By Sharon Atieno
In a bid to improve the nutritional quality of food and combat micronutrient deficiencies, Africa has resorted to increasing nutrient levels in crops in a process referred to as biofortification.
Globally, more than two billion people do not get enough essential vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin A, iron, or zinc, in their daily diets. Though these people may appear healthy, they are vulnerable to illness, infection and in worse scenarios, death.
Areas affected by conflict and climate shocks are worst hit by micronutrients deficiency.
The 2019 Global Report on Food Crises notes that when food production and distribution systems are disrupted and purchasing power is weakened, mothers and caregivers face major challenges in providing children with key micronutrients they need at critical growth periods.
This case is reflected in countries such as Ethiopia, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Niger’s Diffa region, Zimbabwe, Somalia and Malawi where the report states that: “fewer than 10 percent of children between age 6-23 months of age were receiving a diet that met the minimum nutritional requirements for adequate growth and development.”
Biofortification has harnessed conventional crop breeding techniques to identify varieties with high concentrations of nutrients like vitamin A, iron, and zinc, which are vital to the health and brain development of young children, women, and other vulnerable populations.
According to statistics from HarvestPlus, the demand for biofortified crops in Africa is increasing, with governments under pressure to make nutritious foods accessible to their populations.
Between 2004 and 2018, HarvestPlus facilitated the release of 211 biofortified crop varieties out of which 124 were released in the African region.
Biofortified crops have more vitamins and minerals which improves the nutritional status especially of poor populations who cannot afford to diversify their diets with nutrient-rich fruits, vegetables and animal products.
In Uganda, the orange-fleshed sweet potato, a biofortified crop was introduced as a solution to the stunting problem of children. The vegetable can deliver a child’s daily requirement of Vitamin A in as little as 50 grams (less than 2 ounces).
Similarly, biofortified beans in Rwanda significantly increased the haemoglobin levels and total body iron of iron-depleted university women after four and a half months of consumption.
As Africa Development Bank (AfDB) aims to contribute to the achievement of a 40 percent reduction in the number of children under 5 who are stunted by 2025, it has identified biofortification among a few priority investments deemed to have the greatest impact on nutrition.
Currently, 12 of 54 African Union (AU) member states have adopted policy measures related to biofortification. Moreover, in 2018, the AU Executive Council endorsed biofortification, this increases chances of AU Heads of State officially declaring support for the intervention in their February 2020 summit.
Biofortification is a step forward in ensuring food security in Africa, and thus the intervention needs to be scaled up to have more impact.