By: Christian Zapata, Communication Analyst for HarvestPlus Latinamerica & Caribbean
Hidden hunger strikes people who, on the outside, may appear to be consuming an adequate amount of food—mainly staple crops grown on small family farms. Yet, the empty calories of many staple crops represent an invisible hunger that affects the health and wellbeing of people living on the margins. Hidden hunger describes a condition of undernutrition where the body lacks essential vitamins and minerals that keep people healthy. Over 2 billion people worldwide are affected by hidden hunger—that’s 1 out of every 3 people in the whole world!
Deficiencies in micronutrients such as zinc, iron, and vitamin A can cause profound and irreparable damage to the body—blindness, stunting, mental retardation, learning disabilities, low work capacity, and even premature death. Such deficiencies are even more dangerous during the first 1,000 days of a child’s life—from conception to the age of two.
In response, biofortification was born: a strategy to tackle hidden hunger through breeding micronutrient-rich crops and promoting their regular consumption.
The biofortification process begins with a seed that is viewed through a multidisciplinary lens. Agricultural experts, nutritionists, public health specialists and consumer marketing experts look at that seed as the first step in the biofortification process. The strategy is successful only when plant breeders can develop those traits that meet not only the nutritional needs(increased density of micronutrients) but also other requirements of the consumers (such as taste, color, cooking time) and agricultural needs (such as higher yield and climate smartness) of the farmers.
Since 2003 HarvestPlus, the lead organization for biofortification worldwide, and its partners have demonstrated that this agriculture-based strategy of addressing micronutrient deficiency works. More than 20 million people in farm households in developing countries are now growing and consuming biofortified crops.
HarvestPlus’ roots stretch back to the early 1990s when Howarth Bouis, an economist at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), asked himself a question: “What if we could get plants to do some of this work for us?” Some years later, and after Steve Beebe coined the term “biofortification,” scientists from CIAT (beans and cassava), CIMMYT (maize and wheat), IRRI (rice), the USDA-ARS, the University of Adelaide, and other institutions attended a USAID-funded inception meeting to discuss launching a project to breed for higher mineral and vitamin content.
By April 2002, the “Biofortification Challenge Program (BCP)” had been selected as one of three pre-proposals for fast-tracking within the CGIAR system, which turned out be the huge break for biofortification and the CGIAR Micronutrients project.
CIAT and IFPRI entered into a joint venture agreement to co-manage the BCP, later to become HarvestPlus.
HarvestPlus’ objective is to reach 20 million farming households by 2020 and 1 billion consumers by 2030 through the development of inclusive and sustainable markets for biofortified crops.