Biofortification, or the genetic improvement of crops for better nutritional value, is an effort that was born in 1994 under the guidance of World Food Prize laureate Howdy Bouis. Biofortification seeks to address micronutrient deficiencies, or “hidden hunger,” by breeding crops for higher concentration of essential nutrients such as iron, zinc, and vitamin A in foods that people eat every day. Biofortified crops complement other strategies such as supplements or industrial fortification, and reach an audience of the world’s poor that often do not have other options for improved nutrition. Biofortification was eventually consolidated as the HarvestPlus program of the CGIAR international centers for agricultural research.
Since 1994, dozens of biofortified varieties have been developed and released on four continents, aiding millions of disadvantaged consumers to meet their nutritional needs. In Africa in particular, policy makers have taken notice and consider biofortification to be an essential component in attaining better nutrition particularly for the vulnerable groups. As a result, six national governments have included biofortification as a key tool within their national food and nutritional security policies. Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe have all made a commitment to promote biofortified crops, and ASARECA (Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa) also includes biofortification as part of their strategy.
Orange-fleshed sweet potatoes with high levels of provitamin A are now widely consumed in countries such as Mozambique and Uganda,1, 2, 3 while biofortified beans released in Rwanda are spreading to neighboring countries such as Uganda, DR Congo, Burundi, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. The African Development Bank has signed up and has included orange-fleshed sweet potatoes and high-iron beans as part of the project “Technologies for African Agricultural Transformation” (TAAT) in Burundi, DR Congo, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. At the end of three years, more than 2 million households will have access to and will use high-iron bean seed and complementary technologies and products to improve their food, nutrition, and income security. For its part, the World Bank, through its incoming support to the ECAAT project (Eastern and Central Africa Agricultural Transformation), has also expressed interest in supporting governments, private sector, and farmers to create a vibrant High-Iron Beans (HIB) value chain. Biofortified maize and cassava are close behind. Why are policy makers convinced about biofortified crops? Because nutritional scientists have shown that they really work. In studies carried out in Africa, consuming vitamin A sweet potatoes increased bodily vitamin A stores,4 and high-iron beans improved levels of hemoglobin5 and even mental agility among young Rwandan women!6
But the job is far from done. Climate change threatens to undo the gains attained so far, and a burgeoning population demands more productive varieties to keep pace with population growth. Daunting challenges confront plant breeders to both maintain the improvements made to date and to combine the improved nutritional value with other consumer-preferred and climate-resilient traits. “Plant breeders have a big role to play in feeding the world,” says Steve Beebe, bean breeder and leader of CIAT’s Bean Program, “and to feed the world with crops that are more nutritious. To deal with climate change, we have to run just to stay in the same place, and we need to run even faster to respond to the challenges of malnutrition. But many biofortified bean varieties are also bred to be tolerant of drought, and so have multiple advantages.”
Plant breeders will continue to do their best to assure a food-and-nutrition secure future for Africans and for people around the world. However, more crop research work is needed to tackle emerging crop production and utilization constraints and ultimately to address nutritional challenges of the vulnerable. Meanwhile, biofortified crops have shown that they can play a critical role in meeting these challenges of the 21st century.
1 Mulongo, G.; Maru, J.; Munyua, H.; Kasuga, R.; Olapeju, P.; Wende, M.; Rubyogo, J.C.; Gethi, J. 2018. The Building Nutritious Food Baskets Project ‘Insights from the Field’. International Potato Center (CIP), Lima, Peru. 48 p. https://hdl.handle.net/10568/98539
2 International Potato Center. 2018. Reaching Agents of Change Project: Successes, lessons and
recommendations. Ex-post evaluation report. Building Nutritious Food Baskets Project. International
Potato Center, Nairobi, Kenya. 58 p. ISBN 978-92-9060-494-5.
3 FARA. 2017. Building Nutritious Food Baskets Project: Regional advocacy strategy, 2017 and beyond.
4 van Jaarsveld, P.J.; Faber, M; Tanumihardjo, S.A.; Nestel, P.; Lombard, C.J.; Benadé, A.J. 2005. Beta-carotene-rich orange-fleshed sweet potato improves the vitamin A status of primary school children assessed with the modified-relative-dose-response test. Am J Clin Nutr. 81(5):1080-7.
5 Haas, J.D.; Luna, S.L.; Lung’aho, M.G.; Wenger, M.J.; Murray-Kolb, L.E.; Beebe, S.; Gahutu, J.B.; Egli, I.M. 2016. Consuming Iron Biofortified Beans Increases Iron Status in Rwandan Women after 128 Days in a Randomized Controlled Feeding Trial. J. Nutr. 146:1586-1592 doi:10.3945/jn.115.224741.
6 Murray-Kolb, L.E.; Wenger, M.J.; Scott, S.P.; Rhoten, S.E.; Lung’aho, M.G.; Haas, J.D. 2017. Consumption of Iron-Biofortified Beans Positively Affects Cognitive Performance in 18- to 27-Year-Old Rwandan Female College Students in an 18-Week Randomized Controlled Efficacy Trial.
J Nutr. 147(11):2109-2117. doi: 10.3945/jn.117.255356.