WORLDS away from Australia’s supermarket aisles and piles of wasted food millions of people globally are still not getting sufficient nutrition and over-relying on one staple crop to provide most of the fuel to survive.
Whether it be rice in Bangladesh or Indonesia, corn in sub-Saharan Africa or even cassava, a little-known novelty in Australia but a staple in parts of Brazil and through western Africa, many people are getting most of their calories from one specific food source.
With this in mind, projects have been set up to improve the nutritional profile of staple crops through a process known as biofortification.
Previous high profile work has been done in rice with the product known as Golden Rice, which breeders developed using genetic modification (GM) to create rice lines with higher levels of vitamin A.
However the controversy surrounding the use of GM techniques have meant scientists across the globe have been working on boosting nutritional value of staple crops using conventional breeding.
“It takes a little longer and you can’t introduce novel traits to the species but you can still make some good gains,” said Howarth Bouis the founder of HarvestPlus, a project dedicated to developing and promoting new, more nutritious varieties of staple food crops with higher amounts of vitamin A, iron or zinc-three of the micronutrients identified by the World Health Organization as most lacking in diets globally.
Dr Bouis said good gains had been made in a number of nutritional areas, including boosting zinc levels in rice, vitamin A in corn, cassava and wheat and iron in beans and pearl millet.
Visiting Australia this month, Dr Bouis said biofortified crops were now grown in over 40 countries, reaching millions of subsidence farmers.
HarvestPlus, however, has a specific focus on sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia and is looking to boost its reach in south-eastern Asia through the release of high zinc rice lines in Indonesia and the Philippines.
“Zinc levels are linked to better immune systems, so you’ll see children with good zinc levels not get sick from things such as pneumonia, diarrhoea or even the common cold when those with low levels do, or if they do get sick it won’t be as severe,” Dr Bouis said.
He said farmers were happy to grow the biofortified crops.
Howarth Bouis speaks at an Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) meeting this week, photo ACIAR/ Patrick Cape.
“We aim to be like fluoride, its tasteless, colourless and odourless but it is there in the background boosting health outcomes.”
He said zinc rice had been well received in Bangladesh, while zinc wheat was making inroads in other south Asian nations where it is the staple crop, such as India and Pakistan.
Dr Bouis said rather than target specific demographics, the products were released and were then consumed right throughout the food chain.
“We didn’t want a specific line just for farmers, so if the farmer sells the grain and wealthier people eat that product they’re getting the benefits too, although their own levels of micronutrients might be better given a more varied diet.”
“For the farmers, the staples do a good job at providing starch and carbohydrates to keep them going, but the lack of micronutrients is what I term the ‘hidden hunger’ that can lead to easily preventable deaths.”
“For low-income farming families in developing countries, fruits and vegetables, high-quality proteins, are most often sadly not affordable.
“Vitamin and mineral supplement and food fortification programs do not reach everyone and improving the nutritional profile of the crops that provide most of the calories can be a big boost.”
He hopes to see the production of the biofortified crops spread to 60 countries within five years’ time.
The Australian government is contributing to the HarvestPlus project via support from by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) and assistance from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in rolling out the rice varieties in Indonesia and the Philippines.