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Experts meet to reduce “hidden hunger” through fortified food crops

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Experts are gathering in Washington, D.C. to plot the future of a worldwide initiative to reduce “hidden hunger” or micronutrient malnutrition, which causes widespread illness and death in the developing world, from today November 9 to Thursday November 11.

The gathering, which is the first Global Conference on Biofortification, is drawing scientists, policymakers, donors, and business leaders from around the world, who will discuss biofortification – the process of breeding higher levels of essential micronutrients such as vitamin A, iron, and zinc into food crops.

Speakers at the conference will include Ambassador William J. Garvelink, deputy coordinator of development for the U.S. Government’s “Feed the Future” initiative; David Nabarro, the U.N. Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Food Security and Nutrition; Mahabub Hossain, executive director of the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC); and Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.

It is being organised by HarvestPlus, a global programme dedicated to breeding more nutritious staple crops to improve nutrition in developing countries and which works with more than 200 agricultural and nutrition scientists in more than 40 countries.

Announcing the event through a statement, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), said it comes amid a number of breakthroughs such as the findings that biofortified orange sweet potato and orange maize can be effective in providing dietary vitamin A.

“These findings are especially encouraging, because maize and sweet potato are staple foods for millions of people who are too poor to afford foods that are more nutritious but tend to be expensive,” the statement said.

The statement revealed that in addition to maize, sweet potato, and cassava, which are all rich in vitamin A, HarvestPlus is developing iron-rich beans for Africa and pearl millet, rice, and wheat with iron and/or zinc for South Asia.

Divulging some horrifying statistics of micronutrient deficiency, the IFPRI statement said a lack of vitamin A blinds up to 500,000 preschool children a year and about two-thirds of them die within months of going blind, while Zinc deficiency kills more than 400,000 children every year.

It continued that some 1.6 billion people, or about one-fourth the world’s population, also suffer from anaemia, adding that Iron deficiency is a leading cause of anaemia, which stunts growth, impairs mental development, and increases women’s risk of dying during childbirth. “Most preschool children and pregnant women in the developing world – and up to 40 percent in developed countries – are thought to be deficient in iron,” IFPRI said.

Commenting on the major breakthroughs of his outfit, HarvestPlus Director Howarth Bouis said; “Agriculture is the primary source of essential vitamins and minerals but all too often, it does not supply the crucial micronutrients that poor people need in sufficient amounts.”

He disclosed that “HarvestPlus has been developing biofortified crops for seven years, and we have now reached the point where several nutrient-rich varieties are nearly ready for release,” adding, “In fact, orange sweet potato has already been successfully disseminated in Mozambique and Uganda.”

Touching on today’s global gathering, Bouis said, “This conference gives us a chance to achieve consensus on the priorities necessary to take biofortification to the next level, so that it can deliver on its promise to improve health for the world’s poor people.”

HarvestPlus is a programme of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research that is co-convened by the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).
By Edmund Smith-Asante

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