In every step of commercial supply chains, purchasers look to standards to ensure that suppliers are providing valid products and services. Standards are essential for buyers to know what they are getting and to document transactions so that users further along the value chain know where their product has originated. Standards allow for smooth transactions of goods, and ultimately protect the consumer.

Nutrient enriched crops, also called biofortified crops, are a relatively recent innovation developed by HarvestPlus and its CGIAR global agricultural research partners to improve the micronutrient content of the world’s most-widely consumed staples, without use of transgenic modification. The primary objective of these traditionally bred crops is to tackle micronutrient deficiency (hidden hunger) on a large scale. 

However, on the commercial side, there are gaps in the development of markets and related enabling environments to accommodate trade in these biofortified grains. A lack of product standards is a particularly important issue, which HarvestPlus and the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) are working to address through the Commercialisation of Biofortified Crops (CBC) Programme.  

The importance of grain standards in trade and scale-up 

The lack of standards for grain has been identified as a binding constraint to the scale up and commercialization of biofortified seeds, grains, and foods. Reviews such as Improving Nutrition through Biofortification: From Strategy to Implementation and Commercialization assessments of biofortified crops further articulated and explored this important barrier. The unanimous conclusion of these reviews found that grain is a pivotal point for major trade in the value chain and this gap in standards will inhibit scale up.  Users or buyers of grain do not have a reference point or a benchmark for what makes a grain nutrient enriched compared to the standard grain.  

To be sure, the lack of standards has not prevented biofortified crops from gaining ground in recent years; biofortified crops promoted by HarvestPlus and its partners are currently benefiting  42 million people so far. But many millions more people could be benefiting if standards were in place.

Rigorous scientific standards for biofortified crops have guided the release of more than 240 certified varieties promoted by HarvestPlus. Its partners within the CGIAR, and partners among national agricultural research systems (NARS), only release varieties with micronutrient density based on target levels that have been scientifically shown to  have a demonstrable effect on consumers’ health. Unfortunately, this does not guarantee that other breeders and institutions will necessarily follow the same scientific guidelines, which may lead to the market release of substandard varieties with lower micronutrient content. 

For the most part, home (on-farm) consumption, small-scale trade at the local level, and trade with micro food businesses are not held back by a lack of grain standards. These value chain actors generally trade without paperwork;  there is typically no documentation for any food labelling or food safety standards. 

However, a lack of standards does prevent trade at more-organized levels in the food system, such as among medium- to large-scale millers, food processers, and retailers. In addition, public procurers of food deal at the grain level—for example, the Public Distribution System in India, the World Food Programme, and procurement for institutions such as schools and hospitals; these are all examples of buyers who will demand grain that conforms to a specific standard.  For the private sector and agribusinesses, they currently find it difficult if not impossible to be part of the biofortification system because there are no standards specifically built to aid procurement. 

“Establishing standards for biofortification will provide assurances for all those in the value chain that crop varieties conform to agreed specifications, said Paul Nicholson, vice president and head of Rice Research and Sustainability at Olam International Limited, a food and agribusiness company. “Creating clarity will enable Olam to better work with growers in our supply chain to meet market demand, as well as provide certainty to customers that they are sourcing commodities that are identified as nutrient enriched,” he added.  

 BSI, HarvestPlus develop grain standards

After careful scenario analysis with the CBC, HarvestPlus will develop an internationally relevant, Publicly Available Specification (PAS) through the British Standards Institute (BSI).  This first standard will cover  zinc maize, rice, and wheat, followed by two more standards for iron (beans, pearl millet) and vitamin A (maize, casava, sweet potato). Zinc was given priority because it has the potential for the largest consumer impact, given that countries producing zinc crops are high-population India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. It would be more efficient to develop global standards based on nutrient rather than going by crop and country. 

BSI and HarvestPlus first collaborated at a workshop in London funded by the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO): Proceedings of the “Working together to consider the role of biofortification in the global food chain”. BSI and HarvestPlus together have  unique insight on the barriers to commercialization and what value chain actors need to procure more high zinc grains. 

“Implementing standards inspires confidence in your business and sets you apart from the competition. And, crucially for your bottom line, it can drive down costs, boost productivity and improve profits. It can also help retain existing customers and open doors to new markets. We are happy to partner with HarvestPlus on this globally relevant project,” said Sara Walton, Standards, Knowledge and Engagement lead from BSI.

PAS is an internationally developed standard  created for and in partnership with end users.  It is not a regulation that requires enforcement. Manufacturers may use the new standard to demonstrate best practice and compliance. 

The published PAS will be taken to countries where the CBC Programme is currently present (Bangladesh, Kenya, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Tanzania) and entered into local databases of standards.  All CBC Programme countries are part of the Commonwealth Standards Group that shares the adoption and dissemination of standards.  At the time of publication and dissemination, CBC experts will reach out to the standards bodies and the governments of each country to create awareness and promote adoption.  

Importantly, this standard will be used in public procurement—for example, by the public distribution system in India—which can specifically refer to the standards when procuring nutrient enriched/biofortified grains.  The standard will also be widely disseminated within the private seed, food, and grain industries globally to increase the demand for grain that conforms to these standards.

COVID-19 pandemic highlights value of nutrient enriched crops

Demand for nutrient enriched crops is increasing. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact countries around the world, even more people will be plunged into poverty and rely more on relatively inexpensive staple foods.  Estimates based on growth projections from the June 2020 Global Economic Prospects report show that, when compared with pre-crisis forecasts, COVID-19 could push up to 100 million more people into extreme poverty.  

Since people have less money to spend on food, they rely on the purchase of cheap staples to fill their stomachs.  Food assistance is increasing due to the crisis, so it is essential that we enable humanitarian response agencies to procure the right ingredients.  

Zinc is critical to immune function, which is our first line of defense in battling the virus and other health threats.  Zinc enriched varieties promoted by HarvestPlus can contain up to 50 percent more zinc than standard crop varieties.   

“The proven role of zinc in bolstering immunity to viruses and other health threats provides another good reason for our support for breeding wheat and rice varieties with elevated zinc,” said Lawrence Kent, Senior Program Officer, Agricultural Development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is a funder of HarvestPlus. 

Process and publication 

The proposed nutrient enriched crop standard for zinc is currently in open public consultation. This can be found on the BSI website PAS 233:2021 Cereal and cereal products. Increased zinc content wheat, maize and rice grain for food for human consumption.

The PAS process is expected to be completed in August 2021.  Customers and users of zinc wheat can then immediately begin to demand zinc wheat that conforms to the new standard.  Working together with GAIN, the CBC program will then promote and embed the published standard into local food supply chains from seed to the hands of the consumer. 

The Commercialisation of Biofortified Crops Programme is co-led by the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) and HarvestPlus, with funding from Germany’s Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 

For more information about the zinc PAS, please see the BSI website, or contact Jenny Walton.