What do Frankenstein and Food have in common? I’ll give you a clue – it can save billions of people from undernutrition and improve food security globally.
The Problem: Micronutrients
Over 2 billion people suffer from micronutrient deficiencies, most prevalently iron, zinc and Vitamin A. Deficiency in Vitamin A is one of the most detrimental forms of malnutrition in the developing world. It causes stunted growth, blindness, and a weakened immune system. Whilst improving the amount and diversity of food remains a challenge, scientists have found a way to improve the micronutrient density of existing staple crops.
A Solution: Biofortification
Biofortification involves enhancing the nutritional qualities of food crops through modern biotechnology, traditional plant breeding and agronomic practices. This differs from conventional fortification as nutrient levels are improved during plant growth, rather than during the processing of the crops. This usually occurs with staple crops, which provide around 50% of nutrition in developing countries. Farmers are provided with the enhanced crop which leads to a virtuous cycle of improved nutrition and consequent improvements to health and living standards.
Hear Howarth Bouis, Director of HarvestPlus, explain biofortification in just 50 seconds!
- Vitamin A in sweet potato, maize and cassava
- Iron in rice, beans, sweet potato, cassava and legumes
- Zinc in wheat, rice, beans, sweet potato and maize
- Amino acid and proteins in sourghum and cassava
Bioforitfication is cost-efficient, can reach remote communities, is sustainable and long-term, and has a proven impact.
How it works
There are 2 main agronomic technologies used for biofortification, either to increase micronutrient density or to improve bioavailability. These are: traditional selective plant breeding and genetic engineering.
Traditional breeding involves selecting seeds that are nutrient rich, and breeding them with high-yielding crops, to get a crop which is both nutrient-rich and high-yielding.
Genetic engineering involves inserting a gene containing the desired nutrient into the seed itself. This seed is then bred with a high-yielding crop, also resulting in a micronutrient-rich crop. This method produced the beta-carotene rich Golden Rice.
So what’s the difference?
How does a researcher go about biofortification?
1) Profiling – a population and staple food are identified, and nutritional targets are made.
2) Crop Development – through either selective breeding or genetic modification.
3) Delivery – consumers are educated about the new crop, the crop is made available to farmers, and monitoring continues.
Watch Professor Kevin Folta from the University of Florida explain the process!
GMO or OMG?
Genetically modified organisms (or GMOs) have been met with their fair share of criticism with concerns for human health and environmental problems. Further challenges involve slow take-ups in some communities with engrained farming practices. But these concerns must be met by acknowledging the huge benefits GMOs have to offer – one of which is the impacts of biofortification on food security globally.
Farmers have been intentionally changing the genetics of crops for around 10,000 years. Almost all commercially available fruits, vegetables and grains have been altered in some way. The process was expanded in the late 20th Century, and the benefits of GMOs have allowed improved availability, consistency, quality, quantity and costs of foods since.
Case Study: Iron enriched Pearl Millet in India
See how iron-enriched pearl millet has improved lives in India. It is said to improve yields, be more nutritious, be disease resistant, more water efficient, and even be more tasty!
Biofortification is an exciting new avenue for agricultural research, and will have huge impacts for people and communities all over the world.
It’s no wonder the 2016 World Food Prize was awarded to a team of plant breeders who engineered Biofortified Sweet Potatoes!