A new book highlights the valuable role of biofortification and other agricultural innovations in improving nutrition. Edited by Shenggen Fan, Sivan Yosef, and Rajul Pandya-Lorch of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and published by IFPRI and CABI, Agriculture for Improved Nutrition: Seizing the Momentum reviews the latest findings, results from on-the-ground programs and interventions, and recent policy experiences from countries bringing agriculture and nutrition closer together.
Chapter five, “Improving Nutrition through Biofortification,” written by Howdy Bouis, Amy Saltzman, and Ekin Birol of HarvestPlus presents biofortification as one efficacious, cost-effective and scalable solution for tackling micronutrient deficiencies caused by the lack of essential vitamins and minerals in the diet.
Biofortification involves increasing the density of vitamins and minerals in a staple crop through plant breeding or agronomic practices, so that their regular consumption generates measurable improvements in nutrition and health outcomes. This practical, food-based solution targets rural families who tend to consume what they produce and whose diets mainly rely on staple crops. These new, nutritious varieties are attractive to both farmers and consumers—as they are developed to have desired agronomic properties like higher yield, tolerance to major pests, diseases, drought, as well as taste and cooking attributes that consumers look for.
“Biofortification is by no means a silver bullet for elimination of hidden hunger, but as the evidence we present in this chapter shows, it is a golden opportunity for improving diets, with small and cost-effective tweaks in the current food system,” said Ekin Birol, author and director of impact and strategy at HarvestPlus.
The chapter explores what is known about the innovation’s ability to improve nutrition and health outcomes, then provides examples of how partnering has helped to scale it thus far. Several peer-reviewed efficacy trials have demonstrated the impact of biofortified crops on nutrition and health outcomes. For instance, iron-biofortified beans and pearl millet can significantly improve nutrition and cognition across continents and populations. Vitamin A orange sweet potatoes can increase vitamin A body stores across age groups and decrease the likelihood and duration of diarrhea in young children. When young children consumed vitamin A maize, their night vision improved. Less was known about the impact of zinc biofortification at the time the chapter was written but since then evidence was published on the efficacy of zinc crops in reducing illness in children and their mothers.
Evidence also suggests that farmers are willing to grow the crops and consumers are willing to eat them. In the case of sweet potatoes and cassava, which require farmers to plant vines and stems, respectively, small-scale, informal actors drive the planting process. Distributing bundles of planting material, agronomic training, and nutritional information, then requesting that recipients pay-it-forward piques interest and provides a low-risk way to test the product. Self-pollinated crops like pearl millet, beans, wheat, and rice can be replanted for many years, so the public sector typically multiplies and distributes seed for farmers to disseminate further. Hybrid crops like maize and some pearl millet varieties—which need to be replaced annually to maintain their yield and agronomic properties—offer the most potential for private sector commercialization, but the speed of uptake depends on demand creation efforts.
Successful scaling and sustainability of biofortification depend on several factors, including the recognition of biofortification among global regulatory agencies and integration into development policies and programs. Progress toward the development of a definition and standards for biofortification continues via the Codex Alimentarius, the international food standards-setting body, and recommendations from the World Health Organization are anticipated during 2019. Multilateral institutions like the African Development Bank and the World Bank are integrating biofortified crops into their portfolios, and nongovernmental organizations like World Vision play a key role in delivery by incorporating biofortified crops into its agriculture, health and nutrition programs.
Biofortification is just one way in which agriculture has been used to improve nutrition, and as it gets scaled up, it is likely to significantly reduce the number of people suffering from hidden hunger and help them to have healthy, productive lives.