Tuesday, September 15, 2015

HarvestPlus Tackles Micronutrient Deficiencies
Vitamin A, zinc and iron have been identified by the World Health Organization as most lacking in diets globally.  A deficiency of these ‘micronutrients’ has been called ‘hidden hunger’ and affects about 2 billion people around he world in Asia, Africa and some parts of Latin America. The diets of the poor in developing countries usually consist of staple foods such as maize, wheat and rice, but contain too few micronutrient-rich foods such as vegetables, fruits and animal products. 

Vitamin A deficiency increases the risk of childhood blindness as well as disease and death from severe infections.  Vitamin A is made in the body when foods containing beta-carotene are eaten – such as orange sweet potatoes and green vegetables.  Zinc, found in protein foods, is important for cellular growth and metabolism.  Zinc deficiency causes short stature, impaired immune function, skin disorders and cognitive dysfunction.  Iron deficiency in childhood impairs physical growth, mental development and learning capacity.  Iron deficient women are at greater risk of maternal death due to bleeding in childbirth.

Attempts to counteract these micronutrient deficiencies with supplements are expensive and often do not reach the poor.  International agencies have realized that the missing nutrients should mainly be restored through the food that people eat every day. An international organization known as HarvestPlus is working to develop and promote staple foods that have been fortified with missing micronutrients.  HarvestPlus is part of a global agricultural research partnership for a food secure future – taking climate change and gender equity into consideration.  HarvestPlus uses selective plant breeding, known as biofortification, rather than genetic modification, to develop new strains of staple foods.  They then work to get farmers to accept the seeds for the new crops and to teach the public the benefits of the change.  The strategies of international organizations working on reducing hidden hunger also include dietary diversification, supplementation and commercial fortification. 

Beans high in iron have been introduced into Rwanda and DR Congo.  Pearl Millet high in iron is now sold in parts of India.  Cassava, maize, and sweet potatoes high in Vitamin A have been introduced into Nigeria, Zambia, DR Congo, Mozambique and Uganda.  Rice and wheat high in zinc are being tried in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.

The vitamin A story is compelling.  In Africa, more than 40% of children under five are estimated to be at risk for vitamin A deficiency. This increases the risk of diarrhea in young children, one of the leading causes of  childhood death in poor countries.  A recent study showed a marked reduction in the likelihood that children who ate the new orange sweet potato in the past week would have diarrhea.  The beta-carotene in the orange sweet potato was converted into vitamin A at once and used by the cells lining the gut to form a barrier to invading germs. 

If you visit the website of HarvestPlus  you will find inspiring short videos of farmers trying out the new crops, talking and even singing about them. 

Harvest Plus’ donors are the UK Government, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the U.S. Government’s Feed the Future Initiative and others.  Any individual can also become a donor.

The success of HarvestPlus stands in contrast to the sadder story of Golden Rice.  Rice is the staple crop for over a billion people in Asia – and white rice is lacking in micronutrients.  For about 20 years a group of scientists have been developing strains of rice that are high in vitamin A though genetic modification.  The companies Monsanto and Syngenta now have proprietary rights to Golden Rice.  The rice has a beautiful yellow color.  However, plans to market this rice in India have been strongly opposed by local organizations and people, such as Vandana Shiva, who argue against genetically modified foods and the corporate control of agriculture. She   proposes efforts to vary the diets of the poor to include more locally available vegetables rich in beta-carotene. An attempt to study the effects of Golden Rice in the Philippines ran into difficulties – lack of informed consent given to parents of the subjects, and the fact that children in the study were given meals higher in fat than usual, which enhanced the availability of the vitamin A and skewed the study’s results.  The study in the Philippines was strongly opposed by Greenpeace and some local leaders.  It is clear that genetic modifications of foods, and especially the companies that promote them, create strong resistance. 

What are the best strategies to prevent starvation and micronutrient lack in a planet beset by growing populations and climate change?  Can farmers grow enough food without the use of the herbicides and pesticides that are hurting the pollinators?  Hopefully, organizations like HarvestPlus will have more answers in coming years.   In the meantime, those of us in the land of plenty should be as generous as we can to organizations like local food banks, HarvestPlus and Oxfam.   We could also  remember Michael Pollan’s dictum:  Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

Sadja Greenwood MD,MPH – back issues on this blog