World Food Prize Focuses on Health

November 5, 2016 02:19 AM
World Food Prize Focuses on Health

Leaders honored in Des Moines work to fortify the world’s crops with needed nutrition

If the saying holds true and we are what we eat, shouldn’t we turn to foods that are healthy, high-tech and humanitarian? That’s the reasoning advanced by the 2016 World Food Prize laureates, four uncommon researchers with one common mission: to eliminate “hidden hunger” by uncovering advances in the biofortification of staple crops.


“The prices of the foods that provide minerals and vitamins (fruits, vegetables, pulses and animal products) have been rising steadily over the last 40 years,” says Howarth Bouis, one of the 2016 World Food Prize laureates and founder of HarvestPlus, an enterprise that develops and markets biofortified seeds. “That’s one of the important underlying reasons why 2 billion people are at risk for mineral and vitamin deficiencies.”

The four World Food Prize laureates—Bouis and Maria Andrade, Robert Mwanga and Jan Low of the International Potato Center—turned “What if?” into “What’s next?” They transformed a theory into a reality by developing strains of staple crops biofortified with essential micronutrients. 

Using unconventional thinking and conventional breeding methods, the researchers produced crops that coupled yield-enhancing traits with a boost in micronutrient content. Beans, rice, wheat, millet, cassava, corn and sweet potatoes—staple crops consumed across cultures—can now supply the missing micronutrients that cause hidden hunger.


The four were recognized during the 2016 Borlaug Dialogue in Des Moines, Iowa, in October. The event gathered farmers, philanthropists, policymakers and scientists from around the world to celebrate the laureates’ achievements and examine solutions for global agricultural development. Now in its 30th year, the conference celebrates the legacy of Norman Borlaug, the “man who saved a billion lives” through the development of the high-yielding, disease-resistant staple crop varieties that spurred the Green Revolution.

The theme of this year’s dialogue was “Let Food Be Thy Medicine.” Instead of adhering to the adage “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” this year’s World Food Prize laureates shifted the paradigm. Thanks to the introduction of their biofortified crops around the world, the saying could be revised to “A sweet potato a day keeps blindness at bay,” or “A serving of wheat keeps disease in retreat.”

Bouis, whose company develops biofortified staple crops such as iron beans, vitamin A cassava, iron pearl millet, and zinc rice and wheat, says biofortified crops have reached nearly 20 million people in countries such as India, Bangladesh and Nigeria. By 2030, he hopes to see 1 billion people cultivating or consuming the foods.


Andrade, Mwanga and Low, recognized for their biofortification work with the International Potato Center, had a vision to end vitamin A deficiency—a leading cause of blindness in developing countries. Together they developed an orange-fleshed sweet potato that is drought-tolerant and disease-resistant and produces high yields. 

The sweet potato, rich in vitamin A, defeated the deficiencies that cause blindness. But smallholder farmers and rural villagers in Africa were used to growing white-fleshed sweet potatoes, which lack the beta-carotene of the orange varieties. Getting African farmers to see the light and reap the benefits of the new sweet potato required cultivating understanding along with the new crop.

They ran a campaign called “The Sweet that Gives Health” to teach African farmers to equate the color orange with nutrition, prosperity and sight-preserving vitamin A.

Biofortification wasn’t the only focus of the 2016 Borlaug Dialogue. Rural development and economic opportunity were cited as additional cures for world hunger. 

Andrew Mude, a senior economist at the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, Kenya, received the 2016 Norman Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application. Mude’s contributions to food production included the development of insurance programs for pastoralists and livestock herders in the drylands of East Africa.

While Mude’s insurance is bringing a sense of certainty to remote farmers, U.S. politics could spell an uncertain future for development programs and food aid abroad. The Global Food Security Act, signed into law in July 2016, codifies Feed the Future, the U.S. government’s international aid initiative, and requires a comprehensive strategy for food security efforts. 

During the conference, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said since Feed the Future’s inception in 2009, the world’s population of hungry people fell by 200 million. “We don’t fully appreciate the power of agriculture and its capacity to make peace,” he said.

Continuing to invest in the development, research and infrastructure discussed at the Borlaug event could help us achieve a hunger-free world.

For additional coverage from the 2016 World Food Prize, visit


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