Children enjoying the sweet taste of orange sweet potato. Photo credit: flickr (HarvestPlus)

Famine used to be the focus of efforts to combat hunger, but changes in policy, technology and aid have brought the developing world to the point where “calamitous famines” (with a death toll of one million or more) and even “great famines” (100,000 or more) are much more rare. Even so, publications such as the 2015 Global Hunger Index make it clear that malnutrition is still a problem, with 52 out of 117 countries on the index ranking alarmingly poorly on indicators of chronic malnourishment. Additionally, the more research shows how nutrition impacts short-term health and long-term outcomes like adult productivity, the clearer it becomes that the issue is not just calorie intake but micronutrient intake as well. Iron, for example, is needed for proper cognitive development; the impact of deficiency in childhood is irreparable.

Dietary diversity is a solution to micronutrient deficiency, but the unavailability of or lack access to the foods to maintain a varied diet can be a major obstacle. Under such circumstances, supplementation and fortification are part of the solution to vitamin and mineral insufficiency, but agriculture must be included in the picture as well, according to HarvestPlus Director Howarth Bouis. Biofortification is a tool for addressing this nutrient gap, and the cost-effectiveness of biofortification and its potential for scaling up was the topic of both Agrilinks and IFPRI seminars this month.

The Biofortified Crop Value Chain

To create a biofortified crop, scientists take a high-yielding variety and cross it with a high-nutrient variety, using traditional plant breeding methods to produce something new. “The appeal of biofortification is its cost-effectiveness,” Bouis said at the recent IFPRI seminar. “You do the research at a central location, put the nutrients in the seed, and countries can use them year after year without recurrent costs.” By comparison, if 500 million vitamin supplements are given out each year at a cost of dollar a piece to the provider, their annual cost is 500 million dollars, he said. The mineral and vitamin attributes in the seeds are also abiotic, so their added nutritional value is not diluted in any way over the generations.

“In the beginning, we had to prove the feasibility of biofortification,” said Bouis. “Now we are working out the process of having the new varieties with the best agronomic properties—climate smart crops.”

The seminar also noted that ensuring demand for the biofortified crop is important. Farmers are the first point of contact. “Nutrition is often a hidden trait, and poor people are hesitant to pay for it,” said Mahabub Hossain, Advisor to the Executive Director for BRAC and Member of the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition. Having better agronomic traits increases the profit to farmers, whether they are producing for their household or the market. It is key that the new and improved crop be at least as productive and high-yielding as the existing market alternative and sell for the same price.

An example of a challenge to demand is unfamiliar coloring: in the case of vitamin A biofortified maize and sweet potato in Africa, the resulting color change of the produce to orange was initially off-putting for Africans. This is why strategic messaging is so important for acceptance: once it is clear that the unusual coloring is an indicator of additional nutritional value, the difference is no longer an obstacle but a branding advantage.

Research Shows Impacts

In the African context, biofortified crops contribute to dietary adequacy in countries where people have access to staple foods but remain undernourished due to the lack of dietary diversity and/or infrequency of meals. Namukolo Covic, a research coordinator in the Poverty, Health and Nutrition Division at IFPRI, provided examples from case studies in Mozambique and Uganda. Researchers there studied the introduction of vitamin A-biofortified sweet potatoes in randomized controlled trials at the community level. When they came back in two years, vitamin A intake had increased between 80 to 100 percent. In Mozambique, researchers also found reduced incidence of diarrhea similar to that which would be found after a vitamin A supplement intervention.

“Despite the different dietary backgrounds”-- in Uganda the staple is bananas, and in Mozambique it is maize—“you can see the impact of the orange sweet potato on Vitamin A intake,” said Covic.

She said that the African Union has declared its desire to use agriculture as a strategy to address nutrition problems on the content, with biofortification as a potential pathway. Over 54 states in the AU are signatories to that declaration, creating a platform for other countries to join moving forward.

Moving Forward, Scaling Up

Scaling up the use of biofortified seeds and produce through existing organizational networks will be cost and time-effective, said Bouis, enabling biofortified products to reach the tables of a billion people by 2030. Additionally, while nutrition has so long been an issue of health alone, now economic ministries can access the data to show the costs of malnutrition and the benefits of addressing it directly instead of paying for its negative impacts in health costs and reduced productivity.

In 2015, HarvestPlus reached two million farmers with biofortified seeds and plants stems. Based on simulation models, that number will need to rise to 25 million farmers per year by 2030 to achieve the goal of reaching one billion consumers.

Further upscaling demands bigger partnerships with entities up and down the value chains, said Anna Marie Ball, who manages regional partnerships and strategic alliances in Africa for HarvestPlus. Penetration of biofortified products into urban markets will be necessary to reach the one-billion mark, and this will require a messaging strategy to inform and motivate consumers to invest in their nutrition.

“Nutritional messaging is so critical,” said Ball. “When mothers know that vitamin A is in that food, you make a choice and that choice is aspirational. You do want something better for your children.”

BY: Rachel Kohn, IFPRI

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