Submitted to: Feedinfo News Service
Publication Type: Popular Publication
Publication Acceptance Date: March 1, 2005
Publication Date: May 1, 2005
Citation: Welch, R.M. 2005. "Biofortification" - a Sustainable Agricultural Approach to Addressing Micronutrient Malnutrition. Feedinfo News Service Scientific Reviews. May 2005. Available from URL: http://www.feedinfo.com. Technical Abstract: Globally, over three billion people (more than half the world’s population) are afflicted with deficiencies of one or more micronutrients resulting in serious consequences for human health, productivity, felicity and national development (Kennedy et al., 2003). Currently, primary interventions to address this growing health crisis include dietary supplements and food fortification programs. Unfortunately, these types of programs do not reach many of those afflicted (especially resource-poor rural families in developing nations), and in many nations they have not proven to be sustainable (Yip, 1997). These types of approaches treat the symptoms of micronutrient malnutrition (i.e., “Hidden Hunger”) but do nothing to address the primary causes. The underlying factors responsible for micronutrient malnutrition (i.e., “Hidden Hunger”) are rooted in dysfunctional food systems that cannot provide all the essential nutrients in needed amounts continuously during all seasons (Combs, Jr. et al., 1996). Because agriculture is the primary supplier of all micronutrients consumed by people worldwide, it is logical to suspect that agricultural policies and farming systems are part of the root causes of “Hidden Hunger”. Unfortunately, the agricultural sector has never had an explicit goal of improving human health, and the nutrition and health communities have never used agriculture as a primary tool to fight micronutrient malnutrition. HarvestPlus (http://www.harvestplus.org), an international program funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Bank, U.S. Aid for International Development and other donor organizations [administered by two Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) Center’s, the International Food Research Policy Institute (IFPRI) in Washington, D.C. and the Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical (CIAT)] is the first global micronutrient intervention program using an agricultural tool to attack “Hidden Hunger”. HarvestPlus is applying traditional plant breeding to develop micronutrient-dense staple food crops that will deliver micronutrient enriched staples containing significantly more bioavailable levels of iron, zinc and provitamin A carotenoids to resource-poor families in the developing world. This revolutionary plant breeding effort is now referred to as a “biofortification” approach to micronutrient malnutrition (i.e., breeding food crops that fortify themselves). Primary target crops currently include rice, wheat, maize, beans, cassava and sweet potato. Once developed, micronutrient-enriched seeds of staple food crops will be freely available to developing nations for distribution to national agricultural research organizations and ultimately to farmers (Bouis, 2000). Biofortification is a sustainable agricultural tool that is very cost effective compared to food fortification and supplementation programs (Graham et al., 2001). The costs in the development of micronutrient-enriched cultivars are incurred during the initial phase of breeding with very minimal costs to maintain enriched genotypes in plant breeding programs once developed. The poor are dependent on these staples for their sustenance; the HarvestPlus program is focused on this sector reaching the poorest of the poor, especially those living in rural agricultural regions. Breeding for staple food crops rich in micronutrients can be a “win-win” proposition for both human health and crop productivity (Welch and Graham, 1999). For example, developing biofortified seeds containing higher levels of micronutrients can improve crop yields when planted to soils low in available micronutrients. Additionally, micronutrient-dense seeds can significantly reduce seeding rates resulting in substantial savings to farmers in seed costs alone (e.g., zinc-enriched wheat grain can reduce seeding rates from over 200 kg per hector to 150 kg per hector when planted to zinc-poor soils) (Cakmak, 2002). Furthermore, such seeds could benefit livestock production in regions where micronutrient-poor soils exist. Using these enriched staples (e.g., maize) in livestock rations could lower input costs to farmers in these areas because they would no longer have to rely on feed supplements to supply these nutrients. For poor farmers in rural developing regions, productivity benefits of using enriched seeds for both crops and livestock would provide a driving force for these farmers to use the enriched seeds irrespective of their effects on improving human health (Welch and Graham, 2004). The time has come to initiate tight linkages between the agricultural community and the human nutrition and health establishments to find sustainable solutions to micronutrient malnutrition. Without such linkages, the root causes of micronutrient deficiencies will not be addressed and sustainable solutions to “Hidden Hunger” will not be forthcoming (Welch et al., 1997). Using holistic food system thinking is the only way to fix dysfunctional food systems that are currently causing poor health and repressed national development efforts in many developing nations. The HarvestPlus biofortification program is leading the way for the use of agricultural interventions for better health for billions of people globally.