August 11, 2014 | By Roger Thurow

Nutritious Crops for Healthier Mothers & Children - Part I

Fortifying diets with minerals and vitamins is an important front in the fight against malnutrition, particularly in the critical 1,000 day period during a woman’s pregnancy through the second birthday of her child.

Micronutrient deficiency afflicts some two billion people globally; it is sometimes called “hidden hunger,” for the absence of vitamins or minerals may be imperceptible, and certainly less graphic than the bloated bellies, stick-figure limbs, and hollow eyes of full-blown famine victims. But to those taking a closer look, it is clearly undermining the health of the world; doctors, scientists, and academics estimate that one quarter of the world’s children are stunted physically or mentally (or both) because of this undernourishment. For instance, nearly 200 million children under the age of five suffer from vitamin A deficiency, which damages immune systems and turns common diseases fatal, and is the main cause of preventable blindness in children. Iron deficiency anemia leads to stunting in children and is a leading cause of maternal deaths.

Iron and vitamin supplements are important for pregnant moms around the world, and these nutrients are also vital for infants as they begin to eat solid foods at six months. Billions of dollars are spent annually in the developing world on supplementation and commercial fortification of food. But even with these efforts, the supply of the supplements is inconsistent, particularly in remote rural areas. Delivery is burdensome, budgets are always under stress. Even when the supplements are available, those in pill form must be taken with water, which is usually unclean, triggering other health problems. And follow-up care to assure adherence to a supplement regiment is sporadic at best.

What if we could get plants to do some of this nutrient supplement work for us? That was the question consuming Howarth Bouis since the 1980s. He was an economist exploring the diets of poor households in Asia, especially how nutrient intakes were influenced by food prices and household incomes. The conventional wisdom had been that lack of energy (calories) was the primary dietary factor limiting better nutritional outcomes in developing countries. Bouis was finding something different—that mineral and vitamin deficiencies, and not energy, were the leading constraints to better nutrition and, in turn, to healthy and economically productive lives. Since the poor couldn’t afford the non-staple foods (fruits, diversified vegetables, meats) that provided these micro-nutrients, Bouis wondered if they could be increased in the common grains and vegetables that were the basis of the everyday diets of the poor. This led to a crop breeding innovation called biofortification, which highlights nutrients that naturally appear in staple foods, such as wheat, millet, beans, rice, potatoes, and cassava.

Bouis leads a program known as HarvestPlus. During a trip to Uganda and fields filled with vitamin A-rich orange flesh sweet potatoes and beans with higher iron content, I discussed the progress and potential of biofortification with Bouis and Anna-Marie Ball, the HarvestPlus Manager of Partnerships and Strategic Alliances for Africa. This video is the first of three parts of our conversation.


Look for the second and third parts over the next two days. I also discuss my reporting on biofortification in the 1,000 days in this video produced for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.


| By Roger Thurow

A Wondrous Journey

Cruising down I-80 in the summer is one of the most wondrous, and paradoxical, drives in the country.

| By Roger Thurow

1,000 Days and Migrant Stress

The first 1,000 days of a child's life is a critical time for development, where nutrition--and stability--lay the foundation for a lifetime. 

| By Roger Thurow

Outrage and Inspire with Roger Thurow - Am I About to Lose My Second Child, Too?

The latest podcast in our ongoing series with Roger Thurow. Hear how even the best nutrition projects can be undermined by bad water, poor sanitation and hygiene, and lousy infrastructure.  From northern Uganda, we hear a mother’s agony when her healthy, robust child suddenly falls ill after a few sips of water…unclean water, it turned out.

Roger Thurow on SDG 2.2

Roger Thurow sat down with Farming First to talk about the individual and societal consequences of malnutrition. 




Digital Preview of The First 1,000 Days

In his new book, The First 1,000 Days, Council senior fellow Roger Thurow illuminates the 1,000 Days initiative to end early childhood malnutrition through the compelling stories of new mothers in Uganda, India, Guatemala, and Chicago. Get a first-look at photos and stories from the book in this new web interactive.

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» Order your copy of the book.


The First 1,000 Days

Roger Thurow’s book will tell the story of the vital importance of proper nutrition and health care in the 1,000 days window from the beginning of a woman’s pregnancy to her child’s second birthday.

The 1,000 days period is the crucial period of development, when malnutrition can have severe life-long impacts on the individual, the family and society as a whole. Nutritional deficiencies that occur during this time are often overlooked, resulting in a hidden hunger. It is a problem of great human and economic dimensions, impacting rich and poor countries alike.

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The Last Hunger Season

In The Last Hunger Season, the intimate dramas of the farmers' lives unfold amidst growing awareness that to feed the world's growing population, food production must double by 2050. How will the farmers, Africa, and a hungrier world deal with issues of water usage, land ownership, foreign investment, corruption, GMO's, the changing role of women, and the politics of foreign aid?

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Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, award-winning writers on Africa, development, and agriculture, see famine as the result of bad policies spanning the political spectrum. In this compelling investigative narrative, they explain through vivid human stories how the agricultural revolutions that transformed Asia and Latin America stopped short in Africa, and how our sometimes well-intentioned strategies—alternating with ignorance and neglect—have conspired to keep the world’s poorest people hungry and unable to feed themselves.

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