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‘How biofortified crops can tackle hunger, malnutrition’

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BOTH children and adults need micronutrients for good health. Yet, one in three people in the world does not get enough of these crucial vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin A, zinc and iron, resulting in what is called ‘hidden hunger’, since its effect are usually not visible. People suffering from hidden hunger may seem healthy but they are often tired and weak, easily falling prey to illness and infections. In more severe cases, hidden hunger can leave children blinded, stunted or with a reduced intelligence quotient (IQ.) And without micronutrients that they need, women face a greater risk of dying during childbirth.

To tackle these challenges, HarvestPlus and its partners are developing six micronutrient-rich staple food crops for Africa and South Asia. These micronutrient-rich crops, developed through bio-fortification, are now being released in countries with similar agro-ecologies. Crop bio-fortification implies the natural infusion of necessary vitamins and other nutrients into a crop through breeding. Advantages of bio-fortification of crops include reaching rural communities often missed out in other nutrition interventions such as supplementation and fortification.

According to the Country Manager for Nigeria, Mr Paul Ilona, “HarvestPlus focuses on three critical micronutrients recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as the most lacking in the diet of the poor.” He said the micronutrients include Vitamin A, zinc and iron. He said “about 127 million pre-school children are vitamin A deficient; about one-third of the world’s population is at high risk of zinc deficiency and iron deficiency is the most common micronutrient deficiency in the world,” adding that anaemia, often caused by iron deficiency, affects more than 1.6 million people globally.

In December 2011, the Federal Government approved the release of three yellow varieties of cassava developed by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) for the HarvestPlus programme. This first wave of yellow cassava, he said, contains enough Vitamin A to provide 25 per cent of the daily needs of children and women. The second wave of varieties is expected to be released in December 2013 and this should contain enough of vitamin A to meet 50 per cent of the daily needs of the vulnerable groups.

Ilona said cassava is chosen as the first bio-fortified crop for multiplication and dissemination because a large proportion of farming households in Nigeria produce and consume fresh cassava or its products. With the help of the government and partner institutions, he said, HarvestPlus had been able to multiply and distribute pro-Vitamin A cassava stems to 95,000 households in Nigeria in 2013 alone, with the target of reaching no fewer than 100,000 households by December this year.

The official dissemination of stems was flagged off on July 30 in Uyo by the Minister of Agriculture, Dr Akinwumi Adesina and Akwa Ibom State governor, Dr Godswill Akpabio.

“Although Vitamin A can be found in many foods, including green leafy vegetables, carrots, mango, and eggs, these are rarely eaten in the quantity needed. To address Vitamin A deficiency (VAD), Nigeria provides Vitamin A supplements to children less than five years during immunization days and has mandated the fortification of wheat and maize flours, vegetable oil and sugar with Vitamin A since 2000. “The development and dissemination of the pro-Vitamin A cassava has complemented current efforts to address VAD by delivering this nutrient through the staple foods that consumers eat every day in Nigeria,” Ilona said.

HarvestPlus Country Manager also revealed that similar efforts were being simultaneously made in other parts of Africa to reduce hidden hunger. Iron beans, he said, was being multiplied, disseminated, cultivated and consumed by rural poor households in Rwanda, where the crop is widely eaten daily; the same is the case for Orange fleshed Sweet Potato (OFSP) in Uganda and pro-Vitamin A maize in Zambia.

Although the multiplication and distribution of pro-vitamin A cassava stems were initially planned for one state in each of the four major cassava belts in Nigeria, farmers in more than 15 states of the federation received and planted the new varieties in 2013. This was driven by the high demand arising from awareness creation by the media and support by the Federal Ministry of Agriculture. A farm supervisor at HarvestPlus stem multiplication farm, Mr Lucky Augustine, said the varieties are high-yielding and virus resistant, with records of over 50 tonnes per hectare harvested in multiplication farms in Ogun and Ondo states.

HarvestPlus is part of the CGIAR research programmes on agriculture for nutrition and health and it is jointly coordinated by the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Colombia and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington.

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