Howarth Bouis discusses breeding nutrient-rich plants to help alleviate worldwide malnutrition

HarvestPlus uses biofortification to create crops loaded with vitamins and minerals

By Sarah Parsons

For rural parts of Africa and southeast Asia, crops like cassava, sweet potato, rice, and maize are staples (in other words, they’re the pizza, burgers, and apple pies of the developing world). But while these plants may help fill hungry tummies, they lack nutrients like iron, vitamin A, iodine, and zinc, contributing to widespread malnutrition throughout the two continents. One organization, HarvestPlus, aims to alleviate vitamin and mineral deficiencies by creating traditional crops that contain more nutrients, a process known as biofortification. Plenty caught up with HarvestPlus’s director, Howarth Bouis, to talk about how breeding better plants can cut back on malnutrition.

What’s the current method of dealing with malnutrition?
Poor people in developing countries eat large amounts of food staples to keep from going hungry, but they can’t afford the other things in a diet that are supposed to give them vitamins and minerals, like fish and animal products and fruits. The public health and nutrition community has responded in two primary ways: providing supplements (like vitamin A capsules) and fortification (like putting iodine into salt during the refining process). There are two drawbacks to these approaches: One is that they can’t reach everyone, especially people in rural areas. They also have recurrent costs. For example, spending $500 million every year for vitamin A supplements isn’t addressing the underlying cause of malnutrition.

How does biofortification work, and how is it a more effective strategy at alleviating malnutrition?
Biofortification basically gets the plants to do the work of fortifying themselves. So if you’re putting more iron and zinc in the seed, it’s breeding varieties that translocate the minerals from the soils through the plants and into the seeds. If it’s vitamins, it’s getting the plants to synthesize pro-vitamin A in the seed. It starts in the rural areas: When you have these biofortified varieties, farmers adopt them, families eat them, and then the surplus makes its way into the marketing system so it gets into the urban areas as well. It’s taking advantage of the fact that the poor already eat these food staples day in and day out, so we’re trying to put more vitamins and minerals into those foods. Using the plant breeding methodology is particularly cost effective because you can do the research at a central location, develop the biofortified varieties at a central location, and then send the seeds around to various countries. They’ll adapt them to the growing conditions, and then they’re there year after year, and you don’t have these high, recurrent costs.

What’s an example of a crop that’s been biofortified?
An orange sweet potato is being released in Africa already. Normally Africans eat a white sweet potato, which has no vitamin A, and the country suffers from vitamin A deficiency. If they’ll replace the white varieties on their farms with orange varieties, their yields will be just as high. If they feed the orange variety to their families, especially their children, if they just eat 100 grams a day the children will get their daily requirement of vitamin A from the orange sweet potato.

Do you use genetic modification at HarvestPlus, or just conventional plant breeding?
Ninety-eight percent of our resources are going into conventional breeding. The main reason we decided to do that is because of the difficulty of releasing transgenics. We’re doing some research in the laboratory with developing transgenic varieties that are higher in iron, but we’re not taking the steps for disseminating the varieties. We’re just doing things as kind of a hedging strategy in case the political situation changes and there’s more acceptance of the transgenic methodology.

Where have these crops been sent so far?
We’re working on seven crops: rice, wheat, maize, cassava, sweet potato, beans, and pearl millet. For the orange sweet potato, we’ve been doing dissemination activities in Uganda and Mozambique. For the other six, we’re still doing the breeding and nutritional testing, so we haven’t started dissemination yet. We have some high iron beans that are being tested by national governments in a few countries in Africa, and we expect an official release in 2010. For the other five, we expect official release in the next five years.

What parts of the world are you targeting?
South Asia (India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan), and Africa.

Can nutrient-rich crops really solve a problem as complicated as malnutrition?
The intention is that it will help the problem, not solve it. The ultimate solution to the problem is for economies to develop, for people’s incomes to go up so they can afford the kinds of varied diets that we enjoy in developed countries. But that’s going to take decades, so in the meantime, there are various things that need to be done to help alleviate the problem as much as possible at the lowest possible cost.