Biofortification: Combatting malnutrition

Vitamin A Orange Sweet Potato, Uganda
Vitamin A orange sweet potato in Uganda (photo: HarvestPlus)

Developing more nutritious crops through biofortification is providing much needed nutrients and helping to provide better quality diets for rural communities

Nearly 2 billion people suffer from iron deficiency, while one-quarter of the world’s people are at risk from insufficient dietary zinc or vitamin A. Eating a more varied diet provides a greater intake of micronutrients, but this may not be possible for many poor families. However, by using a process called biofortification to improve the nutrient value of specific staple crops, scientists can help farmers grow more nutritious food using the same land and resources.

Biofortification uses biotechnology, conventional plant breeding or agronomy to improve nutritional quality of food. Examples include boosting iron in rice, sweet potato, cassava and legumes; vitamin A in cassava and maize; zinc in wheat, rice, beans, sweet potato and maize; and protein in sorghum and cassava. The method is already well-established around the world – about 20 million people have access to enriched beans, rice, wheat, pearl millet, maize, sweet potato and cassava. By 2030, more than 1 billion people could be eating biofortified crops. For farmers with limited ability to produce more crops, growing biofortified crops on the same land could have a highly beneficial effect on health.

A dedicated approach

Getting biofortified food onto the world’s dinner plates has been a long journey, requiring flexibility, persistence and dedication. Dr Howarth Bouis and the team at HarvestPlus have led the way and were recently awarded the 2016 World Food Prize for their efforts over 20 years. HarvestPlus has played a key role in developing and distributing biofortified crops and in educating a range of stakeholders about the advantages of crops that are higher in zinc, iron and vitamin A.

Biofortified crops have so far been released in 30 countries and tests are underway in 25 more. “The crops have been tried, tested and proven effective in improving nutrition for people in developing countries,” states Dr Bouis. “The huge job now is getting the farmers to take them up and getting the consumers to eat them.”

Like consumers everywhere, farmers and their families can be cautious about trying new varieties. Persuading them to do so requires targeted information campaigns and time for results to be seen and word to get around. An added complexity is that some biofortified crops look and taste different. But this is not the case in zinc and iron-rich crops, such as beans. In Rwanda, 10 varieties of iron-rich beans have been released, and they are the same in appearance and taste as beans currently on the market. The beans have higher yields as well as higher iron content and researchers hope that they will become the preferred product.

Other crops such as cassava, maize and sweet potato do take on a different taste and appearance when fortified with vitamin A, with the crops turning from white to orange. Communities need the chance to learn about the new products before they decide to grow them or buy them, so information activities must target both farmers and consumers.

Engaging women

In many countries, women are key to improving nutrition and health in their families. For communities to accept the new biofortified crops, women must be engaged at every stage of the process. For example, local people may be employed to spread the word, sometimes holding blindfolded tastings where women are asked which sweet potato or other food they prefer, and whether or not they would buy the enriched product for the sake of their family’s health. If the price is the same and they like the taste – and the word is that the crops are well accepted – women choose the vitamin A-enriched food for their family.

In Namwenda, in eastern Uganda, a group of women wearing distinctive orange t-shirts are spreading the word about nutritious crops, good hygiene and sanitation practices. Known as Mama Ndhisa, the women deliver their messages through activities such as community meetings and visits to local villagers, using pictorial story cards and other aids. The name Mama Ndhisa reflects community affection for these mothers and for the vitamin A-rich orange sweet potatoes they promote.

All the women take part with the support of their husbands. They are held in high regard, explains Aloysius Olweny, Namwenda’s sub-county chief. “Take note of the ladies who are participating, because they are exemplary,” he says. “They also teach others about nutrition … they are moving forward to motivate these people.” Olweny states that encouraging men to support their wives was important for the success of the information campaign. “Men want to be involved in cash crop growing and things like that, but when they see the improvement in income, in health with fewer diseases, they get motivated to help their wife.”

Support from leaders at all levels

For a country to embrace biofortified crops, there needs to be support at every level – locally, as in Namwenda in Uganda, as well as nationally, regionally and internationally.

The Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition has urged policymakers to adopt biofortification as one element of a nutrient-sensitive national agricultural research and investment strategy. “Policymakers have a key role to play in tackling hidden hunger,” says Sir John Beddington, Global Panel co-chair. “Biofortification complements the existing mix of micronutrient interventions available to governments.”

In the Global Panel report, Biofortification: An Agricultural Investment for Nutrition, micronutrient malnutrition is shown to be associated with the rapidly growing problem of obesity and non-communicable diseases. The authors state that low-quality diets based heavily on highly processed, nutrient-poor foods lie at the core of the problem. “When biofortified crops are combined with interventions that promote dietary diversification, real progress can be made to benefit millions of households. In Nigeria for instance, with the strengthened regulatory and legal framework and infrastructural support, Nigerian multiplication programmes are expected to allow 80 million Nigerians to have access to more-nutritious diets in the coming four years,” the report said.

The Global Panel emphasises that biofortification should not be looked at in isolation. “Policymakers should not see it as an alternative to other nutrition-enhancing interventions, but consider it as one component of a suite of complementary strategies to reduce micronutrient deficiencies,” the Panel said.

Akinwumi Adesina, President of the African Development Bank and former Nigerian Minister for Agriculture, has called for an end to malnutrition in Africa, saying that the continent has all it needs to win in agriculture. Speaking at the seventh African Agricultural Science Week in June 2016 in Rwanda, he noted that Africa spends €30 billion each year on importing food, a figure that is projected to grow to €98 billion by 2025. “Africa is importing what it should be producing, creating poverty within Africa and exporting jobs outside of Africa,” he said. Any shock to global food production would affect prices in Africa, especially in rural areas, so investing in agriculture makes economic and security sense.

Adesina noted successes in Rwanda, which has drastically reduced malnutrition, and in Senegal, which is on the way to becoming self-sufficient in rice. “And with technologies from science, we can do even more,” he said. New iron-enriched beans, orange-fleshed sweet potato, high-lysine maize and vitamin A-rich cassava are already improving crop yields and nutrition.

Food security emergency in Southern Africa

In Southern Africa, FAO estimates that nearly 40 million people will be affected by food insecurity in 2017. The chilling figure reflects high levels of unemployment and under-employment, which are exacerbated by the most severe drought in 35 years, which scientists are linking to the El Niño weather event. Most people in the region eat food they grow themselves. Chimimba David Phiri, FAO Subregional Coordinator for Southern Africa, said that “Assisting them to do this will provide life-saving support in a region where at least 70% of people rely on agriculture for their livelihoods.”

As drought continues, prices for maize and other crops have risen. FAO officials warn that 23 million people need urgent support to grow enough food to feed themselves, or they will be dependent on humanitarian assistance until the middle of 2018. Farmers must be able to plant by October 2016. “Failure to do so will result in another reduced harvest in March 2017, severely affecting food and nutrition security and livelihoods in the region,” FAO said.

Agricultural experts say a good harvest is necessary in March 2017 to help families escape the country’s food crisis. “We have had two bad [growing] seasons, and a lot of farmers do not have adequate seeds,” said Phiri. “We need to support the farmers to have the seed that they need for them to grow this season, and also to avoid a problem of having continued humanitarian support.”

In Zimbabwe, many children do not get enough to eat. The United Nations Children’s Fund warned in March 2016 that the country is facing its worst child malnutrition rates in 15 years, with rural areas particularly at risk. FAO is helping the country’s farmers affected by the drought.

Last month, the agency began giving biofortified maize and bean seeds to farmers. Those seeds are designed to produce crops high in valuable nutrients. Initially, the seed programme is targeting about 127,000 small farm households in eight areas. Over time, it will spread to other parts of the country. Farmer Mirriam Chagweja said she is glad she planted the new seeds in her fields in Silobela, about 300 km south-west of Harare. In February 2016 she planted fortified maize and beans, using seeds provided by the UK Department for International Development. Chagweja said she got more beans from these seeds than from the other kinds of beans. “I would encourage others to go on board and join,” she said.

Looking to the future

Trials continue with new biofortified crops and varieties. WHO lists a range of current biofortification trials, including vitamin A-enriched maize for mothers and infants in a range of locations, vitamin A-enriched cassava for Nigerian preschool children and pearl millet enriched with both zinc and iron to boost cognitive ability and immunity to infections in Indian babies. While biofortification and genetic modification are different processes, groups such as HarvestPlus are keeping an eye on developments. To date, HarvestPlus has used only conventional breeding techniques, and not genetic modification, to develop its 150 varieties of 12 different nutrient-enriched crops. This has allowed them to get their crops into use as quickly as possible, in as many countries as possible.

There remain many barriers and political opposition to transgenics, despite the scientific community establishing that the method is safe, says Bouis. HarvestPlus is researching the technology and it may be an option in the future, for example, in areas such as increasing iron levels that have been difficult to achieve with conventional breeding.

This article by Magali Reinert was originally published on the Spore website


Arla Dairy: Setting up in West Africa

The fifth largest dairy in the world is setting up in Nigeria and Senegal. Arla Foods, a Danish company, intends to increase its revenue in the region fivefold by 2020. What impact will this have on local producers and consumers?

Strengthening Senegal’s local milk industry will help meet consumers’ needs. Photo credit: Kamikazz photo agency

The Danish dairy cooperative, which includes 12,700 European farmers among its members, is set to take over the West African dairy market. In Nigeria, where it already has a presence, Arla Foods plans to triple its turnover.

To achieve this, Arla Dairy Products has been created which, since September 2015, has been responsible for packaging, marketing and distributing Arla products under the Dano brand within the country.

In Senegal, where it does not yet have a presence, the company has created a subsidiary for which it holds 75% of the capital. Arla Sénégal SA will have the same roles in Senegal as its counterpart in Nigeria.

The Senegalese milk market already contains several large companies, such as the French companies Lactalis and Danone, which have partnered with a local company, Laiterie du Berger.

“West Africa faces a milk deficit, which gives Arla an opportunity to provide milk powder and other dairy products that meet consumers’ needs. We are here to build a long-term business, and that requires strong local partners,” says Steen Hadsbjerg, head of sub-Saharan Africa at Arla Foods.

However, in Senegal, the ‘local partners’ are not milk producers. Arla argues that the low quantity and quality of local milk means that supplies should come exclusively from imported goods. However Arla also highlights possible negative impacts of mass imports on the local markets, with consumers switching to powdered milk exclusively and dairy farmers being unable to sell their products.

For this reason, Guillaume Bastard, an expert in agricultural sectors and representative of the French development NGO, GRET, in Senegal believes it would be better to support the milk industry and help producers improve the quality and quantity of the milk produced.

“Of course, building up the local milk sector is a real challenge, but milk products are currently Senegal’s second most imported foodstuff, amounting to CFA 65 billion (€39 million) annually. Local businesses, the government and dairy farmers all have an interest in seeing it done so that income can be redistributed to the most marginalised rural populations,” he concludes.

This article by Anne Perin was originally posted on the Spore website at

Happy New Year 2016, the International Year of Pulses

bean market masaka1_lo
Bean market in Masaka, Uganda. Credit: Neil Palmer (CIAT).

A very Happy New Year to you. The United Nations has declared 2016 as the International Year of Pulses. This is a global opportunity to raise awareness on the important role of pulses in contributing to food security and nutritional well-being for millions of people around the world.

According to the United Nations International Year of Pulses website, the aim of this special year is to “heighten public awareness of the nutritional benefits of pulses as part of sustainable food production aimed towards food security and nutrition. The Year will create a unique opportunity to encourage connections throughout the food chain that would better utilize pulse-based proteins, further global production of pulses, better utilize crop rotations and address the challenges in the trade of pulses.”

Visit the website of the Global Pulse Confederation for more information on how you can take part in promoting the International Year of Pulses or follow the online conversations at #IYP2016.

Happy New Year!

Call for abstracts: Kenya’s 2015 National Science Week

Kenya’s National Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation (NACOSTI) and the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology have issued a call for abstracts for the fourth National Science Week to be held on 11-15 May 2015 in Nairobi.

The event consists of an exhibition, robotics contest and a conference. The aim of the conference is to share and identify practical, evidence-based solutions to science and technology development in the post-2015 agenda in line with Kenya’s Vision 2030 national strategic development plan.

The conference will bring together academia, researchers, scientists and practitioners working in universities, research organisations, industry, civil society, government and other stakeholders.

The theme of the conference is The role of science and technology in the post-2015 development agenda. The sub-themes are:

  • agriculture and food security
  • energy and climate change
  • environmental and natural resource management
  • water, sanitation and health
  • knowledge management and technology transfer

Visit the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology website for more information on how to submit abstracts.

The deadline for submission is 31 March 2015.

Aflatoxin: A fungal toxin infecting the food chain

Aflatoxins present both acute and chronic health effects. Acute exposure to very high levels of aflatoxins can be fatal, as has happened in Kenya in recent years. The most severe outbreak of aflatoxicosis ever reported in Kenya occurred in 2004 in Eastern Province, resulting in 317 cases of illness and 125 deaths.

Chronic exposure to low levels of aflatoxins has been linked to liver cancer, which is estimated to lead to as many as 26,000 deaths annually in sub-Saharan Africa.

Aflatoxins in contaminated animal feed can end up in milk, meat and eggs. Infants are also at risk as aflatoxins can be passed in breast milk, and  in utero via the umbilical cord. Exposure to aflatoxins has been associated with stunting in children, as well as suppression of the immune system.

The infographic below gives a pictorial representation of the flow of aflatoxins in the food chain.

New study quantifies aflatoxin exposure in Kenya

Aflatoxin infected maize
Aflatoxin infected maize. Findings of a new research study suggest that aflatoxin exposure is a public health problem throughout Kenya.  (Photo: IITA)

In the past few weeks, I’ve been doing some reading on aflatoxins to keep myself updated with recent research on this subject, with a particular focus on Kenya.

I came across a recent study on human aflatoxin exposure in Kenya carried out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Kenya Ministry of Public Health and Sanitation.

The study aimed at assessing aflatoxin exposure throughout the entire country. Most of the previous outbreaks of aflatoxicosis in Kenya occurred in Kenya’s Eastern Province, but since there is no national aflatoxin surveillance, it was not known if aflatoxicosis outbreaks were limited to that region or if they occur in other regions of the country. The study also sought to find out if aflatoxin exposure varied by demographic, socioeconomic and ecological factors.

From analysis of aflatoxin levels in serum specimens from the 2007 Kenya AIDS Indicator survey — a nationally representative, cross-sectional survey — aflatoxin B1 was detected in 78% of the specimens.

Aflatoxin exposure did not vary by sex, age group, religion, marital status or socioeconomic characteristics. However, exposure to aflatoxin varied by province, with the highest levels recorded in Eastern and Coast provinces and the lowest in Nyanza and Rift Valley provinces.

The bottom line is that human exposure to aflatoxin across Kenya can be considered to be a public health problem, in light of the widespread exposure levels that cut across the spectrum of age, sex and socioeconomic status. All the more reason for increased education and awareness on this public health risk and the practical steps that can be taken to control it.

In this Business Daily article on the persistent problem of aflatoxin contamination in maize in Kenya (published 27 Oct 2013),  I found out that some researchers at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) are carrying out studies on the susceptibility of maize varieties to aflatoxin so that they can breed aflatoxin-resistant varieties. I think that would be a great leap forward in the fight against aflatoxin contamination in the country.

Traditional fermented milk is good for your health

Kenyan boy drinking milk
A Kenyan boy drinks milk. Research shows that traditional fermented milk products are beneficial to health (PHOTO/ILRI)

Kenya is home to a variety of traditional fermented milk products such as mursik of the Kalenjin community and kule naoto of the Maasai community. These sour milk products are produced by leaving fresh milk to ferment spontaneously in a smoke-treated gourd for up to two days at room temperature.

Spontaneous fermentation takes advantage of the actions of various species of lactic acid bacteria that occur naturally in milk. Smoking of the inside of the gourd with smouldering acacia twigs is said to increase the milk’s storage life and gives the sour milk its characteristic flavour.

For generations, fermentation has been used as an effective means of  extending the storage life of milk in Africa. Cow, goat, sheep or camel milk may be used as the raw material. In some cases, a mixture of milk from different animals may be used.

During fermentation, the lactic acid bacteria in the milk convert the milk sugar lactose into lactic acid, which gives the product a distinct sour taste. Some of the lactic acid bacteria also produce antimicrobial substances called bacteriocins that inhibit the growth of disease-causing bacteria (pathogens).

Microbial safety of raw milk is of concern primarily because milk is a highly nutritious product that readily supports the growth of spoilage microbes. Fermented milk is, however, safer than fresh milk (microbiologically speaking) since the lactic acid and the bacteriocins kill coliforms and other disease-causing bacteria such as E. coli.

In addition to enhanced microbiological safety, regular drinking of fermented milk is said to offer various health-related benefits to the consumer, such as lowering of cholesterol, boosting of the body’s immune system, and protection against diarrhoea and constipation.

The findings of a seminal study by Mann and Spoerry in 1974  suggest that consuming traditional fermented milk can help reduce serum cholesterol levels. These researchers studied a group of Maasai men in Kenya and found that despite their consumption of large amounts of red meat, the level of cholesterol in their serum was low and there were few cases of coronary heart disease. This was linked to their practice of consuming up to five litres a day of fermented milk.

Fermented milk is also easier for lactose intolerant people to digest. Up to 80 per cent of East African adults suffer from lactose intolerance, a condition in which lactose is not completely digested due to a lack of the enzyme lactase.

Lactose intolerance often manifests in uncomfortable sensations in the digestive system like bloating, flatulence and diarrhoea soon after drinking fresh milk. People with lactose intolerance can, however, drink fermented milk without experiencing gastric distress, thanks to the breakdown of lactose by the lactic acid bacteria.

Probiotic foods contain live microorganisms which actively enhance health by improving the balance of intestinal bacteria. The most commonly studied probiotic microorganisms are members of the genera Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium which are found in probiotic yoghurt and other traditional fermented dairy and vegetable products.

They act by adhering to the lining of the intestine and preventing harmful bacteria from multiplying. The increasing incidence of colon cancer globally has drawn scientific attention to the probiotic effects of the microflora in traditional fermented products, especially among populations whose diets are high in refined foods.

The anticancer properties of the probiotic Lactobacillus acidophilus have been established by microbiological studies carried out in the US in the mid 1980s. In addition to activating the body’s immune system, the organism decreased the levels of the enzymes responsible for converting procarcinogens in the colon into cancer-causing agents. Research continues into conclusive evidence.

Among food microbiologists, there is now renewed focus on gaining a deeper understanding of the nature of traditional fermentations, especially the identity and functional properties of the microorganisms involved.

Research studies have been carried out to isolate, identify and characterise the microorganisms involved in producing kule naoto and traditional fermented camel milk (suusac).

Results of a study of the functional properties of Lactobacillus species isolated from kule naoto show promise for development of suitable starter cultures. This would offer a useful opportunity to standardize and scale up production of kule naoto and other traditional fermented milk products.

NOTE: Modified from the original published in the Daily Nation (October 2003).