Biofortified food: One step closer to a world free of hunger and malnutrition

By Dr. Howarth Bouis

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Editor's note: Agri-Pulse and The Chicago Council on Global Affairs are teaming up to host a monthly column to explore how the U.S. agriculture and food sector can maintain its competitive edge and advance food security in an increasingly integrated and dynamic world. 

This week hundreds of stakeholders with an interest in food security will convene in Iowa for an annual commemoration of the legacy of agricultural innovator Norman Borlaug. One of the highlights of this week-long celebration is the awarding of the World Food Prize. This year, I am humbled to share this great honor with three fellow pioneers in the field of biofortification - the process of enriching staple food crops with vitamins and minerals. Hundreds of partners around the world have made this shared success possible. From the very beginning, almost 25 years ago, U.S. leadership has played a key role in taking biofortification from a concept to the global movement of today.

 ‘Hidden hunger' caused by deficiencies in minerals and vitamins affects 2 billion people, with women and children most at risk. These deficiencies can cause profound and irreparable damage to health and the quality of life-blindness, stunted physical and cognitive development, low work capacity, and even premature death. Without nutrient-rich foods, the potential and productivity of vast numbers of people are cut short, perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

Together we can feed the Bees

Our journey began in the early 1990s when we asked the question: What if we could make plants do some of the work for us? What if we could produce new varieties of seeds that were higher in vitamin A, iron or zinc? That was the genesis of biofortification, a strategy that targets staple food crops grown and consumed by millions of smallholder farmers in largely remote rural areas with limited access to other nutrition interventions.

Our approach is simple but has a powerful outcome-put the seeds in the hands of the farmers who will grow the crops for household consumption and for the market. This approach facilitates sustainability and ownership. It is development at its best-providing people with a tool to solve their problem, with a minimum of change necessary, just substituting one-for-one the biofortified variety for the non-biofortified variety.

Today biofortified varieties of 13 crops have been released in 30 countries around the world. Another 25 countries will soon be added, with more to come. We have shown that mothers and their families will switch from non-biofortified to biofortified varieties once they understand that the latter provides nutritional benefits at no extra cost. An estimated 20 million people in farm households are expected to have access to biofortified crops by the end of 2016.  As we scale up our efforts worldwide, we hope to reach one billion people with biofortified foods by 2030. In recognition of this progress, the World Food Prize called biofortification “groundbreaking” when naming Dr. Maria Andrade, Dr. Robert Mwanga, Dr. Jan Low-all from the International Potato Center-and myself as this year's laureates.

Of course, biofortification is but one piece of a complex puzzle. Our food systems have to be calibrated to provide the greatest amount of nutrients per square foot of scarce land that can be produced sustainably, especially in the face of climate change. We have to build agricultural and, therefore, dietary diversity back into the system so that there is a ‘rebalancing' of calories with micronutrients. This means growing more nutritious non-staple foods such as fruits, vegetables, pulses, and animal products, but also promoting food systems that include mineral- and vitamin-enhanced staple foods that are proving efficacious in reducing micronutrient deficiencies.

US leadership has been important in making biofortification a reality. USAID funding in the early 1990s catalyzed the initial decision to pursue biofortification. Scientists from the USDA's Agricultural Research Service were also instrumental to biofortification's success. USAID support has continued since HarvestPlus was formally initiated in 2003. We are grateful for the Feed the Future funding that enables us to reach vulnerable women and children, and we welcome the inclusion of biofortification in the strategy that USAID sent to Congress after the passage of the Global Food Security Act.

Gayle Smith, USAID's Administrator, has underscored the commitment of the U.S. Government to invest in innovative technologies such as biofortification:

“Our investments in research and technology have fueled-and accelerated-much of this progress. Building on longstanding support for research institutions, the United States has more than doubled its investments in research since President Obama took office. Because of technologies like biofortification, we now have access to simple interventions that can have a huge impact on nutrition.”

The next step is to take this groundbreaking innovation to scale. To mainstream biofortification, governments need to include biofortification in policies, budgets, crop breeding, and food subsidy programs. Private seed companies and other actors along the value chain, NGOs, and multilateral financial institutions are also key to scaling up.

US leadership in supporting this mainstreaming of biofortification in the future will continue to be just as key to success as has its past leadership.

About the author: Dr. Howarth Bouis is the founding director of HarvestPlus and is one of this year's World Food Prize laureates, in recognition of his pioneering work on biofortification, the interdisciplinary, global effort to breed and disseminate micronutrient-rich staple food crops to reduce mineral and vitamin deficiencies among malnourished populations in developing countries. HarvestPlus is a joint program of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) (Washington, D.C.) and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) (Cali, Colombia).Dr. Bouis received his B.A. in economics from Stanford University and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Stanford University's Food Research Institute.  Prior to beginning his graduate studies, Bouis worked for three years as a volunteer in the Philippines with Volunteers in Asia. He joined IFPRI in 1982 as post-doctoral fellow. His early research focused on understanding how economic factors affect food demand and nutrition outcomes, particularly in Asia. Insights gained during this research led him to propose the concept of biofortification, and he has dedicated the rest of his career to moving it from concept to reality.



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