Billions of dollars are spent annually in developing countries to provide supplements and fortified foods to address micronutrient deficiencies. While these interventions boast one of the highest benefit-cost ratios, they require the same recurrent expenditures year after year. Their sustainability is not guaranteed.
Kernel of an Idea
What if we could get plants to do some of this work for us? That was the question Howarth Bouis, a young economist at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), asked himself in the 1990s. It would prove to be the foundational idea for the creation of HarvestPlus a decade later. The road to realize that idea would be long and winding, littered with skepticism and rejections by scientists and donors alike.
In 1993 and with funding from USAID, Howarth “Howdy” Bouis broached his kernel of an idea to breeders at nine CGIAR centers. While a few breeders were intrigued by the concept of developing and releasing high mineral and vitamin varieties, in general the idea was met with much skepticism. Adding additional breeding traits costs money and public funding for agricultural research was on the decline. Moreover, it was assumed that there would be a trade-off between higher yields and higher mineral and vitamin content. Would farmers adopt a less-profitable variety because it was more nutritious? Most breeders did not think so.
That same year, Howdy heard about and visited the Plant, Soil, and Nutrition Laboratory (PSNL), a USDA-ARS facility at Cornell University. It was an encounter that would provide Howdy with further clarity and re-inspire his mission. At PSNL, an interdisciplinary group of scientists had been studying the relationships between minerals in soils, plants, animals, and humans for decades. Howdy met with Ross Welch, who told him that plants needed minerals for their nutrition just as much as humans did. Seedlings got a better start. Yields were higher. Seeding rates could be lowered. Having plants load more minerals into seeds was a strategy to improve plant productivity. Breeding for high seed mineral content was a win-win proposition because it could result in higher plant yields and improved human nutrition.
By chance and soon thereafter, Robin Graham, with whom Welch had published research on zinc and wheat, came to Cornell for a sabbatical from the University of Adelaide. Howdy, Robin, and Ross discussed the potential for agriculture to improve human nutrition, and agreed to work together to do what they could to realize that potential.
The Early Years: The CGIAR Micronutrients Project
In the latter half of 1993, Robin gave seminars at various CGIAR Centers and met with scientists about his joint research with Ross Welch. Presented with this new evidence, scientists from CIAT (beans and cassava), CIMMYT (maize and wheat), IRRI (rice), the USDA-ARS, the University of Adelaide, and other institutions attended a USAID-funded inception meeting in Maryland in January 1994 to discuss launching a project to breed for higher mineral and vitamin content. The hope was to identify five donors who would be willing to contribute $1 million each to this long-run, but potentially high-payoff strategy.
DANIDA, the Danish aid agency, pledged $330,000 per year for three years (1995-1997) to IFPRI — the only donor at the time who would give the concept priority. Efforts were made through 1999, for the most part unsuccessfully, to interest additional CGIAR donors. Robin did secure some complementary funding from the Australian Center for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) during this period.
Under the intellectual leadership of Robin and Ross, the primary research activity during this period was germplasm screening to identify high-nutrient breeding parents, and in general demonstrated the feasibility of a conventional breeding approach to developing high-yielding and high-nutrient varieties. Several individual articles were published. Eventually the accumulated evidence was brought together in what was at the time an exciting breakthrough — an invitation to publish in Advances in Agronomy (Graham, R., R. Welch, and H. Bouis. 2001. Addressing Micronutrient Malnutrition Through the Nutritional Quality of Staple Foods: Principles, Perspectives, and Knowledge Gaps. Advances in Agronomy, volume 70, p. 77-142).
Assembling Broader Support for Biofortification
The discouragement in raising additional funding during 1994-1998 prompted a decision to organize — at IRRI in October 1999 — the second CGIAR-wide meeting on agriculture and nutrition, with funding from Norway and USAID. The idea was to invite plant scientists, nutritionists, and donors (social scientists also attended), to focus discussion on the five years of results coming out of what was called the “CGIAR Micronutrients Project,” to see if interest could be kindled among additional donors. Enthusiasm for a plant breeding strategy was high among the interdisciplinary group of scientists at the conclusion of the three-day meeting. A special edition of the conference proceedings was published in a nutrition journal, the Food and Nutrition Bulletin (Bouis, H., guest editor. 2000. Improving Human Nutrition Through Agriculture. Food and Nutrition Bulletin Special Issue, Volume 21(4)).
Most importantly, one donor stepped forward after the meeting — the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which eventually raised $2 million over three years (2001-2003) for a concerted effort on rice. DANIDA also agreed to continue its crucial annual funding through 2003 so that work could continue on the smaller bean, cassava, maize, and wheat projects.
Shortly after the ADB funding was initiated, Steve Beebe, a bean researcher at CIAT, coined the term “biofortification,” at a meeting convened in early 2001 by CIAT. The meeting aimed to inform representatives of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) and the Micronutrient Initiative (now Nutrition International) about the CGIAR Micronutrients Project and the “biofortification” strategy. The latter later provided co-funding for a pilot dissemination project of vitamin A orange sweet potato in Mozambique.
While the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation turned down the resultant funding request, there were four other important outcomes of the meeting. First, CIAT and IFPRI formed a partnership to identify funding for and coordinate biofortification activities. Second, additional Centers were invited to participate in writing the concept note at a second meeting convened at CIAT later in 2001. IITA was also included as a partner with CIAT on breeding biofortified cassava, and as a partner with CIMMYT in breeding biofortified maize. Third, when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was approached again in 2003 for funding, they were already familiar with the CGIAR and the biofortification strategy. Fourth, when the CGIAR took a decision in early 2002 to “fast-track” three Challenge Programs and invited pre-proposals, an agreed concept note/plan and consortium of collaborating institutions were already in place, which was simply submitted for consideration.
Approval of the Biofortification Challenge Program
By April, 2002 the “Biofortification Challenge Program (BCP)” had been selected as one of three pre-proposals for fast-tracking, which turned out be the huge break for biofortification and the CGIAR Micronutrients project which had been sought for many years.
CIAT and IFPRI entered into a joint venture agreement to co-manage the BCP. A Project Advisory Committee (PAC) would be appointed that would act as a virtual Board of Directors. The PAC would comprise independent, internationally-renowned experts in the several disciplines related to biofortification. The Directors-General and one member each from of CIAT’s and IFPRI’s Boards of Trustees would also be members of the PAC, in consideration of CIAT’s and IFPRI’s ultimate legal responsibilities for BCP activities.
The final BCP proposal was approved by the CGIAR membership at the Annual General Meeting held in Manila in November 2002. The proposal called for $50 million in funding over the first four years. The World Bank provided $3 million in funding for the first year of each approved Challenge Program. When the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation learned of the co-funding being provided by CGIAR donors and the rigorous process through which the BCP proposal had been coursed (including eight anonymous reviews with oversight by the Science Council), the application was re-opened and by October, 2003, a contract for $25 million (50% of $50 million over the first four years) in funding had been signed.
Over time, a Phase I (2003-2008) for the BCP (renamed “HarvestPlus” by mid-2003) had been defined as a “discovery” stage. During this phase, HarvestPlus identified target populations and conducted proof-of-concept research to prove the feasibility of biofortification.
Phase 2 (2009-2013) was a period during which (1) breeding of a first wave of biofortified crops were completed and approved for release by national varietal release committees, (2) nutritional efficacy trials were expected to be completed, and (3) delivery plans were developed.
During a Phase 3 (2014-2018), HarvestPlus activities would then concentrate on delivery and scaling up biofortified crops.
In addition during Phases 1 and 2, HarvestPlus sponsored “country programs” in Brazil, China, and India. These are large countries which produce/consume multiple HarvestPlus crops in significant amounts, and which eventually may influence the spread of biofortification regionally. The strategy was to foster development of central institutions and government funding to advocate for and coordinate biofortification activities for several crops in-country, and later regionally.