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Big Idea

To fight malnutrition, make the plants do the work

How breeding ‘zinc rice’ and ‘iron beans’ can improve global health

By John Fox

For decades, plant breeders selected plants for yield and portability, largely at the expense of nutrition. A landmark 2004 study of 43 common garden crops found that their nutritious value had declined since 1950 — contributing to a global crisis of malnutrition. But in 1993, an economist nicknamed “Howdy” figured out how to restore nutrients to many staple crops that sustain the developing world.

The Problem

More than two billion people worldwide suffer from deficiencies in key vitamins and nutrients, such as iron, zinc, vitamin A, and iodine. This “hidden hunger” affects people in low-income countries who can’t afford micronutrient-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables, and animal products. Nutrition deficiencies have a devastating impact on global health, causing blindness, stunted development, cognitive impairment, anemia, and increased risk from infectious diseases.

Countries and global health agencies have tried to tackle this problem with supplement pills and artificially fortified foods such as breakfast cereals. But many people can’t afford or access these products, so it takes constant outside funding to keep up supply.

The Solution

“What if we could get plants to do the work?” That idea led Howarth “Howdy” Bouis, an economist with a Ph.D in food research, to invent biofortification, the process of selecting and propagating crop breeds that are rich in micronutrients.

“We knew there were plenty of nutrients in the soil. Why don’t we just breed for staple foods that are naturally higher in these nutrients?”

Howarth “Howdy” Bouis, founder of HarvestPlus

Bouis founded HarvestPlus, a nonprofit program that uses biofortification to eliminate hidden hunger. “We knew there were plenty of nutrients in the soil,” he says. “Why don’t we just breed for staple foods that are naturally higher in these nutrients?”

Take rice, for example, the staple food for half of the world, providing 19% of all human energy. Rice plants take zinc and iron from soil into their roots, tissues, and seeds. But for years, plant breeders, focused on increasing crop yield, steadily increased the starch content of many common rice varieties, and diluted the iron and zinc in the seed. This led to an abundance of nutrient-depleted rice. In Bangladesh, where rice is the dominant staple, over a third of children under five experience stunting, diarrhea, pneumonia, and other deadly infections due to zinc deficiency.

HarvestPlus and its international partners went to seed banks to start over. “We found the rice plants with the highest zinc and iron density and bred and propagated them,” says Bouis. Years of development and testing with conventional breeding methods produced a biofortified “zinc rice.” It’s high-yielding, fast-growing, and packs twice as much zinc per gram as the standard variety. And like all biofortified crops, it’s been developed by conventional breeding methods, eliminating concerns about genetic modification.

HarvestPlus and its partners have worked with farmers in Bangladesh to replace low-nutrient varieties with zinc rice, which now provides 60% of daily zinc needs for millions of Bangladeshis. More than 50 other countries have successfully embraced biofortification, and 14 biofortified crops have been developed, including “iron beans” and “vitamin A cassava.”

The Challenge

HarvestPlus’ goal of reaching a billion people by 2030 will be a steep climb. Getting consumers and farmers to adopt a biofortified crop is a complex project involving education, policy change, and business development. Many people in Africa rejected vitamin-A maize at first because it’s colored orange, and they’re used to eating white corn. Farmers will only plant new varieties if they can make as much or more money from growing them. Building a case and proving return on investment takes time and support from governments and donors.

Arun Baral, HarvestPlus’ CEO, says entrepreneurs can develop and market products out of biofortified crops. In Nigeria, at a nutritious food fair, he says, “I met a young mother who started a baby food company using vitamin-A cassava after seeing the benefits for her own child.”

The Bigger Picture

Global hunger is rising, and climate change is contributing to extreme drought and floods that threaten crops and livelihoods in vulnerable regions. Climate change can also damage micronutrients in foods. A recent study by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that rising CO2 levels are making many staple crops less nutritious. By 2050, they project this could result in 175 million people becoming zinc-deficient and 122 million people becoming protein-deficient.

HarvestPlus has been developing “climate-smart” crops, including heat-tolerant, iron-rich beans for a hotter and drier sub-Saharan Africa. But it takes a decade or so to develop and deploy new biofortified crops. “We know how to do this,” says Baral, “but we are working against the clock.”

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John Fox is a Boston-based writer.

Top: Bangladeshi farmers harvest rice in a field on the outskirts of Dhaka. Photo by Salahuddin Ahmed/Sipa USA via AP Images

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