By Marcus Glassman, Research Associate, Global Agriculture and Food, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Globally, food has never been more abundant, nor agriculture more capacity for production. And although hunger issues are far from solved domestically or globally—a full 795 million still suffer from hunger worldwide—solutions have never seemed closer at hand. For all achieved combating hunger writ large, however, there remains a hidden hunger that threatens to undercut so much progress: Micronutrient deficiencies.
Hunger in the most basic sense concerns quantities of food: Do you eat as many calories as your body needs? But the hidden hunger of micronutrient deficiency is different, and concerns the quality of food: Are you getting enough nutrients from the food you eat? Of particular importance are the essential micronutrients, which the body needs for survival but cannot produce itself: vitamins, metals like iron and zinc, and elements like iodine, among others. It’s possible, for example, to eat 2,000 calories of starchy foods—unenriched white flour, or white-fleshed potato—and while you won’t be hungry, your body would lack the essential nutrients to properly function. Your body needs iron from food sources to build blood cells; vitamin A to support immune health and vision; iodine for cognitive development and thyroid function. The importance of micronutrients cannot be overstated.
While less than a billion people struggle with hunger, one third of the global population is estimated to suffer from hidden hunger. Micronutrient deficiencies vary in severity and occur in every country, but they disproportionally affect women, children, and those in developing countries. Where people have the resources and income to augment their diet with nutrient-dense foods, like meat, seafood, fruit, and vegetables, deficiencies are largely avoided. But in those areas where food supplies and overall resources are scarce and diets are largely comprised of starchy staples, hidden hunger stubbornly persists.
Efforts to combat hidden hunger are widespread. In developed countries, many staples—like flour sold at retail—are enriched with micronutrients, and in developing countries, many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and governments have worked to create vitamin distribution networks. These efforts, however, are no panacea on the global scale: Selling enriched, processed staples at retail is moot in those countries where smallholder farmers grow their own staple crops, and vitamin distribution networks can be expensive, unreliable, and unsustainable.
Biofortification presents a promising alternative to traditional methods of addressing micronutrient deficiencies. Through the widespread development and distribution of nutrient-dense versions of nutrient-poor staples, biofortification provides quality nutrition options that can be readily adopted into local agriculture and cuisine practices. This method can be implemented through three general means: Traditional plant breeding, where plant breeders selectively breed more nutrient-dense plants; marker-assisted breeding, where plant breeders use genetic sequencing to accelerate the traditional plant breeding process; and genetic engineering (GE), where genes that create nutrients that a plant wouldn’t otherwise be able to produce are inserted into a plant’s genome.
GE presents an effective method of producing nutrient-rich foods, but in practice, it has fallen short of expectations. Although famous examples of GE biofortification include golden rice—rice genetically engineered to produce vitamin A—push back and negative public opinion have condemned potentially life-saving plants such as golden rice and less famous biofortification projects, such as golden bananas (frying bananas, a popular staple in Africa, which are genetically engineered to produce vitamin A) to languish in research phases.
Organizations have also begun to enhance the nutrients already found in staples through non-GE means. Examples of this include intensive breeding to develop high iron content beans and pearl millet; high zinc content wheat and rice; and high vitamin A content maize, cassava, and sweet potato. Organizations like HarvestPlus, in cooperation with plant breeding centers like the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, coordinate to not just create these new strains of high-nutrition staple crops, but to make the seeds widely available, at no charge. Once seeds for biofortified crops are distributed to malnourished areas worldwide, farmers are then free to plant, harvest, and save seeds as they see fit. Doing so ideally provides a long-term solution to combat hidden hunger without relying on government- and donor-funded dietary supplement distribution networks.
Farmer acceptance remains a hurdle to biofortified crop programs. If the biofortified strains of staples don’t look or taste like the crops that farmers are used to growing, they’re a hard sell, no matter the nutritional value. However, this obstacle can be overcome—such as in the case of sweet potatoes in sub-Saharan Africa.
In sub-Saharan Africa, sweet potatoes are a common staple—but not the orange colored ones common in the US. Those common in Africa are yellow or white fleshed with a firm texture, and contain little-to-no vitamin A. NGOs are working extensively to introduce an orange-fleshed sweet potato—similar to what’s eaten in the US, but specially bred for Africa—that is high in vitamin A. Getting farmers to switch to the new variety of potato has taken persistence, and a great deal of listening on the part of the NGOs: The orange-fleshed sweet potatoes taste different than the locally preferred yellow- or white-fleshed potatoes, and have a softer texture that doesn’t work as well in local recipes. But through education, consultation, and a focus from plant breeders to create high nutrition potatoes with a taste and texture more agreeable to local palates, these potatoes are gaining ground rapidly across sub-Saharan Africa, and reducing the vitamin A deficiency with it.
Like other attempts to reduce malnutrition, biofortification is no panacea, but just another tool towards combating hidden hunger. Given the severity and magnitude of global malnutrition, however, every step forward represents extraordinary progress.
Read additional posts in the Science & Our Food series:
- Safety and Oversight: How Genetically Engineered Crops are Regulated in the United States, September 1
- Food Security, Climate Change, and Biotechnology: A Look at Bangladesh, July 28
- The Environment and GMOs: Pesticides, Promises, and Squandered Possibilities, July 21
- Golden Rice: Solution or Symbol?, July 14
- Hawaiian Papayas and Florida Oranges: Combating Disease with Genetic Engineering, July 7
- Public Perceptions and Understanding of Genetically Modified Foods and Labeling, June 23
- Scientists and the Public Struggle to See Eye-To-Eye on Science and Technology, June 16