The genesis of biofortification began with a series of research questions. Billions of dollars are spent annually in developing countries on supplementation and commercial fortification to address the problem of micronutrient malnutrition. Benefit-cost ratios are among the highest of any intervention that can be made. However, the same recurrent expenditures are incurred year after year.
What if we could get plants to do some of this work for us? For example, modern varieties of rice and wheat are consumed widely and in large quantities three times a day in poor households throughout South and Southeast Asia. Newly-improved varieties are constantly be developed and released to replace the original modern varieties. What if the seeds of these new varieties (the edible portions) were higher in iron and zinc?
Research, beginning with proof of concept, is the bedrock of HarvestPlus’s work. For biofortification to be successful, three broad questions must be addressed:
- Can breeding add the target increment to achieve the micronutrient density in food staples that nutritionists have determined will make a measurable and significant impact on nutritional status?
- When consumed under controlled conditions, will the extra nutrients bred into the food staples be bioavailable and absorbed at sufficient levels to improve micronutrient status?
- Will farmers adopt the biofortified varieties and will consumers buy/eat them in sufficient quantities?
Impact Research Unit (IRU)
The purpose of the IRU is to lead evidence-based, multi-disciplinary research to (i) inform/guide cost-effective and high impact biofortification investments and (ii) measure socio-economic, nutrition, and agronomic impact of biofortification in both target and expansion countries.
Within HarvestPlus the role of the IRU is to lead the following four research areas to support the overall HarvestPlus strategy:
- Impact research includes impact evaluation (effectiveness) and impact assessment studies, and aims to measure (i) the impact of biofortification on key outcome variables (adoption, diffusion, micronutrient intake and deficiency status), and (ii) cost-effectiveness of biofortification interventions. These studies are considered as the proof of concept/generating evidence on the impact of biofortification on health and other livelihoods outcomes. Such evidence is requested by several stakeholders who would be instrumental in scaling up biofortification. This research is conducted in close collaboration with other research units.
- Strategic research includes global and sub-national BPIs and ex ante cost-effectiveness analysis. The main aims of this research are (i) to identify high impact/least cost crop-micronutrient combinations to invest in for biofortification both across and within countries, and (ii) to estimate the long run impact and cost-effectiveness of biofortification across crop-country-micronutrient combinations, and to compare cost-effectiveness of biofortification to other micronutrient interventions in these countries. This information is necessary to support internal and external decisions on where and in which crop-micronutrient combinations to invest in (for both breeding and delivery efforts) for maximum impact (micronutrient deficient consumers/producers reached) at the least cost. Such information is requested by several stakeholders (national governments, donors, seed companies, etc) interested in investing in biofortification.
- Marketing research includes consumer acceptance research, crop situation analysis, value/supply chain studies and seed/food sector landscape analysis, all which aim to generate information on (i) whether or not consumers/farmers like biofortified foods/crops and what are the mechanisms that would maximize their consumption/adoption, (ii) the current food/crop consumption/production decisions and how these decisions are made to suggest how best to use/change them for maximum consumption/adoption of biofortified varieties, (iii) bottlenecks and opportunities along the food and seed value/supply chains and sectors to understand how best to position biofortified varieties.
- Country-specific research includes farmer feedback studies, analysis of various data collected by country teams, quantitative/qualitative evaluation of various country level initiatives/pilot experiments. These studies aim to support country level efforts in target countries by advising them on the effectiveness/impact of their various initiatives for scale up in order to reach country specific targets. They are conducted in close collaboration with the country teams.
Vision: IRU will spearhead relevant, high quality and innovative research to prove the concept of biofortification. IRU will expand its depth and breadth to continue to influence the global biofortification agenda.
Biofortification is a nutrition-smart agricultural intervention supported by robust scientific evidence demonstrating that regular consumption of traditionally cooked biofortified food crops improves the nutritional status of the most vulnerable groups: rural and marginal-urban, poor women of child bearing age (pregnant or not) and children 0-24 months of age. HarvestPlus nutrition generates the research required to consolidate the case for single-nutrient crops and extend its proof of concept approach to traditional combinations of biofortified crops.
These are the specific research objectives of the HarvestPlus Nutrition Unit:
Generation of critical evidence on the efficacy, effectiveness and safety of biofortified crops:
To consolidate the evidence for efficacy of single and combinations of multiple biofortified crops focusing on population groups not previously considered as targets of biofortification (pregnant women and children under 2 years of age).
- Assess the bioavailability and efficacy of zinc in conventionally bred rice in children under 2 years.
- Complete efficacy trials of vitamin A maize and iron-pearl millet in children under 2 years of age.
- Complete the assessment of the efficacy of complementary feeding based on multiple biofortified crop combinations in Mumbai, India.
- Complete 1 effectiveness trial (Guatemala high iron beans) and mobilize resources for at least 2 more nutrition effectiveness trials (Burundi and Pakistan) in collaboration with partnerships, the relevant country programs, crop development and Impact assessment functions.
- Assess the efficacy of multiple biofortified crops in culturally accepted combinations designed for women of child bearing age and for children 6-24 months of age in at least one socio-cultural environment and thus better understand the potential of biofortification for improving nutrition during the 1,000 days – from conception to the child’s second birthday.
- Assess the food safety and nutritional profile of successful events of GM rice and wheat and low phytic acid beans in collaboration with the crop development and biotechnology functions of HarvestPlus.
The genesis of biofortification began with a series of research questions.