Biofortification: the art of improving food

Examples of biofortification 
projects include:

The potential for crop breeding known as biofortification to direct specific nutrients to people who need them the most is “huge,” but it will take a worldwide effort among many organizations to make that happen, says Adam Heurberger, assistant professor of horticulture and landscape agriculture at Colorado State University.

Biofortification involves breeding plants with high levels of nutrients, such as vitamin A and B, zinc and iron to help populations that have deficiencies in their diets, but taking the effort to its potential is a big task.

“It’s a public health problem that we’re solving through agriculture,” said Heurberger. “We need to integrate our nutrition scientists, epidemiologists, with crop scientists, with growers, with soil scientists to understand what do people need and how can we get there… through breeding, through agronomy, through distribution.”

Heurberger is focusing on biofortification that involves established breeding techniques, rather than transgenics — or genetic modification — which has become controversial, although the science behind it is generally considered sound.

For example, anti-GMO groups have fought vehemently against golden rice, a product of transgenics, which produces rice with higher levels of vitamin A. In parts of the developed world children and pregnant woman suffer from a lack of vitamin A leading to blindness in children and night blindness and hypertension in pregnant women but widespread use of golden rice has been blocked due to opposition to GMOs.

Using established plant breeding techniques for biofortification to produce higher levels of nutrients in crops should not experience that kind of backlash, said Heurberger.

It’s thought that malnutrition causes about 30 million deaths annually. Between 20 million and 35 million people are already being provided with biofortified foods in developing countries through the HarvestPlus program, which promotes the initiative.

HarvestPlus says 290 varieties of 12 staple food crops have been released or are being tested in 60 countries. Efforts include beans, lentils, corn, casaba, and pearl millet and other crops.

It’s thought that two billion people worldwide do not get enough essential vitamins and minerals in their diets. As a result, certain populations, particularly women and children in underdeveloped countries, suffer from impaired physical and cognitive development, disease, even death, the HarvestPlus website says.

The agency estimates the annual gross domestic product loss in Asia and Africa through nutrient deficiencies at 11 percent.

In India alone, which has 50 percent of the world’s undernourished children, almost 60 percent of children between the ages of six months and 59 months are anaemic as a result of iron deficiency, leaving them feeling weak and lacking in energy. Anaemia can lead to problems with the heart and lungs, chronic disease and bone marrow disorders. Many foods are fortified with nutrients at the processing stage, but that is costly and it requires repetitive efforts and considerable co-ordination among health workers, governments and food companies. Limitations in infrastructure in developing countries can also hinder delivery of fortified foods.

But biofortification has the twin advantages of being cheaper because the process is naturally recurring and since nutrient-enhanced crops can be grown where they are needed the process can target populations with certain deficiencies.

“It’s much more secure to have someone have feed in their community, in their backyard, that has the nutrients that are needed, as opposed to relying on… government-based public health efforts to add something to a food,” said Heurberger.

Currently, the biofortification efforts tend to be an international effort in which a network of scientists worldwide share their research, said Heurberger.

Since Canada and the United States are both major agricultural exporting countries, there is opportunity for research here to produce more biofortified crops, but it’s difficult because “you’re talking about international public health efforts because there’s more factors at play than likely exist in the current markets. You’re talking about working with governments and NGOs.”

Efforts so far are mainly backed by the public sector.

“To really make this explode you need to have an effort that is not just in the public sector but also in the private sector … and I don’t know if the incentives are currently there for the private sector the way there is for the public sector.

“It goes back to who’s doing the breeding in the west and who are they breeding for. Are you breeding for growers or are you breeding for consumers? This is more of a consumer trait than it is a grower trait.”

The co-operation needed to promote biofortification on a massive scale would likely require a dedicated effort leading the way, he said.

“If there was a program designed to help facilitate those interactions it would be much more achievable.”

“It’s just a matter of getting groups that don’t normally work together to start working together.”

Asked what a world that has achieved the full potential of biofortification would look like, Heurberger said, “I would see it that all of the crops that are consumed by everyone have the best nutritional content that can be possible that is specific for that particular consumer, or that particular community or population.”

Future generations will have a better handle on the need and potential for biofortified plants, said Heurberger. “The good news is that, for example, at Colorado State (University) all of the students that come in that with an interest in breeding are exposed to concepts of biofortifiation. … I think it’s a start. It’s something that our new breeders are going to have in their minds understanding that this is something that they can do.”

Quick facts:

Fortification is the practice of adding essential micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals in a food after it has been harvested or processed to improve its nutritional quality.

Biofortification is the process of increasing the density of vitamins and minerals in a crop through plant breeding, transgenic techniques, or agronomic practices. Biofortified foods can reach populations where supplementation and conventional fortification activities may be limited or difficult to implement.

Examples of biofortification projects include:

  • rice, beans, sweet potato, cassava and legumes with iron biofortification
  • wheat, rice, beans, sweet potato and corn with zinc biofortification
  • sweet potato, corn and cassava with provitamin A carotenoid biofortification
  • sorghum and cassava with amino acid and protein biofortification

Source: World Health Organization

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