The UN's Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) estimates that there are 795 million chronically hungry people in the world. However, the number of more people who suffer from micronutrient deficiency is almost certainly even larger, as many as 2 billion. For many in this category, they get enough calories, but the food they eat lacks many of the essential vitamins and minerals that humans need to thrive, not just survive.
When I traveled to Uganda and Kenya as a Senate Agriculture Committee staffer in 2010, I asked many smallholder farmers what they would do if they could earn a little more money from their farm. The top priority of all the farmers we met was to use such resources to be able to feed their children better--paying fees to keep their children in school on a continuous basis was a close second.
Traditionally, providing a more balanced diet that includes all the necessary vitamins and minerals required going beyond the consumption of staple crops such as maize, millet, wheat, sorghum, and rice, to add protein sources such as meat, dairy products, and eggs as well as fruits and vegetables.
For most families of smallholder farmers, such a change is out of reach. We know from extensive analyses over time that at an income threshold of about $10/day that families begin to be able to purchase more proteins, fats and/or vegetable oils, and fresh produce in order to achieve a more diverse diet. That income level is increasingly being identified as a reasonable lower bound for inclusion in the ‘global middle class.’
Earning $10 per day, or annual income of about $3,600, does not seem like a lot by Western standards, but it represents a huge leap for those currently living at or below the global poverty threshold of $1.25/day. Although strong progress has been made in alleviating poverty in recent decades, meeting the Millennium Development Goal of halving global poverty five years ahead of schedule, the World Bank estimated that about 1 billion people were still in that category as of 2011.
Recent developments in plant breeding, a process known as biofortification, offer an opportunity to those in poverty to improve their diets before they are able to attain that higher income threshold. According to the World Health Organization, biofortification is the process by which the nutritional quality of food crops is improved through biological means such as conventional plant breeding. This effort was launched in 1992 with the first steps in the development of vitamin A-enhanced Golden Rice, which bogged down initially because it ran into obstacles due to the need to negotiate with holders of multiple intellectual property rights. The technology has been ready for use since 2005 and has undergone multiple field trials but the crop has never been planted commercially because of resistance to GMO products, especially in traditional rice-consuming countries.
There have been some success with biofortified crops developed through conventional breeding, especially in Africa. For example, the orange-fleshed sweet potato, with enhanced vitamin A, was released in 2007 by Harvest Plus, a project of the CGIAR system, and promoted in Uganda through the help of the U.S. Feed the Future initiative. It is now being grown by an estimated 55,000 households in the country.
A 'super banana' with enhanced Vitamin A was developed at Queensland University in Australia with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and went through clinical human feeding trials on the Iowa State University campus in Ames, Iowa in 2015. The crop is targeted at West African countries, where bananas are a staple in the regional diet. Since the crop was developed using genetic engineering, it will require approval by the national governments in the region for its introduction.
Problems with micronutrient deficiency are not limited to people in developing countries. One promising project at Oregon State University is developing potato varieties with enhanced folate and thiamine so that low-income pregnant women in the United States can get enough of those minerals through their regular diets even before they begin prenatal care.
Attaining a more balanced diet by having the resources to consume a variety of foods that include animal protein and fruits and vegetables is still the preferred route. However, having access to key vitamins and minerals through the consumption of products made from biofortified crops can save many lives around the world in the meantime.