Plant breeding can increase nutrient levels in crops to target levels required for improving human nutrition, without compromising yield or farmer-preferred agronomic traits (Bouis and Saltzman 2017). Most people in developing countries can’t afford a diversity of fruits and vegetables and high-quality protein foods, or vitamin supplements, or processed food that has been fortified with micronutrients. This especially applies for low-income families. They often rely on staple foods like corn, rice or cassava, which are not expensive but not very nourishing either. Biofortification can help to increase the intake of micronutrients, often through staple foods. Biofortification is the process of breeding food crops that are rich in micronutrients (Harvestplus), such as vitamin A, zinc, and iron.
This is done by conventional breeding, without genetic modification. The crops “biofortify” themselves by loading higher levels of minerals and vitamins in one or more of their organs, like seeds, stems, leaves and/or roots, while growing. When eaten, they can provide more essential micronutrients to improve the nutritional status. Biofortification was developed to target rural farming families in Low- and Middle-Income Countries with limited access to healthier foods or other interventions such as fortification and supplementation (Harvestplus).
There is ample evidence in scientific literature that biofortification by breeding and fertilisation helps to mitigate malnutrition in mid- and low-income countries. HarvestPlus is an organisation that provides several examples of successful biofortification. These biofortification programs are all rolled out in Low- and Middle-Income countries, as micronutrient deficiencies cause the most severe public health problems there. The nutrients studied in HarvestPlus are based on deficiencies of the “big five” micronutrients.
The process of biofortification entails many steps. A crop development framework is shown below in Figure 2.3.
Figure 2.3: Crop development framework (Copied from: Bouis and Saltzman 2017).
Bouis HE, Saltzman A. 2017. Improving nutrition through biofortification: A review of evidence from HarvestPlus, 2003 through 2016. Global Food Security 12: 49–58. DOI: 10.1016/j.gfs.2017.01.009.
HarvestPlus - FAQ. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.harvestplus.org/about/faqs