A review of current evidence on the nutritional impact of iron-biofortified staple crops reinforces the findings and strength of existing research. Regular consumption of these high-iron varieties, including beans and pearl millet, reduces iron deficiency in vulnerable population groups such as schoolchildren and non-pregnant young women. 

“This is the first systematic review of randomized biofortification efficacy trials,” notes Julia Finkelstein, lead author of the review recently published in Current Opinion in Biotechnology. “It provides an encouraging synthesis that highlights the strength of the evidence.”

The review analyzed randomized efficacy trials conducted in Asia and Africa. Those trials found significant improvement in the iron status of adolescent boys and girls in India and university-aged women in Rwanda after only a few months of consuming iron-biofortified crops.

“The findings demonstrate that biofortification with iron consistently improves iron status, across continents and population groups,” says Erick Boy, the head of nutrition at HarvestPlus, which is working with partners to promote biofortified crops around the world.

HarvestPlus leads the development and dissemination of iron-rich and other biofortified crops as a strategy to improve nutrition and public health by reducing deficiencies in micronutrients (iron, vitamin A, or zinc). Such deficiencies affect some two billion people globally, and can compromise the immune system, impair physical and cognitive development, and even lead to death.

“This review supports HarvestPlus’ goal to expand the reach of biofortification to other high-risk groups that could also benefit,” says Jere Haas, a co-author of the review. “The experiences from these landmark efficacy trials have informed new community-based studies that focus on additional high-risk populations, like very young children.”

The paper also asserts the protective role that biofortification can play in preventing iron deficiency by increasing the total amount of iron stored in the body—a critical condition for young women prior to pregnancy, for example.

HarvestPlus’ ongoing research on the additional effects of consuming biofortified beans and pearl millet on everyday life, such as on physical activity and learning capacity, aims to provide further support for the impact that these crops can have on human health and productivity globally.

Note: the review was updated in January 2019 to include additional findings on cognitive and functional outcomes.