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The UN FAO AgriBiotech Symposium: Biotechnology for Better Nutrition
Part 4 in a series of blogs covering the recent FAO Symposium on Agricultural Biotechnologies. Read Part 1, “Listening to the Farmer Voice,” Part 2, “Partnerships for Climate Resilience” and Part 3, “Protecting Farmer Knowledge and Biosafety Systems”
By Margaret M. Zeigler, Ph.D.
Executive Director, Global Harvest Initiative
While progress has been made in recent years to address undernutrition (lack of sufficient daily calories), a greater challenge remains: how can we reduce micronutrient malnutrition, particularly the lack of micronutrients such as Vitamin A, zinc and iron, impacting an estimated 2 billion people around the world?
Micronutrient malnutrition results in low disease resistance, stunted growth in children, and reduces cognitive development and economic growth. The problem is especially severe in much of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where up to 80 percent of the population in some countries are affected by lack of Vitamin A, zinc and iron.
Solutions center upon improving the dietary diversity of target populations, as well as fortifying staple foods with added nutrients. In addition, the use of biofortification is a good strategy that can effectively target rural, poor populations who are least able to improve their dietary diversity, because by targeting the foods they eat each day (staple food crops), nutrition is delivered easily and with less cost.
At the UN FAO AgriBiotech Symposium, special attention was paid to how biotechnology through biofortification of staple food crops is achieving success. Biofortification improves nutritional content of staple food crops through either conventional plant breeding, or through transgenic approaches. More than 15 million people in 30 developing countries are already growing and eating biofortified foods, with new innovations in the pipeline.
Biofortification: Stories of Success
Howarth Buis of HarvestPlus shared recent success stories of how iron-rich beans in Rwanda and Vitamin A biofortified sweet potatoes in Uganda are delivering better nutrition to the rural communities that grow and consume them. Other crops with improved nutritional content through biofortification include rice, wheat, maize cassava, pearl millet, and sorghum and peer-reviewed published data demonstrate that these foods are working to reduce disease incidence and improve nutritional status.
Sorghum is a resilient crop that grows well in challenging soils and climates, and is the fifth most important grain for food use globally. It is particularly suitable for biofortification to make it more nutritious for human consumption. At the Symposium, the Global Harvest Initiative, Africa Harvest and DuPont Pioneer presented how Africa Biofortified Sorghum (ABS) improves levels of Vitamin A, zinc and iron in sorghum. The ABS Project is a multistakeholder initiative with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Howard G. Buffett Foundation, DuPont and contributions from a number of other global and Africa-based institutions collaborating to improve the nutritional profile of sorghum while also building research capacity and strengthening seed systems.
A Call To Action
To date, all released biofortified food crops have been developed using conventional plant breeding techniques. Participants of the FAO Symposium discussed how existing transgenic techniques are also powerful tools for adding vitamins and minerals to diets, particularly for adding Vitamin A into crops such as rice and sorghum.
Governments, scientists, farmers and consumers must enter into serious dialogue about how to meet nutritional needs. Ensuring a greater understanding of the benefits of a full range of strategies, from dietary diversity, to fortification and biofortification, including both conventional and transgenic breeding, will be key to solving malnutrition for the poorest and the most hard to reach rural populations. Biofortification serves as a complementary tool to other approaches such as dietary diversity and fortification within a comprehensive strategy to improve global nutrition.