Meeting Nutritional Needs with ‘Biofortified’ Staple Crops

By Yassir Islam

Whether a bowl of rice or a piece of bread, millions of poor people around the world eat large amounts of staple foods day in and day out. Now, a new technology promises to make such foods more nutritious.

HarvestPlus expects that millions of Rwandans will be eating these beans within the decade. This should greatly reduce the iron deficiency that leaves at least half of Rwanda’s preschoolers physically and mentally impaired. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

While staple foods provide calories, they simply do not provide enough micronutrients such as iron, zinc, or vitamin A that are required for good health. People who do not get enough micronutrients suffer from a ‘hidden hunger,’ often with serious consequences.

Without zinc, an eight-year-old girl may have the stature of a five year old. A young boy not getting enough vitamin A—an amount easily provided daily by a small, orange sweet potato—could go blind, permanently. It is these precious nutrients, needed in only minute amounts, that can make—or break—a young person’s life and haunt them through adulthood.

The ideal solution is, of course, a more diverse diet, but that is beyond the reach of millions of poor people often living in remote rural areas. This is where more nutritious staple foods can help; scientists are breeding new varieties of staple food crops that are richer in micronutrients through a process called biofortification. They scour seed banks to find seeds that contain the desired nutrients and then breed these into popular varieties using conventional methods.

The first crop out of the door was sweet potato. White or yellow sweet potato is traditionally eaten in Africa. Working with partners, HarvestPlus, a global agricultural research program, successfully released in Uganda and Mozambique an orange sweet potato that is far richer in vitamin A. Children and women, who are most susceptible to vitamin A deficiency, are eating substantially more of this locally grown orange sweet potato.

“Me and my family are experiencing better health with fewer visits to the local clinic since we incorporated the orange sweet potato into our diet,” a local farmer in Uganda recently attested to visiting HarvestPlus staff.

HarvestPlus and its partners will soon release two other nutritious staple foods in Africa: beans with more iron and  a vitamin A-rich maize.

Rwanda, a country of lush rolling hills, claims bean as its staple. “Beans are the bread of Rwanda,” says Jean D’Amour Manirere, HarvestPlus Country Manager for beans. Manirere shepherds new iron-rich bean varieties through field trials and ultimately to farmers and consumers. HarvestPlus is conducting a feeding trial in Rwanda to demonstrate that these new beans do reduce iron deficiency. With this seal of approval, local partners will be able to get these beans out to smallholder farming communities throughout Rwanda. Farmers will be able to save and share seed to grow, year after year.

HarvestPlus expects that millions of Rwandans will be eating these beans within the decade. This should greatly reduce the iron deficiency that leaves at least half of Rwanda’s preschoolers physically and mentally impaired. Once beans have taken root in Rwanda, neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo and several other African countries where people regularly eat beans will also benefit.

In Zambia, a different crop that has become synonymous with African diets is about to become more nutritious: maize. These new varieties are a distinct orange color due to their vitamin A content. “First, we want to confirm that these varieties perform well in the field,” says Eliab Simpungwe, HarvestPlus Country Manager for maize. “We are already working with two seed companies to test this maize in the field.” HarvestPlus partners will begin by first releasing these varieties in provinces where rural households grow maize and where the incidence of vitamin A deficiency among women and children is high.

How do people react to these new ‘orange’ crops? We have found that when you explain their nutritional benefits, people are willing to include these foods in their diet. A HarvestPlus study in Zambia found that there is no stigma attached to orange maize, so the color should not be an issue. Coupled with its more nutritious profile and good field performance, orange maize should easily carve out a niche in farmers’ fields—and the Zambian diet. Once proven in Zambia, orange maize will be adapted to numerous other countries not just in Africa where maize is a popular food.

Biofortification may ultimately prove to be most successful because it uses food crops that rural communities are already growing and eating to deliver better nutrition. It also has built-in sustainability. Once scientists have bred the high-nutrient into the crop, it stays there—nourishing many generations to come.

Learn more about HarvestPlus’ work in Rwanda and Zambia.

HarvestPlus is a Challenge Program of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). It is based at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

Yassir Islam is Senior Communications Specialist at HarvestPlus.

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