Monday, June 15, 2015

The Constraints and Benefits of Biofortification

There are several approaches to resolving the problems of global food and nutrition insecurity. Partners of the Americas implements the Farmer-to-Farmer and Nutrition Security Programs, both of which work on improving the knowledge and practical skill sets of those participants. Another approach is to address the materials themselves, providing cost-effective equipment that can include even the seeds themselves. 

A relatively new and promising strategy to address malnutrition is the biofortification of food crops. Biofortification – in which crops are bred, traditionally or through genetic modification, to be rich in nutrients such as iron, zinc, and vitamin A that the body is able to absorb – is cost-effective and sustainable relative to other supplementation and fortification programs. These qualities make biofortification a viable strategy to reduce the prevalence of micronutrient malnutrition worldwide. 

Malnutrition is a greater health risk worldwide than malaria, tuberculosis, and AIDS combined. Throughout the world, non-governmental and governmental agencies have undertaken initiatives designed to reduce micronutrient (vitamins and minerals) deficiencies, but malnutrition still persists.  It affects an estimated 870 million people and accounts for nearly 50% of deaths in children under five.

Many organizations address this problem. One, Harvest Plus, has been a leader in the global effort to end hidden hunger caused by the lack of essential vitamins and minerals in the diet.  They develop nutrient-rich seeds, making sure they grow as well, if not better, than the ones farmers currently plant, and promote their use to farmers around the world.

The strategy’s success, however, relies on farmer and consumer acceptance. In order for farmers to adopt biofortified crops, the new variety must be available, accessible, and agronomically equivalent or superior to the current variety being grown. Furthermore, farmers must be able to sell their harvest in local markets. Consumers drive local market prices. Poor consumer acceptance will result in low market prices, and, as a result, farmers will not grow the crop.

Image from Harvest Plus
Fortified vs. Regular Sweet Potato
This suggests that crops biofortified with carotenoids (colorful plant pigment that the body can turn into vitamin A) may be met with more resistance than crops biofortified with minerals such as iron and zinc that are essentially invisible. That being said, crops biofortified with carotenoids have, however, been successfully adopted in multiple cases. A study involving 24,000 households in Uganda and Mozambique gave promising results for the adoption of the orange-fleshed sweet potato in those countries.  At the beginning of the project, less than 10% of sweet potato crops in the two countries were orange-fleshed, but after two years approximately 50% of the sweet potatoes grown were orange. 

This success can be attributed to HarvestPlus’s understanding that effective communication with adult women and men was crucial for adoption as women are responsible for growing the sweet potatoes and feeding the family, while men control the family income and could commercialize the crop. In addition, children liked the taste and appearance of the food, which contributed to greater demand. In Maputo, Mozambique, a provitamin A maize has been introduced.  White maize is the most common staple produced and consumed in Maputo; the switch to dark orange maize has been met with some resistance. One survey suggests, however, that household size, presence of small children, dietary diversity, and taste were all statistically significant factors determining consumer acceptance.

Biofortified crops can significantly impact micronutrient malnutrition throughout the world, but resistance of farmer adoption and consumer acceptance must be addressed. To do this, researchers must consider agronomic traits, seed availability, visual appearance, taste, texture, and cultural stigmas. Successful projects provide a model for overcoming constraints. Despite possible constraints, biofortified crops have been successfully adopted in multiple cases and the field merits further research and development.

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