Canada should stake claim as biofortification leader

As a champion of food security and nutrition internationally, Canada should seize the opportunity to encourage public and private investment in biofortified crops.

It will require encouragement to get the private sector more involved because profit incentives and demand are not yet enough to motivate the sector in developed countries to play a leadership role.

But potential outcomes are too promising to ignore.

Biofortification involves breeding plants to absorb more nutrients from soils, such as vitamin A and B, zinc and iron. The idea is to address nutrition deficiencies — particularly in developing countries — where staple foods form a large part of diets.

Research has shown that consumption of foods biofortified with specific vitamins and minerals have improved the health of people where deficiencies exist.

In Rwanda, for example, beans biofortified with iron increased cognition in young women. Memory, work performance and energy all improved.

It’s thought that as a result of people suffering from lack of key nutrients, the gross domestic product in some countries suffers by four to 11 percent.

Between 20 and 35 million people are already being provided with biofortified foods in developing countries through research and technology transfer initiatives, largely led by the HarvestPlus program and the Golden Rice Project.

Yet it’s thought that two billion people worldwide do not get enough essential vitamins and minerals in their diets.

Imagine the outcomes if biofortified foods were to reach their potential. Aside from healthier populations, infant mortality would decrease. Economic output would rise. And in the West, some food aid could be diverted to other efforts.

Canada has shown its support for biofortification through the HarvestPlus program. And last March, Health Canada approved marketing of Golden Rice, which contains high levels of vitamin A. It was largely a symbolic gesture, because it’s not sold in Canada, but that support can spread to other countries.

The Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a global partnership that connects organizations engaged in food research, has developed a five-year plan to boost the availability of biofortified plants. The plan, which launches this year, aims to ensure that support for biofortification efforts is embedded in national public policy and research programs.

Only by going mainstream in agriculture will there be a strong enough economic advantage to encourage the private sector to embrace biofortified crops.

There is also opportunity for agricultural exporting countries like Canada. Current biofortification efforts tend to involve research that is exported to developing countries, but growing biofortified foods in Canada for export would also be of value.

Worldwide, there is no shortage of poverty, which means diet deficiencies in developed countries are far too common, particularly among women and children. Biofortified crops grown locally could help address that.

A global partnership among governments, private companies, non-governmental organizations and health agencies must be developed. Leadership through public policy and international conferences and promotion would be helpful.

Research will need to flourish, markets will have to be developed, and profits will have to be attainable. It won’t happen on its own.

As an international force in agriculture and nutrition, Canada would be a respected leader in biofortification efforts.

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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