Enhancing food security through biofortification


Sorghum farmers collaborate with an expert as part of the Hybrid Parents Research Consortium for Sorghum to drive seed industry innovation for sustainable growth. [Courtesy ICRISAT]

Food security remains a critical issue affecting millions worldwide amidst global challenges threatening sustainable food systems, particularly impacting vulnerable communities. Unfortunately, another insidious threat lurks beneath the surface; “hidden hunger.” While millions consume ostensibly enough food, its composition is often deficient in essential nutrients such as vitamins and minerals. The culprit? Diets low on essential micronutrients like iron, vitamin A, and zinc. Without a sufficient supply of these nutrients and other macro and micronutrients, our bodies are silently starving for the building blocks of good health. These nutritional shortfalls, which are often overlooked, can lead to long-term health complications if left unaddressed.

Currently, food and nutritional security are threatened by unique challenges across the African continent. With tracks of marginal lands due to continued degradation, insufficient funding in agriculture has persistently crippled the population’s capacity to respond to climate-induced shocks. Drought, heat and floods are examples of such shocks, for which investments in technologies such as climate-ready crops and crop varieties would result in markedly different outcomes across the continent. Regrettably, only a narrow selection of staple food crops is often grown in any given region, reflecting an already compromised biodiversity, limiting alternative food sources and further exacerbating vulnerability to threats to food insecurity.

Biofortification, the process of enhancing food nutrient density, is an important strategy for sustainable food and nutritional security. Notably, such improvements can be made in staple crops that farmers and consumers already like, reducing potential obstacles to adoption. Biofortification has primarily been achieved through conventional breeding, although other approaches, such as gene editing and genetic modification of target crops, are also possible. Conventional breeding involves identifying natural sources of a nutritional element such as iron in the form of high iron variety or related wild species and making targeted crosses into varieties of choice over several generations, resulting in "new" varieties with notably higher density in the target nutrient.

Biofortified crops, such as orange-fleshed sweet potatoes bred to address vitamin A deficiency, exemplify the potential to enhance community nutritional intake and collective health outcomes significantly. The human body converts beta-carotene into vitamin A, which is crucial for vision and a robust immune system. Similarly, biofortified maize with increased zinc content can combat zinc deficiency, which is essential for growth and development. Biofortification addresses hidden hunger and promotes overall health by ensuring that staple foods are abundant and nutritious.

By addressing hidden hunger and bolstering access to healthy diets through biofortification, Africa can mitigate the impacts of food insecurity. This approach has the potential to enhance food accessibility and improve health outcomes across vulnerable demographics, such as children and pregnant women.

However, biofortification encounters obstacles like limited public awareness and insufficient policy and financial support. Educating the public about the benefits of biofortified crops is crucial for increasing acceptance and perhaps preference by farmers, processors, and consumers. Governments must enact enabling policies that recognize existing nutritional deficiencies and simultaneously prioritize biofortification as an important strategy for sustainable nutritional security by funding research and development of the said improved varieties.

However, to achieve widespread adoption and subsequent impact, concerted efforts by every stakeholder in local food value chains are needed, including increased public awareness and sustained investment in agricultural research and development. Collaboration among scientists, policymakers, and stakeholders is essential to drive future biofortification initiatives. Events like CGIAR Science Week, scheduled for July 1st to 5th in Nairobi, unite experts worldwide to discuss agricultural advancements, exchange knowledge, and strategize for sustainable food security. By prioritizing these efforts, we can ensure a healthier, more food-secure future for all.

Dr Susan Moenga is a plant Scientist with ICRISAT