Making the case for biofortification to fight malnutrition in Sub-Saharan Africa

ByJames Karuga

Making the case for biofortification to fight malnutrition in Sub-Saharan Africa

In Africa 216 million children suffer from stunting and malnutrition and in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), malnutrition is the second leading cause of death among children after malaria. About 19.1% of Africa’s total population is malnourished, which is more than double the rate of 8.3% in Asia. To improve food nutritional quality, countries in Africa have been testing a range of biological interventions, including biofortification and it is currently the leading continent in terms of the trialling and consumption of biofortified crops, with research showing an improvement in the quality of consumed food. However, the number of people consuming biofortified food is still too low to have a significant impact on health indexes.

Although the stunting of children is declining globally, Africa is the only region where the number of stunted children increased from 54.4 million in 2000 to 61.4 million in 2020, while for the rest of the world, the prevalence of stunting declined from 41.5% in 2000 to 30.7% in 2020.

Source: Breaking the cycle of chronic child malnutrition in Sub-Saharan Africa

Although some SSA countries are making efforts to reduce the number of children with malnutrition, this region still lags behind and every year reduces stunted growth by only 1.5% against the required 5.5%. To fight malnutrition and stunting, some SSA governments have been trialling interventions that aim to improve households’ nutrition, particularly that of children under 5 years of age and one of these ongoing interventions is biofortification.

What is biofortification?

Biofortification increases the micronutrient density of staples such as maize, cowpeas, rice, cassava, wheat, pearl millet, sweet potatoes, and beans through plant breeding, improved agronomic practices and biotechnology. Some important micronutrients added to biofortified crops through plant breeding are iron, zinc and vitamin A which the World Health Organization classifies as very important for overall health. The lack of micronutrients in the human body results in what is called the “hidden hunger” problem.

Source: Global Hunger Index 2014

Why biofortification matters

Hidden hunger is the deficiency of micronutrients needed by the body in small amounts. Although someone will feel full after eating carbohydrates, they will experience hidden hunger if their food is deficient in micronutrients and this affects over 2 billion people globally. A deficiency of these micronutrients can result in serious conditions including blindness, mental impairment, poor immunity, diarrhoea, haemorrhage at childbirth, low productivity and birth weight as well as also leading to death.

Vitamin A deficiency weakens the immune system and is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children with about 500,000 children losing their sight every year due to vitamin A deficiency. Nearly half of African children under 5 suffer from vitamin A deficiency; 60% suffer from anaemia which is often caused by iron deficiency, and 25% have zinc deficiency, according to an African Union report.

Source: HarvestPlus

The biofortification status in Africa

In SSA, biofortification began to take root around 2002 when Mozambique released high pro-vitamin A varieties of maize. Since then, researchers from national agricultural research institutes have released biofortified crops such as cassava, sweet potatoes, rice, millet, beans, wheat, and pearl millet with over 100 varieties of biofortified crops either being trialled or already available in 38 African countries. Fourteen African countries have biofortification in their policies and six nations had over 6 million farming households growing biofortified crop varieties by the end of 2018. This represents almost 70% of the global amount making Africa the leading continent for the testing, adoption and consumption of biofortified crops and food.

Source: CIP

Biofortification communities’ impact stories

The vitamin A rich, orange-fleshed sweet potato (OFSP) developed by the International Potato Center, is one of the most consumed biofortified food crops in Africa and South Asia. Hellen Odira Mwita from Muheto village in Migori County in Kenya has witnessed the impact that OFSP continues to make in her community. Before OFSP was introduced in 2012, she witnessed pregnant mothers experiencing difficult childbirth, becoming anaemic, and giving birth to malnourished children due to vitamin A deficiency. However, because of OFSP, the incidences of these issues have reduced according to Hellen. Researchers from the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation provided OFSP vines to Hellen’s Muheto Muungano group and encouraged them to grow it and today this crop is helping to alleviate vitamin A deficiencies in the village. Hellen is the chairlady of a 15-member group that grows vines for local communities that are keen to expand OFSP farming.

In some SSA and South Asian countries, there are several reports by Harvest Plus that illustrate the impact that biofortified foods has at a community level. For instance, in India after four months the consumption of iron-rich pearl millet improved the cognition of children of ages 12 to 16 years while in Zambia, the eyesight of children between the age 4 and 8 years with vitamin A deficiency improved and they were able to see in dim light after consuming vitamin A-rich maize. In Nigeria, 3 to 5-year-old preschool children who ate vitamin A-rich cassava twice a day had raised their vitamin A and iron levels after three and a half months and in Rwanda, 18 to 27-year-old iron-deficient, female university students who ate iron-rich beans daily saw their iron levels increase after four and a half months.

Biofortification implementation and awareness

Although biofortification has the potential to alleviate malnutrition in developing countries, hurdles still exist in its implementation. In Africa, a continent with a population of over 1.4 billion, only about 50 million people consume biofortified crops, according to an African Union report.

To encourage consumption, governments and the private sector must conduct awareness campaigns so that rural smallholder farmers learn about the biofortified varieties that have been released and understand the benefits of these as well as dispelling any myths that may hinder their adoption. National governments also need to support relevant policies and be proactive in funding biofortification research because currently much of the funding given to agricultural research institutions comes from donors or development organizations.