Experts Gather for First Global Conference on How Agriculture Can Reduce Micronutrient Malnutrition in Developing Countries
Washington, D.C.: Experts are gathering here to plot the future of a worldwide initiative to reduce “hidden hunger” or micronutrient malnutrition, which causes widespread illness and death in the developing world.
The First Global Conference on Biofortification, scheduled for November 9-11, is drawing scientists, policymakers, donors, and business leaders from around the world. Biofortification is the process of breeding higher levels of essential micronutrients such as vitamin A, iron, and zinc into food crops.
The event is organized by HarvestPlus, a global program dedicated to breeding more nutritious staple crops to improve nutrition in developing countries. HarvestPlus works with more than 200 agricultural and nutrition scientists in more than 40 countries.
The conference comes amid a number of breakthroughs. Research shows, for example, that biofortified orange sweet potato and orange maize can be effective in providing dietary vitamin A. These findings are especially encouraging because maize and sweet potato are staple foods for millions of people who are too poor to afford foods that are more nutritious but tend to be expensive.
“Agriculture is the primary source of essential vitamins and minerals but all too often, it does not supply the crucial micronutrients that poor people need in sufficient amounts,” said HarvestPlus Director Howarth Bouis. “HarvestPlus has been developing biofortified crops for seven years, and we have now reached the point where several nutrient-rich varieties are nearly ready for release. In fact, orange sweet potato has already been successfully disseminated in Mozambique and Uganda.”
In addition to maize, sweet potato, and cassava, all rich in vitamin A, HarvestPlus is developing iron-rich beans for Africa and pearl millet, rice, and wheat with iron and/or zinc for South Asia.
A lack of vitamin A blinds up to 500,000 preschool children a year and about two-thirds of them die within months of going blind. Zinc deficiency kills more than 400,000 children every year. Some 1.6 billion people, or about one-fourth the world’s population, suffer from anemia. Iron deficiency is a leading cause of anemia, which stunts growth, impairs mental development, and increases women’s risk of dying during childbirth. Most preschool children and pregnant women in the developing world—and up to 40 percent in developed countries—are thought to be deficient in iron.
Speakers at the conference span the worlds of policymaking and practice. They include Ambassador William J. Garvelink, deputy coordinator of development for the U.S. Government’s “Feed the Future” initiative; David Nabarro, the U.N. Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Food Security and Nutrition; Mahabub Hossain, executive director of the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC); and Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.
“This conference gives us a chance to achieve consensus on the priorities necessary to take biofortification to the next level, so that it can deliver on its promise to improve health for the world’s poor people,” said Bouis.
HarvestPlus is developing micronutrient-rich staple food crops that can reduce hidden hunger in poorer countries. It is a program of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research that is co-convened by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).
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