March 14, 2019 | By Courtney Meyer

Guest Commentary - Health-Boosting, Climate-Smart Crops Can Help Address Micronutrient Gaps

Editor's Note: As part of our new blog series, Uncharted Waters, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs is inviting a diverse group of experts to explore topics related to water, nutrition, and agriculture in advance of  the 2019 Global Food Security Symposium.  Join the discussion using #GlobalAg, and tune in to the symposium live stream on March 20 and 21.

By  Courtney Meyer

Climate change is already challenging efforts to nourish the planet. Rising levels of carbon dioxide are expected to impact both food production and the nutrient profile of staple crops. As a result, billions of people are likely to remain vulnerable to micronutrient deficiencies.

The lack of essential vitamins and minerals in diets has damaging consequences. Iron deficiency—the most common micronutrient challenge in the world—impairs cognitive development and learning capacity, increases weakness and fatigue, and can lead to adverse pregnancy outcomes if it progresses to anemia.

Iron deficiency disproportionately affects women and young children living in resource-limited settings. Roughly one in four women of reproductive age and two in five young children in low- and middle-income countries are anemic due to iron deficiency.

As advancing carbon dioxide levels deplete crop nutrients, many of these same countries must take extra precautions against health threats. For instance, in India, 502 million women of reproductive age and children under five, are vulnerable to disease as a result of lost dietary iron.

Women may be particularly at risk for micronutrient deficiencies due to their high nutrient needs—but they’re also the gatekeepers of nutrition and health in their families. They often grow a large share of the staple cereal or root crops consumed by the household. Some are even modeling and encouraging positive health and nutrition behavior changes as lead mothers in their communities.

One protective measure countries and families may adopt is biofortification. HarvestPlus works with many partners to develop and promote biofortified crops rich in vitamins and minerals (like iron) needed for good health. This practical, food-based solution uses conventional plant breeding methods and targets resource-poor families or rural communities relying on staple crops for much of their diet.

Young children or non-pregnant, non-lactating women can get up to 80 percent of their daily average iron requirement by eating foods made with iron beans or pearl millet as a significant portion of their diet. Significant positive and protective effects from iron-biofortified crop consumption have been proven across continents and populations, particularly among women and children in poor communities.

Efforts to enhance crop micronutrient content advance alongside efforts to improve crop climate resilience. To encourage farmer adoption, all biofortified crops have attractive agronomic properties, such as higher yield or tolerance to major pests, diseases, or drought. For instance, iron-biofortified beans, available in both Latin America and Africa south of the Sahara, are heat-tolerant—good news for countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, whose bean production may be vulnerable to rising temperatures.

In arid regions like the Sahel, where many cereal crops cannot survive, pearl millet’s high temperature tolerance and low water requirements make it the major dietary energy source. A mildew resistant, early maturing iron-biofortified variety of pearl millet is increasingly available in India and Niger, with potential for release in other West African countries.

Biofortified crops present a cost-effective, sustainable strategy for improving nutrition and health. Biofortification can help children reach their cognitive and physical potential—and help vulnerable farming families better weather a changing climate.

About

The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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