A panel of scientists from Adelaide, Melbourne and Flinders Universities, and partner World Vision Australia shared the stage at the National Press Club in Canberra yesterday to discuss nutrition, agricultural research and the development impacts of biofortification.
Hosted by ACIAR, The Crawford Fund and the National Rural Press Club and lead by Dr Howarth Bouis, Director and Founder of HarvestPlus and winner of this year’s World Food Prize, the panel presented contemporary and historic perspectives on biofortification: the nutritional value of staple foods and their connection to “hidden hunger” in the developing world.
|Dr Bouis, Director of HarvestPlus with Mellissa Wood, General Manager Global Programs, ACIAR.|
More than 2 billion people around the world are affected by malnutrition caused by a lack of vitamins and minerals in the diet. Known as “hidden hunger”, the situation is especially prevalent in poorer nations where the impact extends way beyond health into almost every aspect of society. Mineral and vitamin deficiencies (and not calories) are the main constraint to better nutrition and, therefore, to healthy and economically productive lives.
|Dr Ross Welch presenting the links between agriculture, biofortification and human nutrition.|
Biofortification is the process by which the nutritional quality of food crops is improved through agronomic practices, conventional plant breeding, or modern biotechnology.
The advantages of biofortification are many. First, biofortification is built on what poor households grow and eat – staple foods. Second, the one-time investment to develop seeds that fortify themselves keep recurrent costs low and the germplasm – the living tissue from which plants can be grown – can be shared globally, making it highly cost-effective. Third, biofortification is sustainable. Long after people stop thinking about biofortification, farmers continue to grow and eat their biofortified crops – now thought of as just “crops.” Fourth, biofortification reaches the country’s most vulnerable people, living in remote rural areas with no access – or money – for commercially marketed fortified foods. And finally, biofortification produces higher yields in an environmentally friendly way.
Dr Howarth Bouis, outlined a brief history of the HarvestPlus Biofortification Program describing how the program had overcome scientific, political and cultural challenges to bring higher yielding, more nutritious and cost comparative crops into greater use in the countries that benefit most from their consumption. During his talk he praised Australia and Australian scientists for the important role they have played in the development of new varieties that are climate-smart, high-yielding, and packed with micronutrients.
Hidden hunger effects on children are most acute during the first 1,000 days of a child’s life – from conception to the age of two years. Deficiencies in micronutrients such as zinc, iron and vitamin A cause profound and irreparable damage to the body – blindness, growth stunting, mental retardation, learning disabilities, low work capacity, and even premature death.
Five hundred million women aged 15 to 49, at the peak of their productive years, are anaemic due to iron deficiency. This condition reduces their productivity, decreases their economic potential, and affects their reproductive health.
|Dr Graham Lyons from the University of Adelaide|
Dr Ross Welch presented the links between agriculture and human nutrition describing how small changes like switching from growing white sweet potato to orange sweet potato makes a dramatic difference to the amount of vitamin A available in the diets of communities that commonly suffer from vitamin deficiencies. Dr Graham Lyons from the University of Adelaide talked about the positive impact that biofortification is having in our region and the imperative for ongoing research and extension work in the field. World Vision Australia’s Shannon Ryan highlighted how the introduction of biofortifide crops in Africa and Afghanistan is helping to address significant health issues. Professor James Stangoulis of Flinders University discussed conventional breeding for biofortification, with farmers able to produce higher yielding and more nutrient rich crop verities without the need to change their farming practices. Finally the audience heard from Dr Alexander Johnson from University of Melbourne who spoke about role for biotechnology and the potential for GM to improve the biofortification of crops such as rice.
Read more about Dr Bouis, HarvestPlus and biofortification here.