Sunday, June 5, 2011

HarvestPlus and the world food crisis

Rising temperatures, droughts and floods are causing agronomists and country leaders great concern. Food staples, such as wheat, corn, rice, and soybeans may not be reliably harvested in the amounts needed for a growing world population. Climate change is considered a significant reason for the problems with crops.

Micronutrients: Beyond rising prices for staple grains, poor people in developing countries are affected by a lack of essential micronutrients in the diet. The World Health Organization has identified iron, zinc and vitamin A as the most limiting elements. Lack of these in a diet of rice or cassava can lead to blindness, stunting and susceptibility to infectious disease. More than 2 billion people in developing countries may have ’hidden hunger’ for essential micronutrients, as they subsist on staple foods (maize, wheat and rice) but have little access to fruits, vegetables, and protein foods. Lack of vitamin A causes about half a million children to go blind every year. Zinc deficiency impairs brain and motor functions; shortage of iron causes anemia and weakness, and affects half the women of childbearing age in some poor countries. A supplement program to provide these nutrients is not affordable or feasible. Policymakers are now asking whether farming could do more to improve nutrition.

HarvestPlus, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other donors, is working to reduce hidden hunger and provide micronutrients to people directly through the familiar, staple foods they eat. At this point they are using mainly conventional breeding techniques, rather than genetic engineering, to select plants high in iron, zinc and the carotenes that become vitamin A in the body. Their work on developing ’biofortified’ crops is done in collaboration with more than 200 agricultural and nutrition scientists around the world. Biofortification programs are active in China, India, Bangladesh, Latin America and Africa. They are working on cowpeas (a drought tolerant, warm-weather legume, well adapted to drier regions of the tropics), other beans, rice, corn, pearl millet, wheat, sweet potatoes, and cassava. Once biofortified crops are developed, they can be distributed and grown by farmers, year after year, by seed saving.

The traditional sweet potatoes used in Africa and Latin America are light in color and lacking in the needed carotenes that will become vitamin A in the body. Biofortified sweet potatoes, orange in color, have been bred and used in Uganda and Mozambique. Getting people to accept a different looking food item takes planning and education, and is becoming successful. Pearl millet high in zinc and iron will be introduced in India in 2012. Wheat high in zinc will be introduced in India and Pakistan in 2013. Beans high in iron will be tried in Ruanda, cassava high in provitamin A in Nigeria and maize high in provitamin A in Zambia.

World Population: There were 3 billion of us in 1960, and close to 7 billion at present. Food production rose during those years, so that people in developed countries had plenty to eat. In poor countries there could have been adequate calories if distribution had been improved. In many cases, however, crops for export to rich countries used land at the expense of food for the local poor.

In recent years the impact of climate change has raised fears of increasing food scarcity. Crops that can grow despite rising temperatures, drought, and flooding are needed. Arable land is potentially in short supply due to development. We are facing difficult times on this earth, and many are wondering what to do about the challenges. Here are some suggestions:

*Get involved in food politics in the US. See Marion Nestle’s blog, Food Politics, and Healthy Food Action, which will work to improve the 2012 farm bill.

*Support your local food bank.

*Support family planning nationally and internationally, by contributing to Planned Parenthood, the International Planned Parenthood Federation, or other family planning organizations

*Support HarvestPlus. The Gates Foundation can’t do it all!

Sadja Greenwood, MD, MPH back issues on this blog

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