Biofortification: the answer to malnutrition? There are hopes that fortified crops can help African countries provide food security to its most vulnerable populations.

Author:Toesland, Finbarr

Food security is a pressing issue for African countries, and inadequate nutrition is a major challenge across the continent. Basic staples such as a piece of bread or a mouthful of sweet potato can keep hunger at bay for the most vulnerable, but such foods usually lack the much-needed micronutrients that are essential to basic health.

Young children are often worst affected by this "hidden hunger", with the shortage of essential nutrients stunting their development. In small rural villages in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo the beans that traditionally constitute a major staple are low in nutrients. These places are home to countless boys and girls who are small for their age and schoolchildren who have gone blind due to vitamin A deficiency.

A varied diet of nutrient-rich food would remedy the majority of these health issues, but this is often simply out of reach--both geographically and financially. Biofortification, the process of breeding crops in a way that increases their overall nutritional value, is being utilised across the continent to meet this acute challenge.

The number of Africans that biofortified crops could potentially help is enormous. For example, over 250m people on the continent have a diet based on cassava, which provides less than 30% of daily protein requirements and only 10-20% of the iron, zinc and vitamin A they need.

The international agriculture organisation Harvest-Plus has been at the forefront of improving nutrition and public health in Africa through biofortification since receiving a $25m grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2003. Thanks to funding by a wide range of donors, including the World Bank and the World Food Programme, the HarvestPlus programme has been able to distribute biofortified crops in 30 countries and hopes to see 100m people consuming biofortified crops globally by the end of 2020.

"Using conventional breeding methods, scientists have developed new varieties of productive staple food crops that contain higher amounts of vitamin A, iron, and zinc to improve diets and nutrition," says Dr Howarth Bouis, director of HavestPlus. "More nutritious biofortified crops can reach rural communities often missed by other nutrition interventions such as dietary supplementation and fortification."

On-the-ground results

Rwanda's traditional bean varieties lack iron, with iron deficiency in pregnant women increasing the chance of developmental delays in the baby, so...

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