The Case for Biofortification

Photo: Acradenia

Modern consumers enjoy something that humans throughout history never have: we can walk into a grocery store and, if we choose wisely, leave with food that maximizes our health. Much maligned as the industrial food system has been, it’s made accessible a broad diversity of beneficial foods that, consumed regularly, prevent disease and enhance the quality of life. The fact that one is able to eat a cornucopia of “superfoods”–blueberries, bananas, kale, lentils, quinoa, and avocados–on a daily basis is an under-appreciated wonder of globalization and world trade.

But the vast majority of the developing world lacks access to this abundance. In fact, billions of people living in developing countries are dependent on a single staple crop for their sustenance. In sub-Saharan Africa, 250 million people eat cassava as their primary food source; over half the world depends on rice for 80% of their calories; wheat accounts for 20% of the world’s food energy intake. This narrow dependence might meet baseline caloric needs, but it’s a nutritional disaster.

How to bridge the gap between the nutritional haves and have-nots is a hotly contested issue. Some support the development of small-scale but modernized organic systems serving regional markets. Others promote replacing traditional peasant agriculture with the industrialized approach of agribusiness. Yet others would like to see local farmers empowered to practice indigenous methods. Whichever schemes ultimately prevail (hopefully a combination of all), there’s one solution that must be included irrespective of agricultural scale or scope: crops must be biofortified. That is, we need to plant seeds that have been bred to enhance nutritional value.

The reason is simple: dependence on a single, unfortified crop spells severe micro-nutrient deficiency. To cite only a few statistics:

-49% of Africans and 69% of South-East Asians are vitamin A deficient.
38% of the Western Pacific and 57% of South-East Asians are anemic.
43% of Africans and 54% of Eastern Mediterranean people are lacking recommended levels of iodine.

Deficiencies in essential minerals such as selenium, zinc, and folate are equally dire among the global poor.

It goes without saying that this situation would be dramatically improved if there was equity of access to the food choices wealthy consumers take for granted. But there isn’t, and what it would take for that to happen–infrastructure development, political stability, capital infusions, technology transfer–could take decades upon decades to achieve. An available, cost-effective and immediately applicable solution is thus critical to preventing this quiet problem from exploding into a global crisis as population rises from 6.2 to 9 billion between now and 2040.

Biofortification has already proven itself to be highly effective at addressing specific micro-nutrient deficiencies on a massive scale. Forty-nine nations biofortify flour with iron; 38 enrich it with folic acid; 70% of consumers in the developed world get iodized salt; and the United States has attacked rickets with vitamin D fortified milk.

The development of a product such as Golden Rice–a beta-carotene enriched rice about to be planted throughout Asia–is a signal step in extending agricultural technology to a malnourished population through a private-public partnership. We have every reason to hope that, as the success of Golden Rice in preventing blindness and other diseases becomes evident, it will open the gates for vitamin A-enriched cassava, selenium and zinc-enhanced wheat, and nutritionally fortified sorghum, sweet potatoes, and pearl millet, to name only a few crops that would directly improve the health of the global poor.

It’s also worth noting that it’s not just the global poor who stand to gain from biofortification. Even those of us with privileged access to farmers’ markets and Whole Foods outlets might someday be able to buy a peach bred to have higher rates of phytochemicals, strawberries with higher concentrations of an antioxidant called ellagic acid, tomatoes with a greater density of lycopene, and broccoli that’s bred to produce more calcium. All these products have been successfully pioneered, but they’ve yet to be marketed.

One reason we haven’t seen these products is that many interest groups deeply oppose the idea of biofortifying food. Food purists tend to oppose biofortification because it often requires transgenic technology (GM seeds). Opponents of globalization lament the impact that biofortification might have on indigenous agricultural knowledge.  Critics of corporate-driven agribusiness grate at the idea of poor farmers becoming dependent on multi-national seed companies. Slow Foodies see “medicalized” food as functional products detracting from the sensual pleasure of food.

By no means should these fears be ignored. But, with over 840 million people receiving inadequate calories and suffering from malnutrition, and with an abundance of evidence showing that biofortification saves lives, those of us who already enjoy access to the world’s healthiest supply of food have no choice but to insist that, concerns notwithstanding, the future of food should be biofortified.


Jeff

People looking after their self-interest see a real danger from GM crops. Usually, they stop producing seeds after the the third generation. This is an intentional genetic design of the seed companies. These crops can interbreed with existing, non-GM crops. By introducing GM crops, you could lose your country's whole food supply after three harvests.

Your emotional appeals for hungry people don't address this problem. If people are hungry now, they'll be dead after three harvests. That's a huge incentive to avoid GM crops!

Besides, hungry peoples of the world are mostly victims of bad government not bad crops. Zimbabwe was a food exporting country until Mugabe began price controls. End government tampering in food markets, and you'll end most world hunger.

Gary

I agree about corporate greed and bad government. But I don't like the implications that *only* for-profit corporations will create GM crops or that GM crops *must* lose fertility. And let's not forget that many conventional hybrids lose fertility or desirable traits in the second or third generation. Also, the fact is that there is only so much land that can reasonably be devoted to agriculture. Better crops put less strain on the land and provide more options for sustainable practices like crop rotation, instead of trying to squeeze as much short-term benefit as possible from the land.

Roger S

"I don't like dogs because they bite. If your dog will not bite, however, then I like your dog."

"I don't like GM seeds because they have Terminator genes that make farmers dependent on a monopoly. If your seeds don't have those genes, however, then I like your seeds."

And this is why I'm okay with Golden Rice, because the free license is for introgressing its secret sauce into other rice cultivars, the opposite of Montsanto's approach.

Alexander

Little confusion here: "Biofortification" is the process of adding nutritional value to a crop (through breeding or fertilisation), whereas in (industrial) fortification nutritional value is added to a processed food product, i.e. if flour is fortified with iron, this is fortification, if the wheat is bred for a higher content of iron, this is biofortification - and in fact this would simply reverse a trend of the past decades when the main focus was on yields (to avoid mass starvation) and micronutrient content was not a breeding target and therefore decreased over time.

@Jeff, you're mixing up hybrids and GMOs; re-sowing seeds from hybrid crops reduces the crops' vigour and thus lowers yields, which is why farmers are happy to pay a little for better seeds but then to reap a much bigger harvest - and this is already so since decades, long before GMOs were developed. GMOs, in contrast, *can* be hybrids, but this is not necessarily so; there is no reason why GMOs cannot be open pollinated varieties - and in fact the Golden Rice named in the article is just such a humanitarian crop whose seeds can be re-sown year after year after year (once it has finally passed all regulatory hurdles and is disseminated to those in need). This is exactly the very beauty of the concept of biofortification: After a one-time investment into the development of the crops the benefits can be reaped far into the future and also across space, as farmers can share the seed and as agricultural research institutes can share the germplasm. (Not all research is done by self-interested companies - or they support such initiatives because they take their corporate social responsibility serious; this is not to say that in other cases they are not in the business to make a profit...)
Also, your suggestion to end bad governments is a nice one, go ahead and do it - but what happens with the poor and malnourished until you succeed? Millions can benefit from some pragmatism in the meantime...

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Justin

@rationalrevolution I think you are mixing up a few different technologies. You only need Roundup for roundup-ready crops, and even then, many farmers get it from suppliers in China rather than from Monsanto. That aside, Golden Rice is offered royalty-free, so farmers are allowed to replant seeds and redistribute them as much as they want. They are not bound to Monsanto in any way. Monsanto isn't even associated with these seeds.

Gary

It is essential to maintain genetic diversity in order to prevent massive crop failures due to short or long term climate changes or spread on a specific disease or pest. However you enhance nutrition, it must be done with a wide variety of crops and crop varieties, and patented under no-cost open public licenses. The crop varieties must also retain fertility through an indefinite number of generations. Provided that these conditions are met, one problem is that regulations for GM crops need to distinguish between nutritional enhancement and crop disease resistance created by inserting a gene to produce a toxin that supposedly targets a specific pest or plant disease - which has the result of creating an evolutionary pressure for the pest / disease to develop a resistance to the toxin. The collapse of bee colonies may be partially caused by such GM-based toxins. If no organization currently funds extensive crop development research, one needs to do so. Or perhaps a number of existing organizations need to work together, instead of competing.

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rationalrevolution

The problem with bio-engineering isn't the science, though many people direct misguided opposition in that direction, the problem is the property rights issue. GM crops are in many cases fine or good improvements over traditionally bread crops, the problem is that GM crops are patented and come with a whole slew of legal and practical ramifications that take control away from farmers.

Yes, it is better to grow rice that is genetically modified to include more vitamins, the problem is that when growing that rice also ties you into an entire system from Monsanto, so you have to use their herbicides and their fertilizers and if that rice cross fertilizes your other rise you then own them a royalty and if you grow that rice in another season from seed you kept, then you owe them royalties, etc.

What the folks like Monsanto are doing is basically converting farming into a licensing type system, which takes control away from farmers and reduced profits for them, etc.

That's the problem, its not the science, its the legalities that's the issue.

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Travis

The science is also the problem though, because there has been very little scientific study on the impacts of GM crops on virtually anything, be that human health, or cross breeding with other crops.

Humans have a tendency to jump head first into technology that is supposedly a panacea or miracle that reduces risk and saves lives, only to find out that it has much much more broad implications than had been foreseen. See, e.g. DDT or PCB's.

There are also other issues, such as increased pesticide or herbicide use (Round-up ready) which can have negative impacts on the environment, or potential other issues such as requiring a proprietary fertilizer.

The legal issues are a huge concern, for sure, but the science is far from rigorously proven to be safe, and currently the crops continue are allowed in the us not because they have ever been conclusively considered safe, but because they were merely declared safe summarily.

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Matthew

@Jeff: Amen!

I see the statement that the question of "How" to bridge the gap between nutritional have's and have-not's is hotly contested. The question I ask is "Why?" Last time I checked, the success of western economies is neither secret nor exclusive. This entire post appears to presuppose that us "have's" need to address this disparity. These countries with what we consider substandard nutritional choice also have substandard legal and political systems. Few countries, outside the landlocked African countries lack the wherewithal to advance their own cause. Japan and Taiwan both lack any real natural resources of which to speak and yet are economic powerhouses. Last time I checked Switzerland and Austria both lack seaports and are doing just fine. Boosting the food supply of a population under the rule of a kleptocrat dictator is as useful as giving pre-natal vitamins to a pregnant woman who gets a daily fix of crack.

I am all for people being given access to better food and necessities of life, but if you teach the man to fish and he won't even cast the pole himself at some point you have to say you have done what you can. Having grown up in the US I could be accused of speaking from a position of privilege, but I grew up In Texas with friends who were the children of Vietnamese boat people and illegal immigrants from Mexico who swam the Rio Grande and know that bettering one's situation, even if it comes with risk of life, is available to all. I know not everyone can change their form of government, but I have little sympathy for people who want to help those not even attempting to help themselves.

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Yassir Islam

Thanks for drawing attention to a critical issue--that nutrient content of food, not just its caloric value, is important if we are to feed a growing(and often poorer) population. Please see Alexander's post for some much needed clarification. While people are most vociferous about GM crops, let me add that in many cases biofortification is being successfully achieved through conventional plant breeding. For example conventionally-bred orange sweet potato that is high in vitamin A has already been released in several African countries where it provides much needed vitamin A. Also, sweet potato is traditionally eaten in much of Africa, so these new orange varieties are not reducing dietary diversity. And as Alexander noted, farmers can save and share these sweet potatoes with their neighbors to grow--so in time the whole community benefits from these more nutritious foods.

Justin

Jeff, your claim is based on a myth. Terminator seeds are not commercially available, and probably never will be. The worst that can happen with biofortification is that we accidentally increase the nutritional content of someone else's plants. Please check your facts before you perpetuate these misconceptions.

Travis

How about instead of increasing the overhead for food and entangling it in a nasty web of property rights ownership we prioritize diversifying crops. There is significant evidence that this is beneficial in multiple ways, not only would it increase the general nutritional value due to more diverse nutritional elements from different crops, but it would also reduce the risk of famine due to plant diseases, as growing a single crop tends to be the highest risk of that kind.

Further, there is likely some benefit to having more of a working grasp of all of the potential impacts of GM crops before we begin using them as a staple of global agriculture (i know, too late).

Michael

Biofortification does not necessarily require genetic modification. Many vegetables are deficient is some basic nutrients because the required minerals are not available to the plant due to mineral deficiencies in the soil.

If it's not in the soil it will not be in the plant.

Conventional agriculture is often more attuned to proper soil mineralization than organic producers. Many organic farmers maintain a simplistic view of agriculture to the point that all they think that is required to grow nutritious food is to put compost and organic matter into the soil. That is fine and good, but if the plants and animals that supply the compost do not have access to the minerals that are needed, they again, the minerals necessary to produce nutrient dense food will not be present.

This approach is what has guided my development of the Mighty Grow line of organic fertilizers.