As we have often noted, nearly one billion people suffer from a chronic lack of food – this is a visible hunger all too familiar to us from scenes of famine and food shortages. But more than two billion people suffer from what is called hidden hunger – a chronic lack of micronutrients such as vitamin A, iron and zinc. This under-nutrition isn’t as visible because the sufferers may be consuming enough calories; they may appear to be reasonably well fed. But a lack of access to more nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables and animal products leaves them deprived of vital nutrients that makes them vulnerable to blindness, increased risk of disease and premature death, and leaves countless children stunted mentally and physically.
But critical help appears to be right around the corner. At a conference hosted by HarvestPlus this week in Washington DC, crop breeders, nutritionists and economists gathered to examine the potential benefits of biofortification, or boosting the nutritional aspects of staple crops.
At the vanguard of these efforts is the orange-fleshed sweet potato, high in provitamin A, which is already being planted by farmers and available in rural markets in Mozambique and Uganda. In the next couple of years, crop breeders say, a multitude of other fortified crops will be ready to be deployed: beans with iron in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC); pearl millet with iron in India; cassava with vitamin A in Nigeria and the DRC; maize with vitamin A in Zambia; rice with zinc in Bangladesh and India; wheat with zinc in India and Pakistan.
With the introduction of these crops in these locations, the scientists are hoping to show a positive impact on the nutrition of local residents, evidence that they hope will break down any remaining resistance of agriculture decision makers to encourage crop breeding for nutrition.
It was confounding to hear that this link between agriculture and nutrition has so long been missing – confounding because food production and nutrition seem to be a natural combination, essential allies in the war on hunger. But the two have often been treated as separate academic and practical disciplines. Nutrition has been seen as a health problem and food production as a matter for agriculture. In governments around the world, nutrition has largely been a province of health ministries and crops have been the realm of the agriculture ministries. To fight hunger, the goal of crop breeders has been to boost yields, not increase nutrition. In farming terms, nutrition and agriculture have resided in separate silos. When the two were brought together, those in agriculture voiced the worry that improving nutritional values of crops would lower the yields.
Now, after years of research, Howarth (Howdy) Bouis, director of HarvestPlus and a pioneer of biofortification, declared at the conference: “Evidence shows that there is no trade-off between high nutrient content and high crop yield.”
Howdy led a chorus of pleas at the conference that these be joined together. His list of key challenges included: “Getting the agricultural sector to prioritize improving nutrition. Getting the nutrition community to prioritize agriculture in order to improve nutrition.”
As the world faces the overarching challenge of doubling food production by 2050, it seems a matter of common sense to also make sure that that food is as nutritious as possible. To attack both overt hunger and hidden hunger.
The importance of this dual front was clinically and emotionally emphasized by scientists from India and Bangladesh who pointed out that their countries were still heavily burdened with malnutrition even through their quantity of food production soared during the Green Revolution in the 1960s. It was clear to them that growing more food alone isn’t enough to end hunger and malnutrition.
“Lack of food is a visible travesty. Lack of nutrition is invisible,” said Meera Shekar, lead health and nutrition specialist at the World Bank. “The big challenge is to make nutrition more visible.”
The Obama administration’s Feed the Future program, which seeks to end hunger in all of its forms through agriculture development, is attempting to do this. And so is the First 1,000 Days initiative recently launched by the U.S. and Ireland and several humanitarian agencies; this initiative stresses the vital importance of nutrition for the health of mother and child from the time the child is conceived through the first two years of life (the first 1,000 days). The impact of a lack of necessary micronutrients during that period will last a lifetime, often shortening the lives of mothers and robbing the children of the opportunity to reach their physical and mental potential.
Ambassador William Garvelink, the deputy coordinator of Feed the Future, told the gathering that food security must mean better access to better quality food. “We are witnessing a revolution in our approach to nutrition,” he said.
He continued: “The momentum to link agriculture, research and nutrition across programs is greater than ever before. We must capitalize on this energy. The time has come for us to channel the powers of modern agricultural technology to reduce the single largest public health problem in the world: malnutrition.”
For many at the conference – and for billions of people around the world – the time for fortified crops can’t come fast enough.
“Move what we know to where it is necessary,” urged Ruth Oniang’o, a food science and nutrition advocate from Kenya. “I am a grandmother five times, so I have a sense of urgency. One more child dying anywhere because these products aren’t deployed is one child too many.”
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