New Staple Crop Varieties Take Aim at Malnutrition

  • by Matthew O. Berger (washington)
  • Tuesday, November 09, 2010
  • Inter Press Service

It generally succeeded. But what if those staple crops were themselves lacking in the micronutrients — such as vitamin A, iron or zinc — that people were short on but which are necessary for healthy bodies?

Addressing this micronutrient deficiency would require a new approach and a new effort which is only now beginning to, quite literally, bear fruit.

In sub-Saharan Africa, many people, especially in rural areas, depend on staples such as white sweet potatoes or white maize, which may lack sufficient quantities of the nutrients their bodies need. Vitamin A deficiency, for instance, leads to at least 250,000 children going blind each year, according to the World Health Organisation, with half dying during the following year.

Sufficient quantities can be found in other foods eaten elsewhere in the world, but rather than undertake the daunting task of changing diets and traditions, plant breeders started trying to develop orange varieties of these crops that would do well in the particular growing conditions of sub-Saharan African countries.

Research on an orange sweet potato began in the mid-1990s. In 2005, a group called HarvestPlus, funded by governments, foundations and research institutes and part of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), became involved in the research.

They set clear objectives for the breeders: increase the level of provitamin A in the sweet potato depended on by people in East African countries by 1,500 percent.

In 2007, they released the tuber in Uganda amidst a complementary advertising campaign meant to spread the message that orange equals healthy and that people should choose to plant the orange variety.

They saw some nutritional impacts on people's health in 18 months.

Because people were so vitamin A deficient and the sweet potato is such a rich source of it, only 60 to 120 millilitres of the vegetable is needed to meet the recommended daily allowance of a young child, says Jan Low, who leads HarvestPlus's sweet potato work.

As the group looks ahead to releasing new varieties of maize, rice, cassava and other crops bred to be more nutritious, HarvestPlus is organising a three-day conference in Washington starting Tuesday which it says is the first- ever international meeting on how agriculture can attack micronutrient malnutrition.

The conference comes as the role of breeding as a solution to malnutrition is approaching a crossroads, according to HarvestPlus's director, Howarth Bouis.

He says they are ready to release several crops in the next several years, but that this step will take additional money. 'The initial research cost for the breeding and studies are relatively low, but when you start getting into the final stages of development, when you get into delivery, your costs expand and go up,' Bouis told reporters Monday.

At the same time, though, he sees increased interest among development donors in investing in nutrition as well as in using agriculture as a tool to improve nutrition.

'In the past, those working on nutrition have not really looked at agriculture as a primary means of improving nutrition,' he says, noting that supplements and the practice of fortifying prepared or packaged foods with micronutrients were preferred.

But those practices are focused more on urban consumers. To reach the poorest of the poor, predominantly found in rural areas, they felt it was necessary to improve the crops themselves — but to do so through conventional breeding that would avoid both the regulatory and cultural hurdles, and safety concerns, of genetic engineering.

That is not to say HarvestPlus rejects the potential of genetically engineered crops. They have been involved with research on a transgenic variety of rice which is rich in iron and zinc, and Bouis says if it becomes easier to create and release transgenic varieties in the future they would do it.

Alex Johnson, who works on the rice variety, says it is important to note that it is of the utmost importance to them that the plants they develop produce viable seeds, unlike the patented plants of agricultural corporations. In the case of sweet potato, seeds are not even needed; farmers just pass along cuttings to their neighbors in what Low calls one of the most informal dissemination processes imaginable.

But there is a limit to the impact increasing the amount of vitamins and nutrients in crops can have, of course.

'Getting all people's nutrient needs into one or two grains and expecting that will solve their problems has serious limitations,' says Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, where he focuses on agricultural biotechnology and sustainable agriculture. 'Something like this really has to be seen as a stopgap — maybe an important stopgap — but not a solution in itself.'

But he welcomes HarvestPlus's emphasis on conventional breeding methods. 'Conventional breeding has in general been very successful for many decades but its funding tapered off following the Green Revolution, and a lot of projects to improve crops went straight to a transgenic approach,' he says, 'but groups like HarvestPlus have rediscovered that breeding works better than transgenics in many situations.'

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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