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

Agri-biotech experts call on Kenya to lift ban on GMO imports

Group photo: Agri-Biotechnology and Biosafety Communications Conference 2015

Delegates from 30 countries from around the world, attending an international Agri-biotechnology and Biosafety Communication (ABBC 2015) conference in Nairobi have called on the Government of Kenya to lift a 2-year ban on GMO imports.

Addressing the delegates who comprised farmers, scientists, policymakers, private sector, the media and science communicators, the Principal Secretary in Kenya’s Ministry of Industrialization and Enterprise Development, Dr Wilson Songa, emphasized the role of agricultural biotechnology in propelling the country towards prosperity.

“To harness this potential, the GMO import ban must be lifted,” he said. In addition, he said that Kenya has adequate capacity to develop and ensure safety of GMO products.

Members of Parliament present called upon the government to release the report by the Ministry of Health task force that was set up to look into the safety of GM foods, following the ban on GMO imports.

The ABBC conference brought together organizations and networks involved in agri-biotechnology and biosafety communication around the world to take stock of the progress and dynamics of agri-biotechnology communication over the past two decades. It was organized by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) AfriCenter, the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, the National Commission for Science Technology and Innovation among other partners.

One of the key lessons was that agri-biotechnology and biosafety communications must be simplified and messages delivered in appropriate languages for different stakeholders to make impact.

The delegates came up with the following Nairobi Declaration 2015:

We, the participants of the International Conference on Agri-Biotechnology and Biosafety Communication, held on 13-14 April 2015 in Nairobi, representing the academic and research community, civil society, law makers and policy advisors, the media, farmers and other stakeholders drawn from 30 countries across the world, collectively issue the following statement resulting from this conference:

Whereas

  1. The world faces unique and particular food security challenges in future, as the human population increases towards a likely 9.6 billion by 2050 and climate change raises additional problems for agriculture in terms of water and temperature stress, increased disasters and extreme weather;
  2. Some progress has been made in meeting the Millennium Development Goals on extreme poverty, malnutrition, infant mortality and food security. Much work remains to be done to ensure that citizens of all countries enjoy the full opportunity of healthy and sustainable access to food;
  3. Biotechnology and genetic engineering, while not being the only solutions to these challenges, offer great potential in addressing many specific concerns in food production, including micro-nutrient deficiencies, productivity and yield gaps, pest and disease problems;
  4. There exists an international scientific consensus that the ‘genetic modification’ process itself does not raise any risks over conventional breeding approaches;
  5. The debate around genetically modified products continues and is often characterized by emotive and misleading information about purported dangers that are not supported by any scientific evidence;
  6. Highly restrictive policy and regulatory environments exist in parts of the world, greatly hampering the capacity of farmers to access innovations that will improve farm productivity, household incomes and food security;

We hereby declare our commitment and determination

  1. To work collectively to improve the communications environment, including the use of the latest as well as traditional communication strategies to ensure effectiveness.
  2. To work inclusively, with all stakeholders, including those opposed to this technology, in an effort to build consensus and common understanding.
  3. To promote choice, so that farmers, consumers and other end-users can make informed decisions that reflect their best interests.
  4. To address the concerns of people at all levels, to ensure the widest participation possible.
  5. To demonstrate how agricultural production challenges can be tackled using biotechnology, and how it can directly contribute to food and nutrition security, poverty alleviation, job creation and sustainable economic development.
  6. To support credible scientists who are most trusted by the public and governments to be effective communicators and to have a closer relationship with the media and policymakers to ensure that scientifically-informed messages reach target audiences.

In particular, we gratefully acknowledge the active participation of Members of the Kenya National Assembly and many senior government representatives who participated in this conference and welcome their invaluable inputs to ensure the current ban on importation and consumption of GM foods in Kenya is lifted.

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.

New atlas maps data on Africa’s smallholder agriculture research and development

The work of agricultural researchers and development workers in Africa has the potential to significantly improve the lives of the poor. But that potential can only be realized with easy access to high-quality data and information.

The Atlas of African Agriculture Research & Development highlights the ubiquitous role of smallholder agriculture in Africa; the many factors shaping the location, nature, and performance of agricultural enterprises; and the strong interdependencies among farming, natural-resource stocks and flows, and the well-being of the poor.

Organized around seven themes, the atlas covers more than 30 topics, each providing mapped geospatial data and supporting text that answers four fundamental questions:

  • What is this map telling us?
  • Why is this important?
  • What about the underlying data?
  • Where can I learn more?

The atlas is part of a wide-ranging eAtlas initiative that will showcase, through print and online resources, a variety of spatial data and tools generated and maintained by a community of research scientists, development analysts, and practitioners working in and for Africa.

The initiative will serve as a guide, with references and links to online resources to introduce readers to a wealth of data that can inform efforts to improve the livelihoods of Africa’s rural poor.

African Development Bank and IFPRI publish report on the status of agri-biotechnology in Africa

Agricultural biotechnology has been used to address constraints in agriculture and has the potential to make a major contribution to the overall goal of sustainable intensification.

The adoption of agricultural biotechnology, and specifically genetically modified (GM) crops, by many African countries has been quite limited to date, however.

To further inform the debate over agricultural biotechnology, a report by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the African Development Bank collects current information on the status of biotechnology in Africa—with an emphasis on GM crops—and assesses the opportunities offered by and constraints on adoption.

The authors provide information about the region’s limited financial, technical, regulatory, and legal capacities while additionally focusing on the role of trade concerns and conflicting information as limiting factors that affect adoption.

The authors also identify several initiatives that could help overcome these obstacles, such as increasing public investments in agricultural biotechnology research and development; improving regulatory frameworks and regulatory capacity; and developing an effective and broad-based communications strategy.

These and other recommendations should be useful to policymakers, development specialists, and others who are concerned about the potential role that biotechnology could play in Africa as an additional tool for sustainable agriculture development.

Access the report, GM agricultural technologies for Africa: A state of affairs

Farmers in Kenya to gain from new facilities aimed at controlling aflatoxins

An article in SciDev.Net by Esther Nakkazi reports on the recent opening of a new laboratory and biopesticide processing plant in Kenya. The two facilities will help research, monitor and control aflatoxin contamination in staple crops.

Read the full article on SciDev.Net, Farmers to gain from projects to combat aflatoxins

Call for papers: 9th JKUAT scientific, technological and industrialization conference

Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) has announced its 9th annual scientific, technological and industrialization conference to be held on 13-14 November 2014 at the JUKAT Main Campus in Juja, Nairobi, Kenya.

The theme of the conference is Science, technology, innovation and entrepreneurship for sustainable development. 

The objectives of the conference are to:

  1. Provide a forum through which the university will disseminate the ongoing contributions it is making to the society.
  2. Create a forum for constantly improving the university’s approach to development-oriented scientific research, as it strives to remain a leader in this area.
  3. Provide a forum for research peers from local and international institutions to discuss, share and publish vital information.
  4. Provide an opportunity for the industry to interact with researchers and innovators through exhibitions.
  5. Provoke policymakers to appreciate the need for substantial and long-term investments in scientific research, innovation and industrialization.

For more information and to find out how to register, please visit the conference website.