Stories tagged: biofortification

Biofortified Staple Crops: Empowering Smallholder Farmers to be Food System Change Agents  

Andrew Natsios, former Administrator of USAID and current Advisory Committee Chair of HarvestPlus Continue reading

Building Nutrition Resilience in the Covid-19 Era

Lynn Brown, Director of Alliances and Policy at HarvestPlus Continue reading

To End Hidden Hunger, Partnerships Across Sectors for Biofortification are Key

By Maggie Kamau-Biruri, Head of Partnerships at HarvestPlus. 

After more than a decade of steady decline, world hunger is again on the rise, according to a 2017 report from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. As the need to address growing malnutrition rates grows more pressing, global leaders tackling this challenge must consider engaging in public, private and government partnerships to maximize the reach of critical nutrition programs.

One of the most common forms of malnutrition plaguing the world’s population is micronutrient deficiency, a phenomenon that occurs when people may have enough to eat but lack the micronutrients that are critical to living healthy and productive lives. Currently, micronutrient deficiency, also known as hidden hunger, affects more than 2 billion people worldwide.

The micronutrients most lacking in diets around the world include vitamin A, zinc and iron, according to the World Health Organization. Most frequently, these deficiencies lead to cognitive and physical stunting, blindness, lower resistance to disease, fatigue and even death.

Vitamin A deficiency alone affects 190 million preschool-aged children in rural areas around the globe, 5.2 million of which suffer from night blindness. Meanwhile, zinc deficiency claims the lives of roughly 116,000 a year.

Many African countries are currently endowed with the so-called demographic dividend, a large and growing cohort of young people, estimated at 200 million strong, according to the United Nations. This dividend, if well tapped, has strong potential to bring innovation and energy to Africa’s economy. However, the risk of losing this opportunity is real, with many of the children’s early years threatened by lack of micronutrients needed for body and brain development. Countries cannot take advantage of their demographic dividend if their children are stunted and unable to achieve their full potential.

Affected countries in Asia and Africa see an average annual GDP loss of 11 percent because of the effects of hidden hunger. And worldwide, malnutrition costs the global economy as much as $3.5 trillion USD, or $500 per individual, according to a report from the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition.

One proven solution that is playing an important role in addressing hidden hunger throughout the world is biofortification, an agricultural and technological innovation that draws on conventional breeding processes to boost the levels of micronutrients in staple crops.

The consumption of biofortified foods improves vitamin and mineral levels and is proven to reduce chronic diseases stemming from undernutrition, such as anemia and chronic diarrhea.

In one recent study, young women attending university in Rwanda who consumed daily meals that incorporated high-iron beans experienced complete reversal of their iron deficiency and significant improvement in their cognitive recall in just over four months. Similarly, iron-rich pearl millet reversed iron deficiency in school-aged children in India in only six months.

HarvestPlus, a nonprofit within the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health, has played a critical role in developing and scaling out biofortified crops, in association with several international research partners. Today, more than 150 varieties of 12 nutrient-rich crops that meet farmers’ demands for yield, quality and climate tolerance are being grown in 60 countries.

Through coordinated efforts among dozens of research institutes, nonprofit organizations, private companies and local country partners, biofortified crops are currently being consumed by 26 million people and are steadily improving nutrition and health around the world. Still, too many people continue to suffer. To ensure that biofortified crops reach people in critical need of micronutrients, HarvestPlus set a goal to reach 1 billion people with biofortified crops by 2030.

Over the next 12 years, the jump from 30 million consumers to 1 billion will require a coordinated effort rooted in ongoing cooperation and the establishment of lasting partnerships between the private, public and government sectors. Luckily, this process is already underway.

Relationships with local country governments have played an instrumental role in reaching rural populations lacking access to foods rich in micronutrients. To date, several countries ranging from Bangladesh to Brazil have incorporated biofortification in their national strategies for reducing malnutrition.

There are now models for how these partnerships can successfully reach farmers and consumers. In Nigeria, the Youth Agripreneurs program works with farmers throughout Africa to provide biofortification training. The program, operated by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and supported by organizations such as HarvestPlus and others, was initially developed to combat high youth unemployment rates throughout Africa, a challenge that many expect to remain at the forefront in the continent over the next 30 years.

Through the Youth Agripreneur initiative, youth are trained in emerging agribusiness trends —simultaneously tackling unemployment, food and nutrition security. As youth continue to play a growing role in scaling out biofortification, it is likely that their generations will carry on the legacy of biofortification as a valuable tool in the effort to end hidden hunger and as a lucrative investment for farmers.

In addition to scaling out access to improved nutrition, the adoption of biofortification by national governments has given biofortification a stamp of approval as an effective solution to hidden hunger, which has encouraged new private sector investment in bringing biofortified food to more people.

Beyond governmental support, private sector engagement is a critical component of scaling out biofortification. By engaging private companies, such as those that produce seeds or food manufacturers, to use biofortified seeds or crops both farmers and consumers have increased access to biofortified seeds, crops and finished food products.

In Nigeria, biofortified food products have become readily available in supermarkets with the support of companies like Niji-Lukas, a local Nigerian corporation. Niji-Lukas produces vitamin A garri and vitamin A fufu, traditional Nigerian dishes that have been made with biofortified vitamin A maize and are now sold in grocery stores throughout the country. Further developing these types of partnerships will help bring biofortified seeds and products to new markets and expand the reach of biofortification.

National government and private sector support are vital to helping more farmers and consumers access biofortified seeds and crops, but partnerships within the public sector are integral to encouraging farmers to grow biofortified seeds and educating consumers on the benefits of eating biofortified crops. Success with farmers and consumers in these areas is often reliant on training and support schemes.

As the biofortification movement continues to spread it will be vital to engage the private sector as a critical player along the value chain. Working both with SMEs at country level, multinationals around the world while supporting farmers to view farming as a viable business. With more than 30 million people consuming crops across the globe, biofortification is well on its way to becoming a sure pathway to ending hidden hunger.

This post originally appeared on the Chicago Council’s Global Food for Thought blog.


Will Brazilian Millennials Look to a Future in the Fields?

The rural workforce in Brazil is getting younger, according to recent research. Meet the Gen-Y agripreneurs changing the face of farming in Brazil. By Raphael Marques da Silva, on behalf of HarvestPlus.

The economic crisis in Brazil has chosen millennials–the most apt generation for building the future of the country–as its main victim. According to a survey on Millennials and the Nem Nem Generation, conducted by the Standard Intelligence Center in partnership with MindMiners, about 25% of young people between 18 and 32 years old are unemployed.

At the same time, the average age of Brazilian farmers has fallen from 48 (2013) to 46 years old (2017), while the presence of women in the field increased by 7% according to another recent study. These farmers are also showing higher levels of education and tech savviness.

The study, managed by the Brazilian Rural Marketing and Agribusiness Association, highlighted that 21% of the interviewed farmers had an advanced degree, with an emphasis on agronomy (42%), veterinary medicine (9%) and corporate administration (7%).

And unlike farmers from previous generations, the majority are online and regularly use social media as a means of communication, with nearly all of them using Whatsapp (96%), while 67% interact with Facebook and 24% with YouTube.

These studies reflect the fact that Brazil is in the midst of a socio-economic change in which the rural communities, long seen as lagging behind, are catching up to the city.

Priorities among farmers are shifting too, with producers turning towards suppliers who are dedicated to environmentally sustainable practices. With a more engaged, connected and familiar rural environment, farmers in the countryside are increasingly foregoing large urban centers that are plagued by a cruel recession.

Data and trends gathered from these studies point to a Generation Y that is more sustainability-focused, ideological and even scientific. 

Breeding more vitamins and minerals in the semi-arid

Valdileia Silva, 21, is an agricultural technician and an example of the new female farmer. The daughter of rural producers from the city of Oeiras-PI, Valdileia works with her father, Luís Costa e Silva, on the family farm. She is enthusiastic about the innovative measures being implemented in their field, such as solar energy irrigation and cultivation of biofortified crop varieties. Solar irrigation has helped save energy and water, and biofortified crops – made available to family famers like Valdileia through the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa) and the HarvestPlus research program – have provided more minerals and vitamins.

Valdileia with one of her 11 brothers. (Photo: Tarcila Viana)

“Biofortified products have helped us generate income, since they are widely accepted in Oeiras and neighboring cities. By growing them, I can meet the demands of the Food Acquisition Program (PAA), created by the State to encourage family farming, and earn more money. I deliver to eight schools in Piauí and 14 in the municipality, not counting requests from other cities,” she says, proud of her role in contributing to the regional economy. She is also creating jobs: “I employ two young people on my property, both of whom came from agricultural school and were unemployed.”

Values from the field

For Joni Knapp, 20, a technician in agriculture and the environment, his experience in the city lacked “contact with the earth” and he never felt quite at home.

“The values ​​from the countryside, including the importance of health and knowing what you produce, encouraged me to return to the field,” says Joni, who lives in the municipality ​​of Campina das Missões, in Rio Grande do Sul.

His family business involves producing milk through a cooperative to then pasteurize the product. Combining sustainability and innovation comes naturally to the young farmer. His hunger for knowledge has kept him in touch with a cheese producer in the region who is experienced in enriching the product with micronutrients. According to Joni, dialogue with elders is fundamental, but it’s something that often does not exist in the field, leading young people to leave.

“Young people are hesitant to take over the family business because many believe in the myth that the city is a perfect place. Parents often do not interact with their children, and conflict with their parents, even more so than low wages, motivates many to move to urban centers.”

Sugar cane: National wealth

“Youth today do not have “jeitinho brasileiro” – a Brazilian expression for improvising solutions but also for avoiding or shaping rules – says Mauricio Palazzo, 32. “Today, we study the rules and we comply with them.”

An administrator and farmer, Mauricio is critical of the old “jeitinho” and believes the new generation who work in the fields has shown an increasing commitment to environmental and occupational safety concerns.

Mauricio is the secretary of Socicana – Guariba Sugar Suppliers Association in São Paulo, where 60% of the country’s sugarcane is cultivated.

“Sugarcane gives me a stable income compared to other crops, but I still plant soybeans and peanuts as a form of crop rotation.”

Mauricio Palazzo (Photo: Ewerton Alves/Neomarc)

Like any farmer, Maurício sees a lot of potential in agriculture. This optimism is crucial because volatility is part of the daily life of a farmer. Uncontrollable factors such as climate and pests can compromise an entire harvest, and it is up to the farmer to be resilient, and to return to the next season with more experience and better safety measures.


Lívia Gonçalves de Souza (Photo: Ewerton Alves/Neomarc)

Lívia Gonçalves de Souza, 32, is also part of the Sugar Suppliers Association. She graduated in agronomy and makes a good living planting sugarcane.

The rural entrepreneur who speaks with pride about the recognition she has already won among regional producers for having entered the market early and proven herself capable. She has also gained much credibility for her use of agricultural practices like precision agriculture.

“Today, your technical degree is of no use if you’re not a good manager of your property,” she said.

Agriculture-Livestock Integration in the Amazon

“I completed two years of study in Administration before returning to the countryside,” says João Ricardo Carvalho, who runs two farms in Pará, in the north of Brazil. “I always participate in courses and lectures, because the intention is to strengthen our Integrated Crop-Livestock systems to produce more with less space.”

The technique diminishes the impact on the environment by taking advantage of the same area at different times of the year though rotation or succession. The practice enhances the preservation of natural resources and increases the potential for greater stability and income.

Research corporations in Brazil such as Embrapa have proven that this model contributes to improving soil quality, diversifying income alternatives. Diversifying means of production also increases local food security.

Like other young farmers, João is continuously trying to recast the image of a farmer in Brazil. It is with this same sentiment that he has been rebuilding Fazenda Janaína, his property located in Pará,

Looking forward

Brazil’s cultural diversity is reflected in both the city and the countryside. Optimism is the word of the moment to characterize the agricultural sector, with the export of commodities being the main activity responsible for giving “oxygen” to the economy. The countryside is getting younger, with more women in the workforce, and a prevailing entrepreneurial spirit. Taking all business models to scale is a challenge, but the aspirations of Brazil’s millennial generation, and its commitment to seeking a livelihood through farming, is encouraging.

Sprouting Grains for Stronger Bones: The Power of Finger Millet

In this guest blog post, Jerome Bossuet of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) explains the potential that the calcium-rich cereal finger millet has for combatting calcium deficiency around the world.

Calcium is key for growth and we need plenty of it in our daily food from a very young age. Yet, about half the global population, mostly in Asia and Africa, lack calcium in their diet and are prone to many related ailments ranging from cardiovascular diseases and diabetes to bone loss, which leads to crippling osteoporosis at old age.

Scientists from Aberystwyth University, UK and the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) recommend biofortifying finger millet, an already calcium-rich dryland cereal grown in India and Africa, to combat this significant micronutrient deficiency.

One woman out of three and one man out of five will be exposed to bone loss and related fractures during their lives and the societal cost is rising fast, both in developed and developing countries. Think of a bone lifesaving account. Children need to get as much calcium as possible during their childhood to prevent osteoporosis which is very difficult to detect at an early stage. In the US, osteoporosis is costing around US$ 17 billion annually.

Different strategies are in place to prevent calcium deficiency with contrasting results. Food fortification e.g. breakfast cereals or flours, may not reach the most vulnerable, while supplementation tablets have well documented side-effects. Eating calcium rich food, like dairy products, seems to be the most efficient way to combat calcium deficiency. However, many cannot switch to dairy because of lactose intolerance, purchasing power or being vegan. Therefore, selecting (biofortifying) and promoting calcium-rich crops has a great potential to combat calcium deficiency. This is where finger millet stands out.

An Indian farmer’s organization in Kolli hills, in Tamil Nadu has been advocating for finger millet (called ragi in India) for years. They grow and market it, they eat it in various ways and value its resilience and health benefits. Here, children eat sprouted finger millet as part of their midday school meal. The group have been  processing and packaging this super grain for urban markets, with the support of the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), Bioversity International and IFAD.

Photo credit: Alina Paul-Bossuet

Children eating finger millet chappatis at school in India. Photo credit: Alina Paul-Bossuet

This is a survival dryland cereal which can grow with little rain, on poor soils, yet could reach yields of 10 tons per hectare when irrigated. It is the richest source of calcium among cereals, 3 times more than milk and 10 times higher than brown rice or maize. It is traditionally eaten as weaning porridge in some parts of India and Africa.

Under the CGIAR Research Program on Drylands Cereals, a nutrition profiling of hundreds (628) of finger millet varieties in Africa shows great variability in grain quality content. Breeding research has started working on calcium biofortification of finger millet, gaining a better understanding of what environmental factors and genes influence calcium grain richness without impeding its agronomic performance. Finger millet varieties in the pipeline with double the calcium of average varieties (up to 450 mg/100g edible portion) are now being tested by Kenyan and Tanzanian farmers. Dr Ojulong, ICRISAT research scientist working on finger millet highlights the vast potential of this work. “With the development of this biofortified finger millet that still performs well in the field, you need to eat a third less finger millet to meet your daily calcium requirements. Some Kenyan food processors are very keen on using it for the growing baby food market.”

Rural Kenyan women learn a new way to cook finger millet porridge for better nutrition. Photo credit: Alina Paul-Bossuet

Rural Kenyan women learn a new way to cook finger millet porridge for better nutrition. Photo credit: Alina Paul-Bossuet

However, eating finger millet is not enough to get its nutritional benefits, our body has to absorb it. This is what a nutritionist calls bioavailability, which is usually quite poor for grains, as it also contains compounds like phytates and tannins that prevent calcium absorption. However, such anti-nutrient compounds are important in plant growth and grain preservation. Tannins for instance prevent mould or insect damage. The way grain is processed and eaten highly influences calcium absorption. A nutrition study assessing women self-help group diets in rural Karnataka State, India showed that a portion of finger millet consumed two times a day together with one portion of pulses and vegetables, met the recommended calcium daily requirements.

The most nutritionally sound way to prepare finger millet is grain decortication followed by malting (germination and heat treatment).  But processed grains have a limited shelf life compared to decorticated grains. In Kolli hills, it works well because people have easy access to small village mills and can prepare small quantities depending on their immediate needs. The rest of the harvest can be safely stored for months.

Integrating the Kolli hills nutrition improvement practices could ensure calcium biofortified finger millet delivers its promises. Calcium deficient households could learn the best ways to cook finger millet to minimize the nutrient loss and recipes should suit their palate and preferences.

Increasing the market demand for this grain as a Smart Food would also incite farmers to grow it and local food processors would develop a range of value-added products reaching new consumers. MSSRF has been supporting farmer groups to raise the profile of this ‘climate-smart nutri-cereal‘, which they say can help in the fight against hidden hunger. India has already incorporated millets in the Public Distribution System food basket, and it would make sense for African countries to add finger millet in the food aid basket too. Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania have promoted finger millet to a high value crop because of high potential in malnutrition alleviation and also as a high value cash earner

To have a proof of concept for food security decision-makers, Dr Ojulong and his colleagues recommend support in scaling up the initial success of biofortified finger millet in Kenya and Tanzania, as well as implementing pilot nutrition studies for vulnerable groups (like children, nursing or post-menopausal women) in finger millet-eating communities to confirm the extent of finger millet calcium absorption and benefits.

Through this approach, which incorporates agriculture, nutrition and health, along with policy and market research, finger millet could combat calcium deficiency in coming years.