Fighting hidden hunger

Dr Howarth E Bouis, director of HarvestPlus, is a doctorate from Stanford University. He is promoting biofortification within the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, agricultural research and nutrition community in various countries.

Published: Tuesday 15 March 2011

Howarth E Bouis What is biofortification of crops?

Biofortification is a process where plant breeders explore crop genetic diversity in seed banks and create a crop that is rich in specific micronutrients. There are two ways to biofortify crops—conventional plant breeding and transgenic methods.

How do you decide the amount of nutrient to be increased?

Nutritionists calculate the nutrient losses during harvesting process, which includes storage, processing and cooking. They also take into account the amount of the nutrient the body actually absorbs and consumption of the staple food on daily basis by age and gender. Based on these calculations, the most promising line of crop breeding is selected, then tested, and eventually released.

Why is biofortification important?

According to the expert estimates, around two billion people suffer from micro-nutrient malnutrition. They have deficiency mostly in iron, zinc and vitamin A, which can impair mental and physical development of children and adolescents and can result in low IQ, stunting and blindness. Women and children are especially vulnerable to this. Our aim is to raise their health status. Agriculture, health and nutrition can be easily integrated.

What is the advantage of this project?

It targets rural areas of the developing world where 75 per cent of the poor rely mostly on staple foods for sustenance. Biofortified crop is also cost effective, as once developed, it can be grown by farmers who can share its seeds with others so that they are adapted at other regions as well. Finally, it is sustainable because biofortification provides better nutrition using familiar foods.

When did you start working on this project?

I was struck with the idea in 1993 and started doing research along with some scientists. With limited funds we carried out our studies which were published in various science journals. In 2003, HarvestPlus got started when the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave us US $25 million grant. The money was enough to develop seven biofortified crops. At present, HarvestPlus has contracts with over 200 institutions all over the world, which carry out research for us.

How do you plan to disseminate your research?

Anything produced by HarvestPlus is in public domain and there are no patent rights. Any seed company which approaches us would be given seeds free of cost that could be bred and sold commercially. We are publicly funded all over the world and do not charge anything from seed companies. They have been given the liberty to decide the price for the biofortified seeds.

How can you prove efficacy of biofortified crops?

We have done various studies to prove that biofortified foods have an impact. For instance, women in Philipines were fed iron-fortified rice. Results showed that consumption of biofortified rice without any other changes in diet is efficacious in improving iron stores of women with iron poor diets in the developing world. The dietary pattern of these women was absolutely the same except they were asked to eat iron-fortified rice. The study was also published in a science journal.

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