts to advance biofortification. As he prepared in mid-2019 to head into retirement and return to his home in the Philippines, we sought his uniquely informed perspective on how far this crop-based nutrition strategy has come and where it is heading.

Bouis was interviewed by Peter Goldstein, head of strategic communications at HarvestPlus.

Let’s start at the beginning: You’re an economist. What inspired you to focus on nutritional issues?

I didn’t study nutrition issues in graduate school. After a volunteer experience in the Philippines, I wanted to go back and live and work in Asia. Just as I was finishing up my dissertation (“Rice Policy in the Philippines”), Per Pinstrup-Andersen, the division director of what was then the Food Consumption and Nutrition Division at IFPRI, approached me about doing a post-doc of two years on a nutrition study in the Philippines using a food policy lens. I spent the next ten years doing household surveys looking at how household incomes and food prices affected diets in low-income households, and then how those diets related to nutritional outcomes. That’s how I got involved.

How and why did you start considering the idea of biofortifying staple crops?

My next division director [at IFPRI] was Joachim von Braun. I’d written a paper on mineral and vitamin intakes as part of my research work. By that time, I had concluded that undernutrition wasn’t about energy intakes which was the barometer used to measure improved nutrition at that time, rather it was about mineral and vitamin intakes and dietary quality.

Von Braun had negotiated a grant from USAID to look into what the CGIAR could do to help in the fight against hidden hunger. Since I’d written a paper about it, he asked me to take this on. When we were preparing to get started, he said to me: “Well, what about breeding for minerals and vitamins, what do you think about that?”

And I said, “I think that’s a bad idea!” He asked why—I didn’t really have a good reason—and I said it was just a gut reaction. There was a long-established project at the time to develop Quality Protein Maize (QPM) [at CIMMYT ]. Protein is a macronutrient, and there was a tradeoff between protein and higher yields. That influenced my thinking.

But the more I thought about it, the more I thought, wow, that’s so much more efficient — getting the plants to do the work, rather than repeated expenditures year in year out on commercial fortification. Next, I had to look into whether it was scientifically feasible. This started a very long story, but I was struck by the potential efficiency of the approach.

Things got moving in 1993 when you met Ross Welch and Robin Graham. Walk us through that.

I visited nine of our CGIAR plant breeding centers in 1993. Most scientists told me that there would be tradeoff between higher yields and mineral and vitamin density in seeds — just as for QPMs. “OK,” I thought, “the science will not work. Farmers will never adopt more nutritious, lower-yielding crops.”

Then I heard about the [United States Department of Agriculture] Plant, Soil, and Nutrition laboratory at Cornell University, an interdisciplinary group of scientists who studied the links between trace minerals in soils and plant, animal, and human nutrition. I said, “oh, here’s an expert group, I’ll go talk to them and see what they have to say.”

I gave my seminar, and the seminar had time for questions and this gentleman at the other end of the table stood up—Ross Welch, it turned out—and he replied that, actually, if you put more zinc in a seed it’s more vigorous, it’s more viable, it gets a better start and you get a higher yield, not a lower yield.

I said, “WHAT? It’s a win-win, it’s not a win-lose proposition. Everyone’s been saying to me it’s a win-lose proposition.” I asked, “you can get high productivity through this strategy?” He said absolutely. So, I went from flying in to Cornell thinking well this is my last trip, and this is the end of an idea …to optimism that this could work after all.

Two months later I met Robin Graham who was on a sabbatical to Cornell from the University of Adelaide. This was quite fortunate at the time and the three of us formed a bond that we wanted to work on this. Robin and Ross had stature in the international plant science community, and they presented at the CGIAR centers. They had credibility with the scientists where I didn’t. And so, we started to get a small group of scientists interested in the idea.

Still, getting funding was very difficult. Only the Danish aid agency funded the idea at a low level until 1999. In a last-ditch effort, we secured funding for and held a CGIAR-wide conference on nutrition at the International Rice Research Institute. We featured the work we’d done for the past six years on biofortification. We brought a hundred people to the conference, 40 nutritionists and 40 plant breeders, a few economists, and of course donors. I said, “ok, we’re going to present our findings and discuss, and if we get a donor or donors interested in this coming out of this conference, we’ll continue, and if we get no donors…nice try.”

The full group in general was excited about the idea. Only one donor became interested at that meeting—Joseph Hunt [of the Asian Development Bank]. I think if Joseph Hunt hadn’t attended that conference we wouldn’t be here today. Then after the ADB funding came online, there wasn’t any point after that [where we] contemplated dropping the idea of biofortification.

Fast forward to the present: In its latest annual report, HarvestPlus reported that 38 million people are benefiting from biofortified crops, compared to a relative handful just 15 years ago. Ideally, where would you like to see biofortification 15 years from now?

The most important development would be that public plant breeding institutions and private seed companies would have taken on breeding for mineral and vitamin density as part of their core work (i.e., mainstreaming), so that all new varieties being released—with the best agronomic properties and highest yields—are biofortified. This would ensure that, eventually, most staple food production in developing countries would be biofortified. The 38 million now consuming biofortified crops is just a small start toward attaining our vision.

How does the biofortification of staple crops fit with calls for increasing dietary diversity to improve nutrition?

Dietary diversity is the ultimate goal for all, which is attainable broadly only when poverty is eliminated. But high-quality, diverse diets are out of the reach of the poor. Prices of vegetables, fruits, pulses, and animal and fish products have been rising steadily [in real terms] over the past fifty years, while staple food prices have declined. Producing sufficient food and preventing food price rises is being made more difficult by climate change; all things being equal, climate change is reducing food production and increasing the year-to-year variability because of larger and more frequent floods, longer droughts, etc.

So, what’s the role of biofortification? Well the one thing that poor people are able to get enough of are food staples. That’s what they use their money for first, to buy enough food staples and then whatever’s left over they pay for all the other things they need in life, but the poor fall far short of course of what they want and need. So that’s where we’re putting our mineral and vitamins, we’re putting them into the food staples. An important key point is that the extra minerals and vitamins are paid for by the investments in agricultural research. [Biofortified crops] are the same price as the non-biofortified varieties. So, from the consumers point of view, when they buy a biofortified product, for example they buy [vitamin A-biofortified] orange maize, it costs the same as [non-biofortified] white maize. So, families are getting additional vitamin A in their diets at zero extra cost. Another key point is that we are not advocating that people eat more food staples. They are already satiated. This is just a one-for-one substitution.

Africa is a primary target for biofortified crops. The African Development Bank recently made a strong commitment to biofortification in its 2018-2025 Nutrition Action Plan. What kind of impact do you see flowing from that?

It’s part of a rising crescendo. As more organizations—and the African Development Bank certainly is a key organization—and other institutions, businesses, and entities endorse biofortification and make biofortified crops part of their everyday core work, uptake of biofortified crops moves more quickly. Change is more easily accepted. Advocacy is and will remain one of the important functions of the HarvestPlus program.

You’ve spent a lot of time visiting smallholder farmers in many countries who are growing, eating, and selling biofortified crops. By and large, do you see the nutritional message resonating with them?

Most of my experience visiting farmers in Africa has been with the [vitamin A] orange sweet potato and the [vitamin A] orange maize in Africa, and biofortification has really resonated with the women farmers. [With] the mothers, the nutrition message really resonates. It is the mothers who are focused on and worry about the nutrition of their children. So, during my visits to villages it’s usually the women who are excited about the idea.

Is the color change from white to yellow or orange for the vitamin A crops advantageous in helping to sell the concept?

In my own mind when I look at my long-run strategy, in a way it’s simpler if [biofortification] nutrients are invisible. By piggybacking on the best varieties coming out of agricultural research systems, over time you’re going to [biofortify] close to 100 percent of the total production. It’s like putting fluoride in the water system, except you don’t do it all at once.

Looking ahead, where do you see HarvestPlus making the most impact in the growing biofortification movement?

One of the very key activities will be that the CGIAR centers mainstream biofortification—that is, that all the varieties that are generated by [research and development] systems are biofortified. I think they’re ready to do it, they want to do it, they understand the value of it, but they need consistent and assured funding for that to happen. And of course, more generous funding will increase the probability that happens more quickly, so we’ll advocate for that and provide technical assistance to the CGIAR centers.

For adoption and scaling up [of biofortification], in each country you must prime the pump, you must make sure seed gets multiplied, you must advertise what you’re doing, you must get several types of actors involved. A release [of a variety] doesn’t mean it is taken up. That’s a huge job that we have—to catalyze biofortified food systems.

[HarvestPlus] has taken the leadership on nutrition efficacy trials. There was a lot of skepticism from the nutrition community fifteen years ago that the added levels of nutrients would be enough. Now the donors are saying, “why do you want to keep doing efficacy trials, the evidence is all there?” So, I think it’s just a matter of consolidating and presenting the nutrition evidence at this point. Maybe there is a role for us to go beyond iron, zinc, and vitamin A and look at other vitamins and minerals and see what we can do with those, but that takes funding and there are long lead times. If we add nutrients, we need a ten-to-fifteen-year lead time to mainstream those in the breeding systems, maybe it’ll go faster this time around because the centers, the whole constellation of actors, understand how well biofortification works.

HarvestPlus recently entered a partnership with the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) to spur commercial uptake of biofortified foods, with a focus on the consumer. Why is this important?

One of the great things about the partnership with GAIN is we’re working with an organization that is highly respected in the nutrition community. Up to this point we’ve relied mainly on agricultural donors. In the nutrition community, we’ve gained acceptance that biofortification works but not acceptance in terms of, “let’s take some of our scarce resources in the nutrition donor community and put them into the delivery of biofortified products.” So, this is huge. Having GAIN come in and say that biofortified products are part of the solution, and we, GAIN, are putting our resources and our effort to make this happen, this really mainstreams biofortification in the nutrition community. I think that’s a huge breakthrough.

How does commercialization relate to the smallholder farming family?

My own vision is that as we take over most of the supply [of staple food seeds], then you’ll automatically reach the smallholder farmer. It depends on the country and it depends on the crop, but you don’t necessarily have to say that the first 10 percent of people who are reached by the crop have to be smallholders because smallholders are our target. To use an analogy, when you have iodized salt, do you just target iodized salt at low income groups? No, you say we need universal iodization and you know that you reach poor people when you have universal iodization of salt, and to me biofortification is the same.

We have a HarvestPlus employee, someone on the staff who worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in the rural areas in Zambia, and she said that the farmers would grow enough [vitamin A] maize for their home consumption and they’d grow [non-biofortified] white maize for the market, because the supply chains hadn’t really developed yet to where the farmers could sell orange maize. So, one of the important things we need to do in Zambia and other countries, is make sure that [vitamin A] orange maize is sold in grocery stores in the capital city. The urban demand pulls the supply through from the rural areas to the urban markets, and that’s how we’re going to reach 90-100 percent of total supply.

It isn’t necessarily the people buying in the grocery stores in the capital city who are our target audience, but it’s when they demand the [vitamin A] orange maize, then you’re well on your way to capturing most of the supply.

You’re retiring after 16 years with HarvestPlus and 37 years in total at IFPRI, which hosts HarvestPlus. What are your plans?

I’m still trying to figure that out! [My wife and I] have a home in the Philippines, and we’ll go back and live there. I’ll continue doing activities for HarvestPlus, giving talks. I’d love to get back and write research papers. My wife and I are writing a book about the history of biofortification and how all this evolved over the last 25 years, so we’re going to work on that.

I’m also chair of the board of the Micronutrient Forum and we’re holding an international conference next March in Bangkok, only nine months away. Preparations are heating up and there’s a lot to do for that conference. And then we’ll just have to see. I’ll definitely play more golf.

What is your favorite biofortified food to eat?

I’ve got to say that it’s [vitamin A] orange maize, because you know we have supplies of it over here in the United States. And I’m friends with Torbert Rocheford, a professor at Purdue [University] and he’s been sending us [vitamin A] orange maize grits in the past. Now orange maize grits are on sale online. When we have guests over for dinner we usually have orange maize on the menu in a variety of recipes.

Any last thoughts?

To me now, the key thing for biofortification is really mainstreaming the breeding, making sure that happens. Funding for that and oversight are critical.