Bangkok: Two billion people, or nearly one in four individuals, suffer from ‘hidden hunger’ or vitamin and nutrient deficiencies, resulting in mental impairment, poor health, low productivity and even death, according to the World Health Organization.

Children are especially vulnerable to micronutrient deficiencies. Lack of zinc in childhood leads to poor growth and stunting, vitamin A deficiency can cause night blindness and poor immunity, while iron deficiency leads to poor mental and physical development.

Nutritional supplements are one solution, but these are expensive. It would cost ‘US$5.9 billion (Rs 41,764 lakh crore) a year to deliver 14 essential nutrition interventions at full coverage across India’, says this 2016 study in the Maternal Child & Nutrition journal. Compliance is another challenge. Despite a National Nutritional Anaemia Prophylaxis Programme addressing anaemia through supplementation over the past 50 years, more than half of India’s children under five (58.6%) and women (53.1%) were anaemic in 2016, according to the ministry of health and family welfare's National Family Health Survey, 2015-16.

Why can't people get required nutrients from food itself, asked American economist Howarth 'Howdy' Bouis in the 1990s. Bouis came up with the idea of breeding seed varieties naturally high in micronutrients with high-yielding seed varieties, a concept later termed 'biofortification'.

Bouis founded the agricultural research non-profit HarvestPlus at the International Food and Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington D.C. in 2003, which developed high-yielding seed varieties of staple crops including maize, rice, millets and wheat biofortified with vitamin A, zinc and iron.

In face of initial skepticism from public health experts and scientists, Bouis worked tirelessly over decades to develop and then popularise biofortification as a solution for hidden hunger--raising funds, working with breeders to develop seed varieties, conducting research to prove efficacy and convincing governments to invest in the technology.

Each $1 invested in biofortification gives a country a return of $17, showed a 2017 review of HarvestPlus evidence from 2003 through 2016, co-authored by Bouis. Today, biofortified foods are being used by over 30 million farmers across the world, especially in Africa and Asia.

The Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR), run by the ministry of agriculture and farmers welfare, has also developed over a dozen biofortified varieties of cereals, pulses, oilseeds, vegetables and fruit, said this 2017 bulletin.

ICAR also established minimum levels of iron and zinc to be bred into varieties of pearl millet (bajra, kambu), making India the first country to have such standards for millet varieties. Biofortified pearl millet, introduced into the diet of Indian adolescents, led to reduced iron deficiency and improved learning skills and mental ability, IndiaSpend reported in September 2018.

Bouis was awarded the World Food Prize in 2016 for his work in reducing hidden hunger.

“You have to persevere and keep repeating yourself,” Bouis told IndiaSpend in an interview at the 'Accelerating the End of Hunger and Malnutrition' conference in Bangkok, Thailand in November, 2018, jointly organised by IFPRI and the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

Edited excerpts.

What gave you the idea to develop biofortified crops?

I was attending nutrition meetings where nutritionists were saying supplements and fortified foods were needed to address vitamin A deficiency. They said taking one vitamin A capsule daily for six months would reduce child mortality by 23%. A vitamin A capsule costs a dollar. To provide 500 million tablets each year over a decade would cost $5 trillion. But people were already getting vitamin A through food, so I thought why not breed these vitamins into crops so that diet will provide enough nutrition?

I then spoke to scientists and asked if it was possible to develop both high nutrient and high yield crops. But they said no, it would be a trade-off between high yields and high nutrients.

Then I met another group of scientists who said there needn’t be such a trade-off, that it was good for plants to contain more minerals because it would be good for the plants’ own nutrition. So it [developing both high nutrition, high yield varieties] wasn't a trade-off but was actually complementary.

If we had done that in the 1960s, we would not have all these [micronutrient] deficiencies. Back then knowledge of these deficiencies was poor.

Do you see biofortification as a support to supplementation efforts, such as India's iron and folic acid tablet distribution programme to address anaemia? Or can biofortification replace supplementation?

It really depends on the situation. About 40% of the daily requirement of iron is being added through biofortification. If 60% of iron requirement is met through diet, then [biofortification] can take this to 100%. But if only 20% of iron requirement is met through diet, [biofortification] will take this up to 60%, in which case supplements will still be needed.

A key difference [between biofortification and supplementation] is cost. You need to invest once in breeding [to get biofortified crops]. Subsequently, you don't have any cost. With biofortification, the cost would be the same year after year. But supplements are very expensive.

Are nutrients like iron better absorbed through food?

A lot of things determine how much iron gets absorbed by the body. The main factor is an individual’s nutrition levels. If very deficient in iron, they would absorb a lot more iron compared to an individual with adequate iron levels.

How much do you work with the Indian government and how open are they to biofortification?

We focused on trying to get three governments--China, India and Brazil--to invest in biofortification independent of HarvestPlus, and we have managed to do that now. All three governments now independently fund research on biofortified crops. It didn't happen right away, it took many interactions, but now the Indian government has its own independently-funded biofortified research on crops. So they are enthusiastic about the potential.

Can only one nutrient per crop be fortified at a time? In future, could more than one nutrient be fortified per crop?

We didn’t want to do two nutrients at a time because it is a complicated process and it takes up to 10 years of breeding to fortify seeds with one nutrient. We had to do it one nutrient at a time.

A good example is maize. We chose vitamin A to begin with and fortified maize in 10 years. Now we have 10 years to add zinc. Latin America eats a lot of maize, but while Vitamin A deficiency is not a big problem there, zinc deficiency is. So we are developing maize varieties for Latin America that are high in zinc. What we accomplished with vitamin A biofortification for maize in Africa, we are starting to develop for Latin America.

How many farmers are growing biofortified crops?

There are 170,000 wheat farmers growing biofortified crops in India. It is a drop in an ocean [India has 127 million cultivators], but you have to start somewhere. The mission is that 20 years from now, most wheat varieties currently being grown are biofortified and capture 75% of the market.

Are biofortified crops high in minerals yield after yield, or do farmers have to purchase biofortified seeds after every harvest?

[Biofortified seeds] are not hybrids, so can be planted from previous crops each year. This, however, can't be done for too many years. They should be purchased every three years, as is the case with regular varieties.

In Africa, you have chosen maize for biofortification because that’s their staple crop, while in India it is rice and wheat. As diets change, will we change which foods are biofortified?

It is not so much the food staple which changes with changing dietary habits, it is other things added to the diet, if you look at what poor and rich people eat. In South India, poor and rich people alike eat rice, but they could add other things [like fruits, nuts or meat].

There is an Indian company Nirmal Seeds which is a biofortification success story. The pearl millet market differs from rice and wheat because of two things--it is not part of the food subsidy programme [Karnataka included millets in its public distribution system in 2012] and most of it is grown from hybrid seeds sold by private seed companies.

Nirmal had a particular variety which was biofortified with iron and also had a 10% higher yield. They told all of their 100,000 customers to buy this variety as it had a higher yield, and placed a logo on it showing it was high in iron. Within one or two years, 100,000 farmers were growing a high yield variety of biofortified pearl millet.

What can the Indian government do to accelerate biofortification?

Our discussions with Indian government started in 2004-05. At that time, there wasn't much enthusiasm among scientists but we kept going year after year.

India now has a new policy that all varieties of millet have to meet a certain level of nutrition before being released in India. In many countries, you can't release a seed variety unless it is first tested by the government for disease resistance, drought resistance and iron density above a certain level. So even a high-yielding variety with low iron levels can’t be released. India is the first country to have such standards for millets.

We want them to give highest priority to biofortification. Government needs to give an incentive [to farmers] in public interest, and they can attract the market by including biofortified produce in the food subsidy programme.

Are you satisfied with the progress that biofortification has made?

No, not at all. The mission is to capture 90% of crops grown in a country. There are now 10 million farmers using biofortified crops across the world and we want this to be 200 million farmers by 2030.

But releasing biofortified varieties in the market takes time. It takes 10 years to breed a high nutrient seed variety and 20 years to get it into the market. You have to create a pipeline of varieties year after year till it becomes the norm.

The modern seed varieties developed in the 1970s made a huge difference to yield, so farmers switched to them. But if any new seed [including biofortified varieties] offers just a 3% higher yield, it may not lead to a farmer switching. So it takes time.

It is a matter of sticking it out. You have to do that for a long time. I began raising funds in 1993 and HarvestPlus began operations in 2003. It took 10 years to get a little bit of funding for the first 10 years, but it was only enough to do experiments, not for breeding programmes. There were no private programmes. Now of course you have the hybrids in the private sector. So we work with the private seed companies. You have to have some money to get centres to try new ideas. Now we are at the point when they want to do it and donors are interested [in biofortification].

(Yadavar is a principal correspondent with IndiaSpend.)

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