Photo Credit: HarvestPlus

Micronutrient deficiencies afflict more than two billion individuals worldwide. These deficiencies occur when the intake and absorption of vitamins and minerals are too low to sustain good health and development.

A recent article in Global Food Security reviews evidence from the HarvestPlus program on how biofortification has helped improve nutrition worldwide between 2003 and 2016. HarvestPlus leads a global interdisciplinary alliance of research institutions and implementing agencies in the biofortification effort. Based on the program’s delivery experience over the past decade, the article discusses the development of a global action-oriented agenda for scaling up biofortification to further improve global nutrition.

Biofortified crops can help address micronutrient deficiencies by increasing individuals’ daily micronutrient intakes. In the biofortification process, the density of vitamins and minerals found in a crop is increased through plant breeding, transgenic techniques, or agronomic practices. Previous evidence has shown that biofortified staple crops, when consumed regularly, support significant improvements in human health and nutrition. Moreover, biofortification is generally seen as a low cost and cost-effective way to improve nutrition. According to the article, every dollar invested in biofortification provides an estimated economic return of US$17.

The article lists multiple types of biofortified crops that have been developed to improve micronutrient intake in various countries. For instance, iron-fortified bean and pearl millet is grown in Rwanda and India, respectively; in both cases, the production and consumption of these crops have significantly reduced iron deficiencies in target populations.

The article provides an overview of delivery experiences in various target countries (Bangladesh, DR Congo, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Rwanda, Uganda, and Zambia). The available research suggests that farmers are generally motivated to grow biofortified crops, that consumers are willing to consume these crops, and that production of biofortified staple crops has grown rapidly in recent years. In addition, in the target countries, biofortification has become increasingly accepted by government entities, and many national governments have integrated biofortification into their agriculture and nutrition policies. HarvestPlus estimates that by the end of 2016, around 20 million people in four million farming households in the target countries were producing and consuming biofortified crops.

The target countries represent a variety of market environments, from a primarily commercial private sector approach (India and Zambia) to various mixed public-private delivery systems (Bangladesh, Nigeria, Rwanda, Uganda) to primarily public or informal market systems (DR Congo). In Zambia, biofortified hybrid varieties were licensed to private companies for commercialization (production and distribution). In this case, HarvestPlus worked together with a range of actors (including the Zambian Government and private companies) to increase farmers’ awareness of biofortification and to ensure the affordability of seeds.

Another example provided focuses on the delivery of biofortified rice seed in Bangladesh. These seeds are produced by both private and public sector actors and the delivery system is supported by an extensive farmer demonstration program. This program distributes free seeds to farmers, who are then ensured a market for their biofortified crops.

Based on these varying experiences, the article highlights a few common themes that have emerged among successful delivery programs. First, multiplication of sufficient planting material is a crucial first step. Second, demonstration trials have been key in driving demand at the farm level. For instance, decentralized field demonstrations and the availability of small promotional seed packs have allowed interested farmers to view and try a product. Third, nutrition messaging aimed at both men and women supports production and consumption. Fourth, multi-stakeholder platforms (often combining public, private, and civil society actors) have been found to be crucial in scaling up the early uptake and success of biofortified crops.

The article proposes a number of building blocks to create an enabling environment in order to scale up biofortification globally, with the goal of reaching 1 billion people by 2030. These building blocks include: the recognition of biofortification among global regulatory agencies ensuring quality, standardization, and trade; the integration of biofortification programs into development policies and programs funded by multi-lateral institutions; the increase of biofortification uptake by private sector entities (especially seed companies); and the incorporation of biofortification into development programs being implemented on the ground. These building blocks need to be further supported by the creation of new and expanding partnerships between local and international actors, as well as among all actors along agricultural value chains. In particular, the article stresses the importance of ensuring that governments, the private sector, and international organizations are all committed to biofortification.

Successfully scaling up biofortification programs will require sustained commitment to three key elements: supply, policies, and demand. First, agricultural research entities, as well as public and private actors, need to ensure an adequate global supply of relevant and high-yielding seeds. Second, appropriate policies to support biofortification programs that improve public health and provide high economic returns need to be developed and implemented nationally and globally. Third, efforts need to be made that ensure that rural and urban populations value, and demand, high mineral and vitamin content in their staple foods.

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