On the first day of the Second Global Conference on Biofortification, key speakers underscored the timeliness of biofortification as a nutrition and public health strategy. “Our time is now,” declared Rwandan Prime Minister Dr. Pierre Habumuremyi to a nearly 300-strong audience of high-level stakeholders invited to deliberate on strategies to get nutritious foods to more people globally.
The urgency of the Prime Minister’s call is borne out by statistics on hidden hunger. This is the condition in which a lack of critical micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals in diets leaves people at increased risk of illness, blindness, premature death, reduced productivity, and impaired mental development. Nearly one in three people globally suffers from hidden hunger, but women and children are especially vulnerable.
Highlighting the role of agriculture and food as the primary sources of minerals and vitamins that people need to be healthy, Dr. Howarth Bouis, the Director of HarvestPlus, argued that “providing good nutrition and health must be a primary - if not THE primary - function of agriculture.” HarvestPlus, which leads a global partnership to develop and disseminate nutrient-rich (biofortified) crops, has already rolled out several staple food crops that are conventionally bred to contain more vitamin A, iron or zinc. These are the micronutrients that the World Health Organization considers to be most limiting in diets globally.
Dr. Bouis’ key message? “Biofortified, nutrient-rich staple food crops are ready for scaling up.” These crops (orange sweet potato, maize and cassava rich in vitamin A; beans and pearl millet rich in iron; and, rice rich in zinc) have already been released to farmers in eight target countries in Africa and South Asia.
“This is an opportunity to celebrate how far we have come with biofortification,” stated Dr. Chris Elias, President of the Global Development Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “The number of farming households we have begun to reach is a great start,” he told the conference participants, but stressed that more can be done to reach every child with the vitamins and minerals needed to lead healthy and productive lives.
In a panel discussion organized by the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Improved Nutrition, participants reflected on the role of policymakers in the quest for increased delivery of nutritious food crops globally. Boitshepo Giyose, a Senior Food and Nutrition Security Advisor to the African Union’s New Partnership for Africa’s Development (AU/NEPAD) neatly summed up the discussion: “It is now beyond policymaking and into implementation and action, action.”
That clarion call prompted an important announcement from a major stakeholder. Frank Rijsberman, the CEO of the CGIAR Consortium to which HarvestPlus belongs, revealed that the constituent centers had committed to mainstreaming breeding for vitamin and mineral traits into conventional food crop development programs.