This Op-Ed was originally published through Inter Press Service
As World Hunger Day May 28 approaches, it is time for us all to redouble our efforts to reach the goal of Zero Hunger by prioritizing the battle against micronutrient deficiency. If the international community pulls together this year to incorporate proven solutions such as biofortifying crops into the UN framework for sustainable development, we could reduce malnutrition on a truly global scale.
Previous UN-led efforts, including the Millennium Development Goals, and the current Sustainable Development Goals set targets for countries to lift themselves out of poverty and hunger. With the support of multiple UN initiatives and partners, the number of undernourished people in developing countries has decreased by nearly half since 1990. This is encouraging.
However, one-third of the world’s population continues to suffer from ‘hidden hunger,’ caused by a lack of essential vitamins and minerals. Even if people have enough calories to eat, they can still suffer from ‘hidden hunger’ if their only food options do not contain the necessary micronutrients.
Zinc, vitamin A and iron are three of the more important micronutrients for health, according to the World Health Organization. Each of these nutrients play a critical role in normal body functions. A diet lacking in these nutrients presents a major threat to human health, potentially causing stunting, decreased cognitive ability, diarrheal disease, auto-immune deficiency, blindness and early child mortality. Around 375,000 children go blind each year as a result of a lack of vitamin A; and zinc deficiency causes 450,000 deaths annually.
More than 2 billion people suffer from hidden hunger globally, and there is a ripple effect that has consequences for the entire population. The World Bank estimates that in Pakistan malnutrition costs the country $7.6 billion, or 3 percent of its GDP annually. Likewise, the African Union estimates that Rwanda loses more than 11 percent of its GDP due to child undernutrition alone.
Countries with high levels of malnutrition must contend with these cumulative effects of high healthcare costs and lost productivity wherever they are in the world.
There are a number of solutions to address micronutrient deficiency, but crop biofortification can reach communities where traditional supplementation and food fortification potentially cannot. Growing more nutritious versions of everyday food crops is a simple, sustainable and cost-effective solution that does not place any undue burden on farmers. These biofortified crops are also widely accepted by consumers, as extensive research is done to ensure the crops look and taste similar to the traditional varieties.
HarvestPlus has spent the past 14 years working with leading research institutes to prove that biofortified crops, which contain greater quantities of vitamin A, iron and zinc than standard varieties, can reach communities that need them.
In India, iron-biofortified pearl millet provides children with 70 percent of daily iron requirements. More than a million Indian farmers have embraced the more nutritious variety, which is also high yielding and drought tolerant, providing farmers with a more stable income while simultaneously bolstering their family’s nutrition.
A study of iron-deficient women between the ages of 18 and 27 in Rwanda proved that eating biofortified beans high in iron reversed iron deficiency in just four-and-a-half months. In a region plagued by hot weather and drought, iron beans present the added benefit of being high yielding, drought resistant and heat tolerant.
Countries across the world are already embracing the science of biofortification. The government of Zambia launched a campaign to get schools to grow and feed their students vitamin A-biofortified orange maize, while Brazil is distributing biofortified crops to schools through its states’ school feeding programs.
In Uganda, five iron-rich bean varieties were released last year as part of the government’s strategy to tackle malnutrition and reduce anemia, especially in children and expectant mothers. These countries, among many others, have chosen to implement a proven, cost-effective solution to address micronutrient deficiency and they are relying on international organizations like the United Nations to provide additional support.
Earlier this year, HarvestPlus made a public commitment to work with UN agencies and member states to be part of the decade of action on nutrition. In line with our commitment, we are calling on all governments and institutions to help us scale up the introduction of biofortified foods by bridging the gap that exists between agriculture and nutrition.
If we can work with the UN, national governments and farming communities to encourage the adoption of this breakthrough innovation, we can help lift one billion people out of poverty and hidden hunger just by providing access to a diverse and nutritious diet.