Big Things Come in Small Seeds: The Biofortification Revolution

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"Malnutrition is the single biggest global health problem in the world," Ambassador William J. Garvelink, the deputy coordinator for development of President Obama's new Feed the Future initiative, told a crowd of some 300 gathered in Georgetown on Tuesday afternoon. A keynote speaker at the First Global Conference on Biofortification, Garvelink added that the scourge known as "hidden hunger," for all its devastating impact—nearly one in three children are chronically malnourished, more than 250,000 preschool kids go blind annually from vitamin A deficiency—is barely on the average American's radar.

Undernourishment in the first 1,000 days of life, from conception to age two, can stunt a person for life, significantly lowering a child's IQ and providing little defense against the onslaught of illnesses that can linger through adulthood and lead to premature death. The plant breeders, economists, nutritionists, and development experts who attended the conference knew that story all too well, which is why they'd come from around the globe to rally around the Stanford-educated economist Howarth (Howdy) Bouis, who in the early nineties had the then-very-radical notion of breeding nutrients directly into crops.

Framing malnutrition in terms of national security might be the most effective strategy yet. "A hungry person is an angry person," the saying goes.

For the poorest of the poor, Bouis has explained, eating anything other than staples—wheat, maize, rice—isn't really an option. But it's vegetables, fruits, meats, and dairy that contain the micronutrients the body needs. Unlike vitamin supplements, which must be repeatedly bought and distributed, or commercially fortified foods, whose cost puts them way beyond the reach of the impoverished, "biofortification," as Bouis dubbed his scheme, involves only an upfront investment. Once the research and breeding have been done, farmers can save their seeds and replant them for free. Bouis formed HarvestPlus, an NGO centered on biofortification, to develop staple crops with higher levels of micronutrients—a food source that could become ever more important during food-price crises like the one that swept the globe in 2008, when the destitute increasingly relied on cheap staples to stave off hunger.

After years of breeding, field trials, and "bioavailability" tests to determine the amount of nutrients taken up by the body, HarvestPlus is moving into its next phase. The organization has released high—vitamin A sweet potatoes in Mozambique and Uganda, and is gearing up to disseminate high-iron beans in Rwanda and pearl millet in India. Before you pounce: The HarvestPlus crops currently in the pipeline have all been developed through conventional breeding, and will be available for free to farmers, although the umbrella term "biofortification" does encompass genetically engineered foods.

Why do the rest of us know so little about this stuff? For starters, malnutrition, like climate change, is a slow drip. Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist, who also spoke at the conference, said that part of the reason the media does such a lousy job covering global public health issues is that they "happen every day," unlike, say, the drama of an earthquake, which hits at a singular moment in time. He went on to say that the humanitarian community is bad at marketing—the organization Doctors Without Borders is currently promoting a "Starved for Attention" campaign focusing on malnutrition, but I'll bet you haven't heard about it—and the public finds it easier to focus on stories closer to home. Kristof said that in 2004 it was all he could do to divert Times readers' attention to the plight of the thousands being slaughtered in Darfur from the ongoing saga of Pale Male, the red-tailed hawk whose Upper West Side aerie was under threat.

Since then, biofortification has gained some ground. Two years ago, the Copenhagen Consensus asked eight of the world's most distinguished economists about the best ways to advance global welfare. In setting priorities for confronting challenges like disease, conflict, climate change, and malnutrition and hunger, the group ranked biofortification number five out of 25—before things like "lowering the price of schooling" and "malaria prevention and treatment." In May, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah spoke of his hopes for HarvestPlus in a keynote speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and Ambassador Garvelink told the crowd at this week's conference that with the May launch of the $3.5-billion Feed the Future initiative, the "momentum to link nutrition and agriculture is greater than ever." (Some have suggested, though, that it might be time to revisit the vocabulary, given biofortification's associations with words like bio-warfare, biohazard, and, of course, biotechnology. )

It all sounds promising. But the truth is that the total funding for agricultural research in this country still amounts to less than 2 percent of that for biomedical research, and this despite the fact that, according to USAID, every dollar spent on iron fortification brings an $84 return in increased wages and decreased disability. And as Kristof quipped, "Enough money could fall off a random Pentagon truck to fund malnutrition for years." He made an excellent point. Framing malnutrition in terms of national security might be the most effective strategy yet. "A hungry person is an angry person," the saying goes. Empty stomachs in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen could have serious consequences for us back home. Think of it as the Three Cups of Tea model—with a slice of vitamin A-fortified sweet potato pie on the side.

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Jocelyn Zuckerman

Jocelyn C. Zuckerman is an adjunct professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and the former deputy editor of Gourmet magazine. A former Peace Corps Volunteer in rural Africa and a current Rosalynn Carter Fellow focused on Haiti, she has a particular interest in hunger and the developing world.

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