Stories tagged: biofortification

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.

Book Review: The First 1,000 Days


When people think of malnutrition, many think only of the distended bellies of the protein deficient children in sub-Saharan Africa. It is easy to forget that malnutrition comes in many forms, has many manifestations and knows no boundaries, race or gender.

The First 1,000 Days by Roger Thurow is the story of four mothers in the four corners of the world, and their plight to ensure their babies get the correct nutrients for a happy and healthy life. But it is also a snapshot of the hidden hunger haunting childhoods and limiting adults from reaching their full potential all over the world.

Continue reading

Louis Malassis Prize Shortlist: The Story Behind the Science of Dr. Jan Low

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Farming First is pleased to act as media partner for the Louis Malassis International Scientific Prize and the inaugural Olam Prize for Innovation in Food Security. Our new blog series will showcase stories from scientists nominated for these prestigious prizes.

The ninth blog in this series outlines the work of Dr Jan W. Low, nominated for the Louis Malassis International Scientific Prize for Distinguished Scientist. Continue reading

Fortified Food: Boosting Nutrition in the Developing World

Food security is not only about the quantity of food we eat; it is also the quality of that food, and the nutrition that it provides. Malnutrition causes death and diseases, as well as affecting children’s growth, and adult’s productivity. 10.9 million children under five die in developing countries each year. Malnutrition and hunger-related diseases cause 60 percent of the deaths. One out of four children – roughly 146 million – in developing countries is underweight. It has become increasingly apparent that this is no longer an issue for health institutions alone; agriculture can also play a vital role in improving health in the developing world. One way in which it can do this, is by boosting the nutritional value of crops.

Last week, the Rwandan Government announced the release of five new iron-rich bean varieties. Bred by the Rwanda Agriculture Board and the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), with funding from HarvestPlus, the beans are high yielding, resistant to major diseases and pests and could provide up to 30% of the population’s daily iron needs.

Anaemia, a disease caused by iron deficiency, affects 40% of children under‐five in Rwanda. By September, HarvestPlus and its partners expect to distribute more than 200 tons of the iron-rich climbing and bush bean varieties through agrodealers and local markets to about 75,000 farming households. They predict that by the end of 2013, more than half a million household members will be eating iron-rich beans.

In Egypt,  the World Food Programme (WFP) has been working with the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) for the last two years to fortify the nation’s staple food, baladi bread, with iron and folic acid. These micronutrients, which are crucial particularly for the health of children and pregnant women, are now benefitting over 50 million people and reducing the number of preventable diseases and miscarriages. A study conducted by WFP in May 2012 showed that in Egypt, employers could gain over $175 million by reducing levels of anaemia in the workforce. Furthermore, it showed that every $0.17 invested in fortifying flour for baladi bread in Egypt is estimated to return over $4.00 to the economy, demonstrating that bio-fortification can be one of the most cost effective public health tools, and beneficial for the national economy.

WFP’s study showed that every $0.17 invested in fortifying flour for baladi bread in Egypt is estimated to return over $4.00 to the economy, demonstrating that bio-fortification can be one of the most cost effective public health tools, and beneficial for the national economy.

This video, produced by ONE International, tells the story of Egypt’s fortification programme through the eyes of a young family whose newest member proves the impact the programme has had.

Click here to read more ways in which agriculture can bolster nutrition.

HarvestPlus and the Biofortification of the Seven Key Staple Crops in Africa and Asia

Orange fleshed sweet potato

The diets of the poor in developing countries usually consist of very high amounts of staple foods such as maize, wheat and rice, and few micronutrient-rice foods such as fruits and vegetables.

Harvest Plus seeks to reduce micronutrient malnutrition among the poor by breeding and disseminating staple food crops that are high in iron, zinc and vitamin A. Working with more than 200 agricultural and nutrition scientists around the world, the centre is currently biofortifying the seven key staple crops that will have the greatest impact in alleviating micronutrient malnutrition in Asia and Africa – beans, maize, cassava, pearl millet, rice, sweet potato and wheat.

The first crop to be developed was the orange sweet potato. The sweet potato is traditionally eaten in Africa where it is the fifth most important staple crop. Working with partners, HarvestPlus released an orange-fleshed sweet potato in Uganda and Mozambique that is far richer in vitamin A than the white or yellow-coloured varieties, providing an estimated 50% of the mean daily vitamin A requirement. At first, people were not used to this new orange-coloured crop, but once they had had the nutritional benefits explained to them, they were willing to use this new sweet potato. In 2022, 10 million people will be eating provitamin A sweet potato in Uganda, and 1 million in Mozambique.

Soon, HarvestPlus will release two more nutritious staple foods in Africa: iron-fortified beans in Rwanda and vitamin A-fortified maize in Zambia. HarvestPlus envisions that in fifteen years, millions of people suffering from micronutrient malnutrition will be eating new biofortified crop varieties.

Launched in 2004 by the International Center for Tropical Agricuture (CIAT) and the International Food Policy Research Insitute (IFPRI) the centre receives funding from various research institutes and development agencies, including the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture.

Fighting Poor Nutrition with Biofortified Sorghum


Africa continues to slip behind in meeting basic nutritional needs, with sub-Saharan Africa accounting for half the deaths of children under the age of five within the developing world. The Africa Biofortified Sorghum (ABS) project is a public-private consortium that seeks to use biotechnology to develop a more nutritious and easily digestible sorghum that contains increased levels of essential nutrients, especially lysine, vitamin A, iron and zinc.

Malnutrition is defined as the insufficient, excessive or imbalanced consumption of nutrients. Poor nutrition and calorie deficiencies cause nearly one in three people to die prematurely or have disabilities, according to the World Health Organisation.  Malnutrition constitutes a global ‘silent emergency’, killing millions every year and sapping the long-term economic vitality of nations.

Food fortification is the practice of adding micronutrients to foods to ensure that minimum dietary requirements are met. The use of biotechnological methods involves inserting a gene with codes for the nutrients into the seed.  This seed is then bred with a high yield quality crop, resulting in the production of crops rich in micronutrients. Agricultural biotechnology methods, and in specific genetic modification, represent therefore a very valuable, complementary strategy for the development of more nutritious crops.

The ABS project has the potential to improve the health of 300 million people by increasing sorghum’s nutritional quality. Sorghum is the fifth most important cereal crop and the main dietary staple for more than 500 million people across the entire developing world. It is the only viable food grain for many of the world’s most food insecure people, and what’s more sorghum is uniquely adapted to Africa’s climate, being both drought resistant and able to withstand periods of water-logging. The potential for sorghum to be the driver of economic development in Africa is enormous.

So far, six successful sets of field trials of nutritionally enhanced sorghum have been conducted in the United States where the sorghum has proven stable and effective over several generations. Greenhouse trials of nutritionally sorghum have been undertaken in South Africa and Kenya. Applications for field trials are in the process of approval in Kenya and Nigeria.

Additionally to the potential health benefits, the ABS project also serves as a model of creative partnerships, bringing together public and private, South / South and North / South organisations. Each partner brings to the table their own particular strengths and helps to create an enabling environment for the use of ABS in Africa, that can be altered and fixed according to the local conditions, cultures and issues encountered in different areas. From Pioneer Hi-Bred, a DuPont business that provided the initial technologies for the project, to the national research institutes, technology organisations, policy institutions and universities involved, the project is a successful consortium whose size and diversity mirrors the complexities and extent of the challenges that Africa faces.