What is micronutrient deficiency?

Micronutrient deficiency, also known as “hidden hunger,” refers to a lack of essential vitamins and minerals (micronutrients) in the diet. It affects more than 2 billion people, mostly in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).

Low-income farming households and consumers in LMICs often can’t readily access or afford fruits and vegetables and high-quality protein foods, vitamin supplements, or foods fortified with micronutrients. They rely on inexpensive but less nourishing staple foods like corn, rice, or cassava, which often 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 increasing the density of micronutrients in widely-consumed staple crops through conventional breeding techniques, agronomic practices, or genetic modification. When eaten, they can provide essential micronutrients to improve nutrition and health. Biofortification focuses on increasing crops’ content of iron, zinc, and vitamin A, deficiencies in which account for the majority of the health burden from hidden hunger. Learn More

Is biofortification a “silver bullet” to address hidden hunger?

There are no silver bullets for addressing hidden hunger, which requires a combination of strategies. Ideally, everyone would be able to access and afford diverse, nourishing diets that provides sufficient amounts of micronutrients, but we are far from this being the case for billions of people around the world.  

Biofortification was developed primarily to meet the needs of rural farming households with limited access to micronutrient-rich foods or other nutrition interventions such as industrial fortification and supplementation. Biofortification is a food systems-based approach that improves the nutrient value of the staple foods these families often depend on.

Biofortification is now widely recognized as a key pillar in complementary nutrition strategies. HarvestPlus Founding Director Howdy Bouis and three other biofortification pioneers were awarded the prestigious World Food Prize in 2016 for their efforts to advance this technology. 

What is the evidence that biofortification works?

There is a robust body of peer-reviewed, published scientific evidence that vitamins and minerals from biofortified foods can improve nutritional status and health outcomes. For example, research has 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 reverse iron deficiency and improve physical and cognitive performance. Learn More.

Who is likely to benefit most from biofortification’s nutritional impact?

Biofortification is intended to benefit those lower-income populations most vulnerable to deficiencies in micronutrients: young children, adolescent girls, and women of childbearing age.

Nutrient targets in biofortified crop breeding are set with these populations in mind. When eaten regularly, biofortified crops can provide as much as 40 percent to 100 percent of daily needs for a given micronutrient. In addition, several varieties of biofortified crops are bred to have traits that benefit women-such as shorter cooking time for some varieties of iron bean, and higher dry matter content in some varieties of vitamin A cassava.

Are biofortified nutritious crops cost-effective?

Yes. The 2008 Copenhagen Consensus, composed of some of the world’s leading economists, estimated the health benefit-to-cost ratio of biofortified nutritious crops at $17 of benefits for every $1 invested.

Once a micronutrient is bred into a crop line, that trait remains in the crop. This makes the process of biofortification sustainable and cost-effective over time. Biofortified varieties also do not cost farming households more to grow than non-biofortified counterparts, and their yields are at least as high. Biofortified varieties are also competitive in terms of disease and pest resistance, as well as being climate-smart, with drought and heat tolerance. 

Biofortified crops also generate new livelihood opportunities for farming households as well as other actors in seed and food value chains.

Are biofortified crops developed through genetic modification (GM)?

Biofortification of staple crops can be done through conventional crop breeding, agronomic practices (such as through application of fertilizers), or genetic modification (GM). So far, only one GM biofortified crop-Golden Rice-has been approved for commercial propagation, in the Philippines.

To date, all biofortified crops developed and released through the efforts of HarvestPlus and its partners have been through conventional plant breeding. However HarvestPlus, as a part of the CGIAR, does not oppose the use of GM methods to develop biofortified crops. We recognize the strong potential of GM and other novel approaches, which offer innovative and efficient ways to improve the nutrient content and nutrient bioavailability of crops.

Our biofortification work is always demand-led; it is guided by the stated preferences, policies, regulations, and legislation of the countries in which we operate. We respect the right of governments to determine the best interests of their countries and citizens, based on the available evidence.

Who is leading efforts in developing, utilizing and scaling biofortified crops?

HarvestPlus is part of the CGIAR and leads the global biofortification effort, in collaboration with its CGIAR agricultural research partners, national agricultural research systems, national governments, international bodies, researchers, NGOs, and the private sector. As biofortified crops have gained broad acceptance and uptake, HarvestPlus is focusing more on its catalyzer, capacity strengthener, and coordinator role, with country governments leading the way forward.

Where have biofortified crops been released?

Nearly 400 varieties of 12 staple food crops have been released in 40 countries, with hundreds more varieties in testing in these countries and 23 others. To date, the largest number of crops are available or being tested in Africa.

Will farmers grow biofortified crops, including those 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 are competitive agronomically with non-biofortified counterpart varieties, and because farmers can see the benefits of consumer biofortified crops for their families. We also have strong evidence of continued adoption over a period of years. Learn More

Do farming households need to buy new biofortified seeds every season?

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, such as iron pearl millet and vitamin A maize, farmers usually purchase fresh seed for each planting season to maintain high productivity. Given that some low-income farming households may not be able to afford annual purchases, HarvestPlus and its partners also develop “open-pollinated” varieties of these biofortified crops, which can be re-planted for more than one season. 

How does the biofortification process work? How do the seeds get to 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.
  • CGIAR plant breeders then spend up 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 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 for distribution to farming households.
  • Some seeds will reach farmers through private seed companies; even in low-income countries, many farmers 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; through government-run agricultural support schemes; 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.
  • The farmers then grow and harvest the crops, typically keeping most for home consumption (and therefore for improved nutrition for the family) and selling any surplus in local markets to support their livelihoods.
  • Aggregators purchase surplus harvest from farmers and package it for resale to processors and food companies.
  • SME and other foods businesses manufacture food products sold to rural and urban consumers.
  • The end result of this whole process: healthier women and children who are better able to thrive, learn, and lead productive lives. This improves the well-being of their families, communities and countries.

Do people like to eat biofortified foods?

From the very beginning of the research process, consumers’ preferences (including taste, smell, texture, and cooking time) are taken into account. There is solid evidence that people like eating biofortified foods, even before they know that these foods are more nutritious. People like them even better once they know about the nutritional benefits.

Research has shown that 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.

Is biofortification being scaled up to reach many more farming households and consumers?

Yes. Biofortification is being scaled sustainably by embedding it in national and local food systems, which is the focus of the HarvestPlus scaling strategy.

The focus of scaling activities is to engage, empower, and enable partners in the public, private, international, and NGO sectors to autonomously drive increased production and consumption of biofortified planting material, crops, and foods.

The HarvestPlus scaling strategy has four main elements:
•    Support biofortification mainstreaming in crop breeding programs
•    Facilitate partnerships in seed, crop, and food value chains
•    Strengthen enabling environments through evidence-led engagement
•    Expand and communicate the scientific evidence base

Learn more about our approach to scaling in this brief on zinc wheat in Pakistan.