The 2008 food crisis exposed some very rotten spots in the global food system, but for almost half of the people on Earth the system failed a long time ago.
Many simply do not have enough food to survive. These are the world’s hungry. According to the United Nations, however, more than 840 million people receive all the calories they need and are still dying. They suffer from what is known in nutrition circles as the Hidden Hunger: malnutrition.
For micronutrients — elements and chemicals like calcium, iodine and vitamin C — a little goes a long way. Even so, the number of people who do not receive their daily requirement of these trace elements has been on the rise.
According to Ross Welch, Lead Scientist for the U.S. Plant, Soil and Nutrition Laboratory, “Malnutrition is caused by dysfunctional food systems.” Welch and others in the field try to correct for failures in the food system by bolstering staple crops with the missing micronutrients.
There are the classic success stories. Prof. Dennis Miller, food science, related that by adding iodine to salt in the early 20th century, many countries practically eliminated domestic occurrences of iodine deficiency disorders. In the United States, the addition of vitamin D to milk has dramatically reduced instances of rickets.
But in developing nations where centralized food processing is essentially non-existent, such post-harvest efforts to make food more nutritious are wishful thinking.
Plant breeders needed a way to transpose the nutritional benefits of post-harvest fortification techniques into a system more suitable for less developed nations who lacked the technical expertise and infrastructure to undergo centralized fortification processes.
“We asked: can plants fortify themselves?” Welch said, “and the answer was yes.” People have been selectively breeding plant varieties for thousands of years. Usually, the goal is to increase the units of food per land area — in agricultural terms, the crop yield. For Welch, this begged the question, “Why not breed for nutritional traits?”
Prof. John Duxbury, crop and soil sciences, remembered how “plant breeders created the micronutrient deficiency problem in the first place.” Between 1961 and 1985, during the Green Revolution, plant breeders steadily increased yields for the world’s main staple crops through advancements in irrigation, fertilizer and seed development. The result was a lot more food in the hands of the developing world’s hungry — most of it cereals like rice, maize and wheat. Unfortunately, the nutritional content of these crops did not increase with their yields.
“I used to see the Green Revolution as a success with unforeseen consequences,” Welch said, “but now we know that this will happen.” Welch and others think biofortification may help correct the micronutrient deficiencies that resulted from the Green Revolution.
Although there are many micronutrients of concern, biofortification efforts are focused on three that the World Health Organization identified as limiting for human health: iron, zinc and vitamin A.
HarvestPlus, a global non-profit organization, spearheaded the effort to alleviate these micronutrient deficiencies in poor countries. A program of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, HarvestPlus is “the main mover and shaker in biofortification,” according to Prof. Jere Haas, nutritional science.
Rice alone feeds one third of the world’s population — if biofortified rice is successfully introduced into micronutrient deficient food systems, the result will not be just one nutritionally satisfying harvest, but a more nutritious variety of crop feeding the malnourished year after year. To the international donor community, Welch said, “this means more bang for your buck.”
Traditionally, Duxbury said, nutritionists have treated micronutrient deficiencies from a medical standpoint — prescribing iron supplements for iron deficiency, zinc for zinc deficiency and so forth. For the rural poor and constrained governments, Duxbury said, such interventions end up malnourishing the wallet.
“Supplements seem cheap to us [in the United States],” Miller said, “but when you’re making two dollars a day, you don’t want to spend even five cents on supplements.”
Trouble Taking Root
Unfortunately, Welch said, “it’s not easy to turn down paradigms.” Biofortification is far from perfect, and not without its skeptics.
“Why,” in the words of Henry Munger, a premier vegetable breeder at Cornell University during the 1950s and 60s, “would you make a cereal like a vegetable when you already have a vegetable?”
“You can argue that even if plant breeders could get all the necessary nutrients in cereals,” Duxbury said, “you’d again be relying on a very limited food system,” albeit a nutritious one. Such crops might be susceptible to devastating epidemics, or have unforeseen nutritional side effects when consumed as dietary staples.
Ultimately, no one interviewed for this article argued against the fact that diversifying diets is the most desirable solution to problems of malnutrition. But, Duxbury said, most of the world’s malnourished people — the rural poor — have very limited access to the elements of such a diet. Fruits and vegetables are too expensive or simply not available to many of the people who would benefit from the nutritional diversity they represent. Furthermore, he said, the cost and risks involved with transitioning agricultural systems to include more nutritious crops are often far too great for a farmer living on less than a dollar a day to accept.
Biofortification is appealing, Welch argued, because it allows policy-makers to deal with malnutrition on a large scale without having to overhaul traditional food systems. “Dietary diversity may be the main problem,” said Miller, “but biofortification doesn’t require that you change people’s eating habits.”
That’s not to say that biofortification is an easy process. Take, for example, the case of the orange-fleshed sweet potato. It is rich in beta-carotenoids (which give the potato its orange color), from which the body can glean vitamin A. As a scientifically verified method of fighting vitamin A deficiency in Kenya and Mozambique, it has been cast by HarvestPlus as the poster-child for biofortification, Haas said.
Only at first no one wanted to eat it. In Africa, orange-fleshed sweet potatoes are traditionally given to animals as feed while humans consume the white-fleshed variety. So when HarvestPlus tried to promote the consumption of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes with enhanced vitamin A content, the public was skeptical.
“There is an educational component,” Miller said. In time, outreach workers and researchers were largely able to overcome this barrier in Kenya and Mozambique with a compelling correlation: “color is good — orange potatoes mean your kids won’t go blind.”
“We can learn a lot of lessons from people working with sweet potato,” Haas said, because the crop essentially “skipped the early steps” of plant breeding and testing for nutritional quality. “They weren’t starting from scratch,” he noted, since orange-fleshed sweet potatoes already occur naturally.
Sowing the Seeds of Nutrition
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, hunger and poverty claim 25,000 lives every day. “To me,” Welch said, “it’s a crime that the world lets this go on.”
But even before the international development community can address problems of social integration as with the sweet potato in Kenya, Haas said, “Plant breeders have a tremendous task ahead of them.” The development stage for biofortified crops is lengthy, and donors want to see results.
According to Miller, HarvestPlus has been “remarkably successful,” in achieving funding from the Gates Foundation and USAID, among others. “People say, ‘this makes a lot of sense,’” he said, careful to note that widespread application of the technology may still be far off.
“Everybody deserves a healthy life,” Welch said, “and governments should be supporting food that makes them healthy.” For nutritionists and agronomists alike, biofortification — for all its difficulties — may represent, as Welch put it, “the first tool” in the global struggle against malnutrition.