Panama Tackles Hidden Hunger Through an Innovative Project
December 9, 2020

Since 2013, a multidisciplinary model has promoted biofortified rice, bean, corn and sweet potato crops in Panama. The project, which has helped 230,000 people fight hidden hunger, has been included among the country's public policies.

Twenty-five percent of the soils in Panama are suitable for agricultural use. However, some 400,000 people in rural areas consume insufficient amounts of micronutrients, a situation that severely restricts human and socioeconomic development in the region and the country.

Of the 4.2 million inhabitants of Panama, a large percentage of adults and children are overweight or obese, according to official data from 2015. Anemia affects many children of all ages and almost 50 percent of all pregnant women, while vitamin A deficiency is present in approximately 25 percent of all children under 5 years of age. 

AgroNutre Panama, a project led by Instituto de Innovación Agropecuaria de Panamá (IDIAP) and implemented with the support of HarvestPlus, was created in 2013 to promote the development and consumption of biofortified foods. These highly profitable and environmentally friendly varieties are obtained through low-cost, conventional breeding techniques for genetic improvement.

The solution started with the creation of AgroNutre, an inter-institutional and multidisciplinary partnership that covered technical, social, food, health and educational areas.

With the support of a group of experts that included HarvestPlus, a world leader in biofortification, AgroNutre obtained the biofortified germplasm of corn, beans, rice and sweet potato needed to carry out genetic improvement. 

Through crossing, the group obtained nutritionally superior materials that were resistant to the main pests and adaptable to family farming systems. Later, seeds were multiplied so that biofortified varieties could be delivered to farmers in high-risk areas, where the most frequent staples are rice, corn and beans.

To broaden the impact of the solution, the team continually supplies varieties to respond to zone-specific deficiencies, trains producers in cultivation methods, and promotes food education in school gardens.

"My idea is to teach other farmers how to manage the crop so that they too can thrive," said Arquímedes Peralta, a farmer in Panama.

Today, Panama produces 12 biofortified crop varieties, benefiting 812 rural communities, and reaching hundreds of locations and thousands of farmers. Intensive cultivation of biofortified rice, an initiative co-financed by FONTAGRO, resulted in 20 platforms of 250 smallholder farmers that achieved greater rice production for their own consumption, with less environmental impact and greater sustainability for family farming. A range of studies have been carried out among the beneficiary populations to validate the acceptance of biofortified foods when compared with traditional varieties.

Sweet potatoes are relatively new to Panama. Currently, some 40 farmers have started to promote biofortified sweet potatoes among urban populations. Some communities are placing washed and packed sweet potatoes in one of the country's large supermarket chains.

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