Millet rich in iron; wheat abundant in zinc; cassava tinged with extra beta-carotene. An array of crops bred to contain micronutrients that could fight the widespread problem of undernutrition is about to be unleashed on the developing world, beginning next year.
The first meeting of international experts in biofortification (9-11 November) heard that, after almost a decade of research and development, high-iron pearl millet seeds will be released in India next year; and cassava and maize boosted with beta-carotene (which the body turns into vitamin A) will be released in Nigeria and Zambia in 2012. Sweet potato containing extra beta-carotene is already on the market.
But will the undernourished embrace these solutions to the health problems that lack of nutrients brings? Experts at the meeting, the First Global Conference on Biofortification, are now turning their attention to winning over their customers - and they are realising there are many hurdles.
A lack of micronutrients such as iodine or zinc can lead to stunted growth, severe wasting, and intrauterine growth restriction and contributed to a large proportion of the 2.2 million deaths from undernutrition of children under five in 2005, according to a 2008 report by The Lancet.
People deprived of micronutrients usually rely on staple crops to give them sufficient calories to survive but miss out on other micronutrient-containing foods such as protein sources and vegetables. The hope with biofortification is that it could deliver these micronutrients via the very staple crops to which people do have access.
But these insights must now be explained to the outside world, says Ross Welch, a crop and soil scientist at Cornell University, United States, and a specialist in zinc-enriched wheat.
"You need to make sure the consumer will eat them, and the farmers will grow them. We need government policies to promote the planning of biofortification of crops."
Will, for example, Africans who have for generations opted for white-coloured staples, tuck into yellow and orange food rich in beta-carotene? Yellow-coloured maize varieties are often associated with animal feed.
Howarth Bouis, head of HarvestPlus, the organisation that has managed the development of many biofortified crops at a variety of research institutes around the world, thinks habits can be changed. Recent trials of biofortified orange-fleshed sweet potato in Uganda have revealed that if the benefits of vitamin A are explained to mothers, the food is consumed.
The problem, he concedes, will be spreading these messages cheaply. Talking directly to consumers is expensive and this part of the project could be more expensive than the initial breeding process, he says.
The development community also needs persuasion. Many believe biofortification is an expensive technical fix - at a development cost of US$100 million per variety - to a problem that ought to be approached by tackling social and economic issues instead.
The key, it is thought, will be demonstrable improvements in health.
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