Iron Beans in East Africa

Rwanda will host the Second Global Conference on Biofortification from March 31 to April 2, 2014.  Farmers in the country have been growing iron beans since 2012, when five varieties were released. To date more than 270,000 Rwandan farming households – or 15 percent of rural farmers in the country – are growing and eating this nutritious crop. Iron bean varieites have also been released in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where 175,000 households are already planting them. In Uganda, where vitamin A orange sweet potato is already widely grown, iron beans have also been introduced.

These countries are all located in sub-Saharan Africa, where iron deficiency is widespread. In the DRC, for example, three-quarters of all children under five lack dietary iron. This means they face increased risk of lowered resistance to disease and impaired learning capacity. Nearly one in three Rwandan children under five is similarly afflicted. Severe anemia, often caused by iron deficiency, increases the risk of women dying in childbirth.

Beans are widely grown and consumed in all three countries.  The iron bean varieties released by HarvestPlus and partners can provide up to 45 percent of daily iron needs -  14 percent more than the commonly grown bean varieties. Fully biofortified beans are ultimately expected to provide up to 60 percent of daily iron needs.  All released iron bean varieties are conventionally bred. Louis Butare, from the Rwanda Agriculture Board, explains the process in this short video:

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More on Iron Beans:

Neil Palmer, On the Trail of DR Congo’s Purple Gorillas
The Sunday Times, ‘Wonder’ Bean Variety Excites Farmers

Biofortification Conference Participants ShareTheir Thoughts…

We asked conference participants what they thought of the conference, both during and after the event. Here's what some of them had to say...

Bloggers on Biofortification

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Blogs are now a mainstay of online media. The conference has its share of bloggers, who  not only provided thoughtful commentary on what they heard last week, but are keeping the discussion going.  We share a few of them here with you.

Roger Thurow of the Chicago Council , moderated the conference. After 2.5 days of carefully listening to all  speakers he observes in his Global Food for Thought blog:
"It was confounding to hear that this link between agriculture and nutrition has so long been missing – confounding because food production and nutrition seem to be a natural combination, essential allies in the war on hunger.  But the two have often been treated as separate academic and practical disciplines.  Nutrition has been seen as a health problem and food production as a matter for agriculture."

The biofortification strategy helps bridges this gap but "why do the rest of us know so little about this stuff?,' writes Jocelyn Zuckerman for 'The Atlantic.' Part of the reason is because malnutrition doesn't have anything exciting going on to propel it to the front page of the news. "Malnutrition, like climate change, is a slow drip," she writes.

Nourishing the Planet from the World Watch Institute helped increase the flow of information, by explaining biofortification to its 4,000 monthly visitors interested in food, hunger and the environment, many of whom will be hearing about this for the first time.

Turning to experts in  the field of international development, in his blog (Development Horizons) Lawrence Haddad, who presented a paper at the conference cautions: " Make sure that there are enough positive nutrition impacts before attempting to deliver these crops in real world contexts. Everything hinges on these studies. Succeed and they will create momentum. Fail and they will force a re-think."

But will this alone convince policymakers and donors enough to create momentum, and  move biofortification forward? Nabeeha Kazi in The Hunger and Undernutrition Blog, notes that we sometimes makes assumptions that can "impede progress," such as "if you have evidence and data that show positive results, leaders will apply the data and evidence into field work." At the other end of the spectrum,  she says that we need to get beneficiaries at the community level involved: "Convert "beneficiaries" - especially mothers, grandmothers and mother-in-laws - into powerful advocates and agents for change...We can't afford these innovations to lay dormant simply because we didn't bring the communities that matter up that readiness ladder."

Standing back from all the details for a moment, Anastasia Bodnar, a doctoral candidate, notes on the Biofortified blog: "It’s about equity, fairness. A child growing up in rural India or Uganda deserves a chance for healthy brain and body development just as much as a child growing up in Washington, DC or Ames, Iowa. It’s only fair."

See other media coverage on the First Global Biofortification Conference.

Don't have a blog? Please share your thoughts by clicking on 'leave a comment' below!

After the Biofortification Conference–participants share their thoughts

On a sunny Thursday afternoon, conference participants got a chance to relax when the First Global Conference on Biofortification was over after almost three days of presentations and vigorous discussion. We caught the mood of the moment with our flip camera....

" What insights are you leaving the conference with?"
Marilia Nuti (Embrapa) Arun Joshi (CIMMYT) and Anastasia Bodnar (Iowa State University) share their thoughts....

What insights do you leave with? Please leave a comment below!

Day Three in Pictures

Biofortification Conference Gets Media Attention

The First Global Conference on Biofortification is officially over and conference attendees have pledged to carry forth their efforts to continue promoting biofortification in the fight against malnutrition as they return home to their respective countries and programs. Conference organizers, meanwhile, are hopeful that some of the buzz generated around biofortification continues to grow.

Two new articles published this week on IRIN Africa News and the McClatchy Newspaper service highlight the biofortification approach being led by HarvestPlus in collaboration with various research partners and foreign governments in target countries. The IRIN News article covers biofortified maize efforts in Zambia, a collaborative project between the government's Zambia Agricultural Research Institute (ZARI), which is collaborating with HarvestPlus. The article states that "(a)fter three years of work - identifying maize varieties with high beta-carotene content and then cross-breeding them to increase the content naturally - the scientists appear to have been successful." The McClatchy piece, meanwhile, focuses on the success of the orange sweet potato in Mozambique and Uganda, the first HarvestPlus food to go to marketplace. The article includes a quote from HarvestPlus Director Howdy Bouis who states, "We've made all this scientific progress. The next step is demonstrate that the food will get used and then scale up."

In addition to the news media, we would like to give special recognition those who are helping to spread the seeds of biofortification in the social media. Nabeeha Kazi Hutchins, Managing Director of Humanitas Global Development, recently wrote a blog article in which she shares her impressions while attending the conference and we hope that other conference attendees will follow. The conference also had a highly active following on Twitter, with several hundred tweets issued before, during and (hopefully) after the conference's close using the hashtag #biofortconf.

Day Two in Pictures

Betting on Biofortification: Interview with Nick Kristof

Nick Kristof, columnist with the New York Times, discusses the shift in public thinking that must occur around the issue of persistent hunger. "We in the news media have tended to focus too much on starvation." he says. "And, in fact, so much of hunger is about not getting the right nutrients at the right time." Kristof goes on to underscore the sustainability of the biofortification approach saying that "if you can get people to substitute the kind of rice they eat, the kind of bananas the eat, the kind of wheat they eat [through biofortification], then you've solved the nutrition problems that have been with us for all of human history. Is it gonna work? We can't be sure, but it's a pretty good bet and it sure is exciting."

Geting Micronutrient Malnutrition on the Public Health Agenda

Perspectives from journalist Nicholas Kristof, New York Times

One of the issues that receives the worst coverage in the media is public health. Thus began Nicholas Kristof who has extensively covered public health problems in developing countries in his New York Times column. Unlike breaking news of the moment, there is no daily story or event with this ongoing crisis to command media attention.  In fact, these and other issues that really do matter,  do not have the marketing force behind them to get the attention of the media or public. “It’s more important to market zinc [for health] than coca-cola,” he said.

Noting that while tens of thousands of people were being slaughtered in Darfur, New Yorkers and the media were more concerned about the plight of two red-tailed hawks that were evicted from their lofty Fifth Avenue nest. This led Kristof to investigate why people care about certain things, but not others.

He found that it’s important to first make an emotional connection with your audience rather than a rational connection. Furthermore, stories of one individual tend to be more powerful; once you speak of greater numbers suffering, you lose empathy. So putting this in practice, once you’ve opened that pathway you can then follow through with more information and context.

As the media struggles to find a new business model, and cuts back on overseas coverage to save costs, the nutrition community will need to work harder to get its stories in front of the press. People also want to be part of something positive but NGOs often focus on “suffering rather than solutions."

All this requires a change from business as usual. Working with celebrities to shine the spotlight on your cause is one way. Online games,  videos and other web strategies are new ways to engage with audiences who may not read a newspaper column.  Humor, when appropriate, also works well.

Terms or slogans that that are more user-friendly are also needed—it’s hard to gain traction with non-scientific audiences using terms like ‘micronutrients’ or ‘MDGs’.

With increasing competition for coverage, NGOs will also have to develop greater expertise —not just in knowing the issues at the grassroots —but also "seeing the  bigger picture from 30,00 feet."

View the Q&A from this session with Nicholas Kristof

Please leave a comment to share your thoughts on Kristof’s keynote, and how to get public health issues in the media spotlight!

Letter from Senator George McGovern

Letter presented tonight to conference participants by David Lambert on behalf of Senator McGovern.