Two recently released policy reports—the Global Nutrition Report and the African Development Bank’s nutrition action plan—identify a key role for biofortification in strategies to address worrisome malnutrition trends.
Biofortification is the process of breeding micronutrient-rich staple food crops using conventional plant breeding techniques to address deficiencies of essential vitamins and minerals. Foods produced from these crops can help reduce malnutrition, which is responsible for more ill health globally than any other cause. Malnutrition also has a significant impact on social and economic development; estimates from a forthcoming Lancet study on the global burden of disease suggest that malnutrition in all its forms could cost the world economy up to US$3.5 trillion annually.
The annual Global Nutrition Report, an influential publication on the status of malnutrition around the world, reviews trends and recommends solutions to address this serious issue. Independently produced by a group of experts, the report aims to inspire action to end malnutrition.
Given that diet is both a cause of and a solution for malnutrition, the report’s authors urge policymakers to ensure access to and consumption of nutritious and affordable foods and focus on solutions—biofortification among them—that help meet people’s nutrient intake needs (see page 88 of the report). Biofortification is also included in a group of nutrition-sensitive investments that address the underlying causes of undernutrition (see page 96).
The Global Nutrition Report also highlights the importance of collecting more and better data to accurately understand the burden of micronutrient malnutrition and encourages the prioritization of adolescent nutrition to break the cycle of intergenerational malnutrition and ill health.
The African Development Bank, in its Multi-Sectoral Nutrition Action Plan for 2018-2025, pledges to invest in “grey matter infrastructure,” or brainpower, to ensure populations can reach their full cognitive potential. Under the plan, the Bank aims to support a reduction of 40 percent in the number of African children whose cognitive and physical growth and development are impaired by poor nutrition. Currently more than a third of the world’s stunted children under age five reside in Africa.
In the plan, the Bank commits to prioritizing nutrition-smart investments that can complement supplementation and other actions taken by the health sector. By redesigning programs to have maximum nutritional impact, the Bank also aims to minimize the cost of action while lowering the cost of hunger to member states; the Bank estimates member states’ gross domestic product is annually reduced by between 2 and 17 percent by the impact of hunger. Biofortification is identified as one of the interventions with “the greatest impact on nutrition” in the agricultural sector (page 7 of the report).
The Bank also commits to increasing the production and consumption of safe and nutritious foods by integrating nutrition-smart interventions into projects in its agricultural funding pipeline. The Bank’s Technologies for African Agricultural Transformation projects seek to increase production through activities that include scaling up biofortified nutritious crops. The African Leaders of Nutrition (ALN), an initiative of the Bank and the African Union, has played a key role in encouraging member states to elevate nutrition as a driver of economic growth and development. Howdy Bouis, the CEO and founder of HarvestPlus, was welcomed into the ALN earlier this year to address the pervasive challenge of micronutrient micronutrition via the use of biofortification.
As the late Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary-General, wrote in 2018, “Nutrition is one of the best drivers of development: it sparks a virtuous cycle of socioeconomic improvements, such as increasing access to education and employment.” Better nourished children perform better in school and earn more in the labor market, healthier workforces are more productive, and resources previously diverted to healthcare and disease treatment are saved.