I have just returned from three weeks of in-field assessments in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador where, together with a US-based non-profit, we were looking at effective nutrition interventions that meet the needs of vulnerable communities.
I was reminded once again, that introducing fortified food products or supplements is complex. The sustainability of fortified products can be a challenge as it depends on a whole host of factors - including quality control, physical product delivery systems and consumer behaviour change.
The discussion with Central American nutrition and health leaders consistently steered toward taking advantage of local staple foods and understanding local dietary habits. Leaders reinforced that we first need to start with foods that are readily available and already being prepared at home, and improve their nutritional profile. Then we must fill nutrition gaps through innovative supplementation approaches that are palateable to communities in need.
It sounds great, but it is easier said than done? Perhaps not.
At this week's Global Biofortification Conference, hosted by HarvestPlus in Washington, DC, leaders across sectors came together to understand how we can bridge agriculture and food production with the world's nutrition needs more effectively.
Biofortification is a novel approach involving breeding higher levels of essential vitamins and minerals directly into the staple food crops that the poor already eat - such as sweet potato, rice, cassava, corn, wheat and beans. While biofortification does not promise to fill all the micronutrient needs of undernourished communities, it does create an interesting delivery vehicle for key nutrients that are most deficient from diets of the poor, such as iron, Vitamin A, and zinc.
This morning, Howarth Bouis, Director of HarvestPlus said that "if our food systems do not supply essential minerals and vitamins, then agriculture is an important way to fix the problem." He also said that we have to incorporate agriculture as we develop effective health strategies and biofortification creates that link between food production and improved health.
Some skeptics of biofortification and critics say that the time required to breed and reap the fruits of biofortification is a decades-long process. Activists in the environmental protection realm claim that anything involving the manipulation of genes could have unknown consequences on indigenous crops and even the health of the very people these crops are intended to help. And then there are others who feel that biofortification requires a significant investment in research and farming techniques, and claim that there may be more cost effective ways to improve nutrition quickly.
There may be additional criticisms and challenges as biofortified crops are unveiled in the coming years. What we do know is that these crops have tremendous promise, and education and awareness building around their introduction will be key.
It seems to me that the conference's approach is precisely what we need when introducing any effort aimed to help the poor. We must bring together leaders from across sectors, arm them with the right information and evidence so they can go back and be advocates for novel techniques to fight hunger and malnutrition. It also will be important that funders invest in measuring impact, educating beneficiary communities and bringing in-country stakeholders to the table so they are converted into advocates, and can troubleshoot as appropriate as biofortified seeds become available.
Great science should not end at bringing innovation to market. Great science only stands the test of time if we focus just as much on the real-world application of scientific outputs as we have on the work in laboratories and research stations. Delivering better nutrition through better crops is a long time coming, and we are on the cusp of making these fortified crops available to the masses. Let's make sure that we account for human error, human interests and human habits as part of the biofortification roll-out plan.
Check out the following video highlighting the challenges of malnutrition and how biofortification can help.