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From Grasses to Nutrition-Smart Grains: The Power of Biofortification
By: Zoë Womack, Policy and Research Intern
To honor the 2016 World Food Prize Laureates, this blog is the second in a series on biofortification, featuring global scientific advancements and their potential for improving lives and nutrition around the world. For more detailed information on the background of biofortification, check out our first blog here.
Sorghum and millet cereal grains are very important to food security of millions of people in arid and semi-arid regions of the world. These crops originated as grasses and were cultivated over thousands of years and are valued due to their drought resistant capabilities, and cultivated to serve as grain for human consumption and used as forage for livestock. Throughout Africa, Asia and India, these cereal grains are cultivated in areas where 60 percent of the population lives. In the global market, these two grains comprise 11.4 percent of all cereal area harvested, and 4.1 percent of the total output of all cereals produced.
Improved sorghum can supply more nutrition
Sorghum is the fifth most important grain for food use internationally as it serves as a staple crop for over 300 million people in Africa. Unfortunately, sorghum contains low levels of nutritional content. In many arid and semi-arid regions, people consume between 60 to 400 grams per day, meaning that it is a key food source even though it lacks necessary vitamins and minerals.
Many people in Africa are stricken with deficiencies in vitamin A, iron, and zinc, which are all vital nutrients in growth, development, immune function, and hemoglobin formation. Typically, these nutrients could be introduced into a diet by the addition of meat, dairy, eggs, fruits, and vegetables, but these commodities remain largely unavailable due to low incomes or lack of access, resulting in high rates of anemia and stunting.
Recently, companies such as DuPont Pioneer and Africa-based organizations such as Africa Harvest Foundation, along with several African government agencies, are working to improve the content of vitamin A in sorghum through biofortification. This process increases the nutritional quality of crops during plant growth, instead of through manual processing, and can be done through traditional breeding or transgenic techniques. For vitamin A in sorghum, plant breeders use transgenic methods by targeting the gene for beta carotene (which converts to Vitamin A in the body) from maize and introducing it in sorghum. Researchers have found that consuming 100 grams of biofortified sorghum per day will provide 50 to 100 percent of daily Vitamin A requirement.
Development of sorghum fortified with iron and zinc are in the testing stage. These varieties have been traditionally bred and prove to be high-yielding; however, they contain phytates which complicate absorption for some of the nutrients. HarvestPlus and ICRISAT hope to continue trials as they work towards commercializing and releasing the seeds in years to come.
With funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, the Africa Biofortified Sorghum (ABS) program not only emphasizes better nutrition in the crop, but it will also focus on building more effective regulatory frameworks and strengthening the research community in Africa to scale up the for the development of biofortified seeds. Kenya, Nigeria, and Burkina Faso have signaled a desire to work with the research partners on next steps for biofortified sorghum. Confined field trials (CFTs) for biofortified sorghum have been done in Nigeria and Kenya with Burkina Faso as a possible next country test site. The ABS project now seeks additional donor support to finish the final stages of field and nutrition testing and eventual commercialization to market.
Pearl millet provides more iron and zinc
Millet is an important crop in certain parts of the world such as India, where the prevalence of anemia among children soars to 66 percent. Millet has been identified as a crop that could reduce anemia since it is widely consumed and can be biofortified with iron and zinc. HarvestPlus, a biofortification research organization, is planning to support India’s poorest populations in Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh with biofortified millet. This would be accomplished through traditional breeding techniques that provide hybrid varieties of pearl millet.
These hybrids have already been commercialized and this regionally well-adopted crop provides over 90 percent of the Estimated Average Requirement (EAR) for iron. It was officially released in 2014 and has already reached 25,000 farming households. HarvestPlus estimates that by 2018, 1.17 million farming households will have access to iron pearl millet that will provide 100 percent of their EARs.
The biofortification of sorghum and millet is improving nutrition for many farming households, and many hope that it will affect almost 6 million millet-producing households and 3 million sorghum-producing households in years to come.
 Carl E. Pray and Latha Nagarajan, “Pearl Millet and Sorghum Improvement in India,” Millions Fed: Proven Successes in Agricultural Development, IFPRI, November 2009.
 Ashok Kumar, “Iron and Zinc Sorghum,” Biofortification Progress Briefs, HarvestPlus, August 2014, 23-24.
 Binu Cherian, “Delivery of Pearl Millet in India,” Biofortification Progress Briefs, HarvestPlus, August 2014, 57-58.