In the latest endorsement of biofortification as an effective approach to addressing global nutrition challenges, several United Nations agencies have jointly recommended including it as a food-based element in strategies to reduce the incidence of childhood wasting.
Wasting, also known as acute malnutrition, is characterized by a rapid deterioration in nutritional status over a short period of time in children under five years of age. It is a strong predictor of child mortality. In the Global Action Plan on Child Wasting (GAP), the UN agencies highlight priority actions on the prevention and treatment of this serious condition. The objective of the GAP is to reduce the prevalence of wasting among children under five to less than 5 percent by 2025 and to less than 3 percent by 2030, from an estimated 7.3 percent currently.
Development of the GAP was coordinated by the World Health Organization (WHO) in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Food Programme (WFP), and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA). All of these agencies play important roles in global health and nutrition strategies and programs.
To achieve the GAP’s objectives, the Plan outlines actions aimed at four key outcomes: reduced incidence of low birth weight; improved child health; improved infant and young child feeding; and improved treatment of children with wasting. These will directly contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goal targets on wasting. SDG2 aims to end by 2030 all forms of malnutrition, including wasting, stunting, overweight and vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
The GAP report states that, for reducing the instance of low birth weight through food systems, the fundamental approach entails “biofortification of staple crops using conventional breeding techniques as part of food security and resilience agricultural strategies to improve diets of vulnerable rural communities that rely heavily on few staples.”
Similarly, for improved infant and young child feeding, biofortification can play a crucial role in providing essential nutritional benefits: “Strengthen food value chains that aim to improve the availability and affordability of healthy and nutritious diets, for all vulnerable groups at all times, including animal source foods, pulses, fruits and vegetables, biofortified crops (using conventional crop breeding methods) and fortified complementary food, when needed.”
Biofortification is the process of breeding staple food crops to contain higher micronutrient content. Biofortified staples can be a source of micronutrients throughout the life cycle: An infant’s good nutrition begins with a healthy mother who provides proper nutrition prenatally and during lactation, as well as adequate care during key phases of growth and development. Food-based interventions like biofortification are key to addressing the inter-generational cycle of malnutrition.
Publication of the GAP was preceded in December 2019 by a technical consultation on the prevention and treatment of wasting at WHO headquarters in Geneva. At the time, the WHO noted that “the reduction of mortality linked to wasting will require a multipronged approach, including prevention of low birth weight and wasting in infancy and early childhood, early identification of wasting before children develop medical complications and before their nutritional status deteriorates, and scaling up treatment of wasted children.” Biofortification, based on its solid evidence base, has now been incorporated into the holistic strategy formulated by the UN agencies, which will serve as a roadmap to counter child wasting.
The inclusion of biofortification in the GAP follows recent endorsements of this food-based approach by other leading organizations in the global food security and nutrition sphere. For example, in November 2019, the WFP updated its local and regional food procurement policy to include biofortified crop procurement as an objective. WFP has been increasing the share of food procurement it carries out locally; as supplies of biofortified crops become more available in WFP priority countries, the new rules can pave the way for their use in WFP’s relief and other activities.
Meanwhile, UNICEF noted in its State of the World’s Children Report 2019: “Biofortification can reach vulnerable young children living in rural areas with limited access to diverse diets and commercially marketed fortified foods.” The report states that around 200 million children under five suffer from undernutrition. It provides an analysis of malnutrition in the 21st century and outlines recommendations to put children’s needs at the heart of global and national food systems.
In Oct. 2019, the FAO and WHO jointly released Sustainable Healthy Diets: Guiding Principles, which mentions biofortification as one of the complementary interventions whose promotion can improve micronutrient intake and can contribute to healthy diets. HarvestPlus is working closely with FAO on a number of initiatives in biofortification which aim to achieve the goal of improved nutrition through a food-systems approach. The brief “Biofortification: A Food-system Solution to End Hidden Hunger”, produced jointly by HarvestPlus and FAO, seeks to encourage the adoption and scaling up of biofortification through national policies and programs. It presents the latest evidence from rigorous research and implementation lessons learned on how biofortification can contribute to improving food systems for all.
With the help of hundreds of partners around the world, HarvestPlus is developing and promoting new, more nutritious varieties of staple food crops with higher amounts of vitamin A, iron or zinc—three micronutrients identified by WHO as most lacking in diets globally. Our goal is to deliver nutrition for healthier mothers and children who are better able to survive, to learn, and to lead productive lives—thereby improving the well-being and productivity of their families, communities and countries.