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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.