Over 2 billion people—or one in three worldwide—do not get enough vitamins and minerals in their diets. This micronutrient deficiency, or “hidden hunger,” is a serious global health problem that causes blindness, impaired physical and cognitive development, diseases, infections, and even death.
Micronutrient malnutrition exists alongside undernutrition (hunger) and overnutrition (overweight, obesity, and associated noncommunicable diseases) in developed and developing countries alike. Infants, young children, adolescent girls, and women of childbearing age are most in need of micronutrients for growth and development, but they are also the population segments that tend to have the least access to micronutrients in dietary form.
The hidden hunger problem is likely to persist well into this century, regardless of economic trends. Global forecasts indicate that there should be enough calories to feed everyone by 2050, but still not enough micronutrients to nourish all of us. How is it that in 2020, we still are not getting the nutrition basics right to ensure that everyone has the potential to live a healthy, productive life?
Some of the reasons have emerged through discussions organized within the Food Systems Dialogues, which convene global experts to work towards international consensus on how to pursue food systems transformations, in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Agenda. Conclusions from the Dialogues to date highlight in particular that “efforts to encourage rapid and joint actions that transform food systems have been hampered by deep disagreements among different stakeholders and we need a common vision if we are going to make a difference”.
Tackling hidden hunger, as well as other nutrition-related problems, requires a holistic, collaborative approach to improve food systems. There is no silver bullet or single answer, and there should not be competition among strategies. We need to work together, implement many different solutions, and support different approaches. Specifically, we need to support coordinated approaches in the promotion of dietary diversity, food fortification, supplementation, and the improvement of nutrient delivery from staple foods via biofortification.
There are 20,000 species of edible plants on our planet, but 60 percent of the calories consumed by humans are from wheat, maize, and rice; we should all work to broaden this list over time and improve dietary diversity. Meanwhile, the current reality is that billions of people around the world will not be able to afford or readily access a truly diverse diet due to their economic circumstances, so we also need to improve the nutritional value of the foods we are currently consuming. This includes improving the nutrient content of widely-consumed staple crops through biofortification—that is, use of conventional breeding methods to improve these crops’ micronutrient density.
The current food debate is largely negative, with talk of “double burden”, “triple burden”, “broken food systems”, “reduce sugar, fat and salt”, “traffic light labelling” and more. It is time to change the tone of the narrative to one that is more positive, optimistic, and promotes leveraging and scaling up solutions that are proven to be effective. Biofortification is one such solution; in fact, it is an easy win for improving food systems through their backbones, i.e., staples that are eaten every day by everyone, regardless of demographic and socio-economic status.
The HarvestPlus program, which is part of the global CGIAR agricultural research network, was founded in 2003 to help drive the development and delivery of staple crops that are rich in zinc, iron and vitamin A; these micronutrients play an outsized role in the hidden hunger equation. HarvestPlus works with several CGIAR research centers to develop biofortified beans, cassava, rice, maize, millet, sweet potato, and wheat.
Following almost two decades of nutrition research, product development, implementing pilot delivery programs, and sharing learnings from these biofortification activities, HarvestPlus is focused on catalyzing significant scale up of biofortified crops and foods. In this new decade, HarvestPlus’ mission is to enable, empower, and equip others with information and know-how about biofortification, thereby helping them join in the fight to end hidden hunger through improved micronutrient content of staple crops as a complementary, natural, and sustainable solution.
There are no tradeoffs in producing and consuming biofortified crops and foods. For farmers, biofortified varieties offer the same or higher yield potential as currently available non-biofortified varieties, as well as equal or better resistance to pests and diseases. Biofortified varieties are also “future-proofed” in that they are bred for climate adaptation (to weather droughts or floods) and hence their adoption can improve food security as well as nutrition security. The ongoing development of biofortified varieties of staple crops with higher micronutrient levels is also a way to address the nutrient-sapping impact of rising concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases—a phenomenon that has been documented in recent research.
On the consumer end, there is significant evidence showing that when biofortified foods are consumed as a regular part of consumers’ diets, they help reduce micronutrient deficiencies and improve health; in addition, research has shown that consumers of all stripes like the taste and cooking attributes of biofortified foods.
But scaling up biofortification cannot be achieved without the full participation of the food industry. Biofortified crops such as zinc wheat, zinc rice, vitamin A orange maize, and iron pearl millet have the potential to be the next global super foods; they respond to growing consumer preferences for natural, “clean label,” and plant-based foods, and they are also environmental and sustainable.
The consumer-driven trend for biofortified, naturally nutritious foods is reflected in recent commercial and financial reports. Sainsbury’s supermarkets
in the UK predicts that by 2025, biofortification will be a widespread method to improve nutrition. The World Bank
highlights biofortification as a “nutrition-smart” agriculture initiative and calls for “ensuring that biofortified cereals are the norm, rather than the exception”. Citibank
cites biofortification as an “innovation that can address one of the main challenges of today’s food industry”.
Many commercial food businesses are already seeing the value of nutrition and building profitable businesses using biofortified crops. In 2019, the Forbes
30 Under 30 foods and drinks list featured the founder of the first U.S. biofortified food business, and several young entrepreneurs in Africa and Asia (predominantly women) have successfully started nutritious food businesses utilizing biofortified crops. These small yet nimble and thriving businesses are creating healthy food products and answering the food trends of today and tomorrow.
Biofortification is a solution that can benefit both the poorest, most vulnerable people in the world—a significant part of the global population—as well as those with more disposable income, by providing both with much-needed nutrients naturally, through foods they eat every day.
HarvestPlus is eager to share our knowledge and expertise on the development and delivery of biofortified crops and foods, so that food businesses can prosper from this technology. I am a firm believer that creating profitable businesses and reaching the Sustainable Development Goals are not mutually exclusive. The more partners and businesses that are involved in biofortification, the better it will be for creating a more-nutritious food system. Let’s work together to make biofortification the new normal so that we can get nutritious foods on the table and improve lives.
HarvestPlus collaborates with the following CGIAR centers on the development of biofortified crops: International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT); International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT); International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA); International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT); International Potato Center (CIP); International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).
HarvestPlus recently published three practical technical guides
to develop insight-driven food innovation using biofortified ingredients. Join Arun Baral
, CEO of HarvestPlus, at the FIA Food for the Future Summit on 23 April at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore.
Find out more