What is Biofortification?

Getting critical micronutrients (the vitamins and minerals that people need for good health) to the two billion people who lack them has never been more feasible – or tasty – than it is now.

Thanks to a new approach called biofortification, these micronutrients can be provided to millions of people through the staple foods that they eat every day, foods such as maize, sweet potato and wheat. While these staples are often packed full of energy, they usually lack essential micronutrients such as vitamin A, iron and zinc. When people don’t get enough of these micronutrients, they suffer from a hidden hunger. This puts them at increased risk of stunting, anemia, blindness, infectious diseases and even death. Women and children are especially vulnerable.

HarvestPlus leads the global effort to improve nutrition and public health through biofortification. In this video, HarvestPlus Director Howarth Bouis explains the biofortification process in less than one minute:

Biofortification links agriculture, nutrition and public health, thereby engaging a wide range of actors. Crop scientists, nutritionists, economists and behavioral-change experts all work together to ensure that nutrient-rich crops are effective and meet the demands of farmers and consumers.

As Bouis points out, biofortification targets the people most at risk of hidden hunger and the foods that they habitually eat. This makes it a sustainable and cost-effective approach. HarvestPlus and partners focus on seven staple food crops:

  • Vitamin A sweet potato, maize and cassava,
  • Iron beans and pearl millet,
  • Zinc rice and wheat.

Once these crops have been distributed, farmers can often save and share the seeds, roots or tubers, so that each harvest continues to deliver better nutrition year after year.

To date, nearly half a million people in Africa and Asia are already planting or eating some of these nutrient-rich crops, all of which have been conventionally bred. As a bonus, these crops have other valuable traits, for example being high yielding and virus - or disease - resistant. What’s more, in cases where the biofortified crops look or taste slightly different from ordinary varieties due to their higher nutrient level, people have thus far shown a preference for them over the ordinary ones.

Scaling up these nutrient-rich crops and making them widely accessible so that they reach millions of people will require new partnerships between government, business and civil society. A consultation to be held in Kigali, Rwanda, over three days (March 31 to April 2, 2014) will provide the opportunity for this to happen, bringing together high-level representatives from all three sectors to discuss how to improve access to nutrient-rich staple crops worldwide.