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The Leading Voices in Food

E45: Celebrating Howarth Bouis’ Contributions to Biofortification

Hosted by: Kelly Brownell (Duke)
July 15, 2019

So imagine that you face a daunting challenge: addressing malnutrition and nutrient deficiencies that affect people all around the world. These are people who live in different countries; they have different diets; and different nutrient challenges. How would you devise a way to affect the health and wellbeing of billions of people, and do so in a way that can be permanent and sustainable? Today’s guest has done just that.

Dr. Howarth Bouis is the founding director of HarvestPlus, a highly innovative program within the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). He founded the program in 2003 as a global effort to improve nutrition and health through crop biofortification. He is an agriculture economics expert with bachelor and Ph.D. degrees from Stanford. For his pioneering work in this area, he was awarded the highly revered World Food Prize in 2016.

Interview Summary

Dr. Bouis, by any standard you’re a public health agriculture and food policy hero for your work on biofortification. And before asking you to describe what this is, I’d hope you could explain what nutrition needs and problems you saw on the world stage that led you to form HarvestPlus in the first place.

Sure. Kelly, thanks for having me. I think it really started when I joined where I’m still working today at IFPRI the International Food Policy Research Institute in 1982. I was in the food consumption and nutrition division, and we’re economists, and our division was studying how to improve nutrition and health and developing countries. And back then, the barometer of better nutrition was calories: more energy, people were hungry. And it was generally regarded that people, the poor people needed to eat more food staples to get more energy in their diet. So I was collecting household survey data, and my research didn’t show that. It wasn’t fun. It was kind of a difficult time for me. I found that the poorer and a little bit richer ate about the same amount of food staples. And, what was really correlated with better nutrition was their dietary quality: their consumption of vegetables and fruits and animal and fish products.

I felt we in economics were using the wrong barometer. So I was attending nutrition conferences at the time, and the nutritionists had new findings that showed that vitamin A supplements given to children one pill every six months could reduce childhood mortality by 23%. And there was a surprisingly large number in the nutrition community. And they started looking at other minerals and vitamins. They found that children who are iron deficient when they were young have impaired cognitive abilities, and it was an impairment that couldn’t be reversed later on through say iron supplementation. It was estimated that about 2 billion women and children in developing countries are subject to iron deficiency. And it’s kind of the same story for zinc deficiency. About 2 billion women and children are subject to those deficiencies. And it’s estimated that about 450,000 preschool children die because of zinc deficiency. Each year their immune systems are compromised because of the zinc deficiency. So there’s this huge public health problem out there in terms of people not getting dietary quality, not getting enough minerals and vitamins in their diets with all these terrible consequences for their health.

So those are very impressive but sad numbers. So tell us about the concept of biofortification and why you believe this was a good way to proceed, as opposed to other ways one might go about addressing these world food issues.

So I’m an economist by training, so I’m always looking what’s the most efficient way to treat a problem. And even though the supplementation, food fortification programs are doing a lot of good, continue to do a lot of good, it wasn’t addressing the underlying problem you have. You have recurrent costs year after year after year. So, for example, in the last 20 years, 10 billion vitamin A supplements have been given out because people aren’t getting enough vitamin A in their diets. So I thought, well, what if we can get the plants to do the work? What if we can breed plants that take up more trace minerals from the soils and load those trace minerals into the seeds? What if we can get plants that synthesize more vitamin A in their seeds? That would be a much less costly and more efficient way of getting minerals and vitamins in the diet.

It would be much more sustainable. So that’s, that’s essentially what biofortification is. You can use modern plant breeding techniques. HarvestPlus uses conventional breeding techniques. We don’t use GMOs. We cross high mineral or vitamin dense varieties with high-yielding varieties, and we’d get high-yielding varieties that have more minerals and vitamins in them. So let’s take an example of maize and Africa. Those most widely consumed staple food in Africa is maize. Most of the maze is white. White maize has no vitamin A in it. Maybe 40% of preschool children in Africa suffer from vitamin A deficiency. So we now have high yielding orange maizes, which are very high in vitamin A. They can provide an extra 40% of vitamin A dietary requirements any day that you substitute the orange maize for white maize in your diet. So it’s very simple: consume the orange maize for the same price and protect your family from vitamin A deficiency.

So what do the mothers say? They say how does it taste? And so we do the blind taste tests, and sure enough, they can taste the difference. But it’s a little bit sweeter, and they actually liked the taste of the orange maize. So once they know that they like the taste, we can get people to switch to the orange maize. So my vision there is 20 years from now, all of the mazes are, or most of the mazes in Africa will be orange maize. And a grandchild will ask her grandmother: I heard maize used to be white. Was that true? The grandmother will say yes when I was a child, we used the white maize. People don’t know it, but carrots used to be white. Now everybody expects carrots to be orange. In a nutshell, that’s what biofortification is all about.

Boy, I can just imagine the reach and impact of an approach like this. So before we get into talking about more specific examples of how crops had been modified, you’ve explicitly mentioned that you don’t use GMOs as an approach. Why is that?

Well, we don’t consider GMOs dangerous at all. And actually, scientifically it is a very powerful technology that we wish we could use. But there are political constraints. And when we got started, we were afraid if we invested in GMOs, the political constraints would keep the varieties on the shelves. We’d never be able to get out to farmers. So, we’ve invested all of our funds in conventional crop breeding. We’ve now released varieties, we’ve passed the tests, a variety of release committees in more than 30 countries around the world and within four or five years, will be released in 60 countries around the world. And that number might be zero if we’d used GMO technologies.

Oh, that’s so interesting that it’s a political issue like that. So you focused on foods like rice, wheat, you mentioned maize, but also cassava beans and sweet potatoes. Why are these the foods now? I imagine they’re important because these are parts of the staple diets, but are they also particularly flexible in terms of breeding to get the correct nutrients? Why these in particular?

Yes. It is a combination of factors. How widely is the staple food crop consumed? So the most widely used staple in developing countries is rice. And that’s followed by wheat and that’s followed by maize. And then, Casava. Those four are the big four in terms of the numbers of people that you can reach. Then there are just other considerations that come up. So, for example, when we were broaching the idea with scientists, the breeder at our bean center in our system got really interested in the idea, and he really wanted to make his beans high in iron. And so by the time we got the funding that we needed to really implement the program, he’d already made a lot of progress. And so it was very easy for us to incorporate beans., By the same token, the orange sweet potatoes are already available in the United States. We have orange sweet potatoes in the United States, and African’s have white sweet potatoes. So it was more a matter of adapting the agronomic properties of the orange sweet potatoes here in the United States. Doing plant breeding to adapt them to growing conditions in Africa. And so it was actually the orange sweet potatoes that were the first biofortified crops released. The first crops available.

Oh, is there anything lost potentially in this breeding? For sample, if you can take a food and breed it so that it has more vitamin A, will it have less of something else? Is there any downside the has to be taken into account?

Well, the first thing I had to do was talk to the scientist. So I had this kind of what seems like a nice idea from an economics point of view back in 1993. But I had to talk to the plant breeders and see if they thought it was scientifically feasible. And they actually told me they thought it was a bad idea. Most of them said that there’d be a trade-off in yield. You would breed in more nutrient content into the seed, but you’d get a lower yield. And I knew farmers were not ever going to adopt a lower-yielding crop. So they felt there was almost a genetic linkage between nutrient high nutrient content and low yield.

But I found a small group of scientists that told me, no, actually, if you put more zinc in a seed, the seeds need the zinc. It’s for plant nutrition. The seed, when it’s planted, it’s a high zinc seed is more vigorous. It gets a better start, and it’s actually going to be higher yielding. I said, you mean it’s not a win-lose it’s a win/win? They said yes. Absolutely. So the long and the short of it is that you can make a lot of progress with breeding. You can maintain the properties that are already there and then you can add the additional amounts of minerals and vitamins that go along with the same good agronomic properties that are already in the seeds.

Well, I know you’ve done some particularly interesting work with beans and the use of biofortification. Can you explain how that’s worked and what the effects of that?

Yes. So the first thing that we needed to do with each of the crops–but I’m going to talk about our iron beans. In our experience of Rwanda, the first thing that we had to do was an efficacy trial. So we’ve done the plant breeding at the central location. Our plant breeder with beans who was so interested in iron early on. And we gave a group of college-age women in Rwanda. We fed them with the iron beans. And then we had another group that was randomly selected that ate the regular beans. It didn’t have as much iron as the higher iron beans. And we found that the iron status of the women who ate the high iron beans there, their iron status improved. But more importantly, we found that the women who ate the high iron beans improved their cognitive performance better.

Iron status is associated with better ability to perform work. You don’t get as tired as easily. So we showed these improved functional outcomes in our controlled efficacy trials. So that’s, that’s something that we’ve done with each one of the crops in the various countries where we’re introducing them. So that was the first step. Then the line, so we have 50 promising lines that grow well at our central location where we’re doing the research. So we bring these 50 lines to Rwanda, and we make them available to the Rwandan agricultural board, which does the agriculture research in Rwanda. So they take those lines, and they do multi-location testing around Rwanda. They see that some of the lines do well in the Rwandan context. Other lines don’t do well. They picked the best lines. They do some of their own crossing with the varieties that are doing well in Rwanda. And it takes a few years, and they get these high yielding lines that are high in iron. And then they have to be tested by the variety of release committee over two years. They are certified as high yielding, and they can be raised by farmers. You can imagine that this process, you know, it takes place over a period of about 10 years. In 2011, we actually released 10 varieties that have been approved for release. We want several varieties because different farmers like different aspects of the way things grow. You have climber beans, you have bush beans, and we had funding to, through various means, to multiply the bean seed and make them available to farmers all around Rwanda. And so we did. Then in 2015, we did a nationwide survey, and we found that 30% of farmers in Rwanda had tried growing the high iron beans. We accounted for roughly about 10% of bean production. But the most important finding from that survey was that our high iron beans were 20% higher yielding.

And it isn’t because they were biofortified. It’s because they were the best agronomical varieties that were available from our main agriculture research center and economically superior lines. So, for example, they’re heat tolerant. As you know, beans like cold temperatures to grow in. And so these are heat tolerant beans. And we aggressively marketed these new bean lines to farmers. Now we’ve continued our monitoring surveys. We now account for 20% of bean production in Rwanda. So we’ve had impacts in terms of improving the productivity of bean production. The incomes of the Rwandan bean farmers have gone up. And of course, they’re eating the high-iron beans. So they’re improving their health because they’re getting more iron in their diets.

Well, what an important, impressive story. And it’s nice to know that the percentage of beans being produced this way is growing and growing. So if you look ahead, are there some especially promising forms of biofortification that are on the horizon now and where do you expect this field?

Our big focus and objective now is reaching a billion people and eventually more than a billion people. I’ve described how we’ll have the varieties released in 60 countries. We have a lot of breadth. But our big challenge now is to get the kind of depth that we’ve achieved in Rwanda and other countries as well. So we’re working with a number of different types of organizations to mainstream the use of biofortification in their everyday activities. So for example, there was very a prominent nutrition organization called the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition that originally worked a lot on food fortification, commercial food fortification. And they still work on that, but they’ve gotten more heavily now into improving dietary quality. And, we formed a partnership them now and we’re working together to scale up biofortified crops in South Asia, in Bangladesh and India and Pakistan and also in Africa in Nigeria, in Tanzania, and in Kenya.

So by, you know, reaching into the nutrition community and mainstreaming with the nutrition community, we’re really able to grow the amount of funding and the amount of activities that we’re able to work on in terms of scaling up the adoption and the consumption of the biofortified crops. That’s just one example. We’re working with the World Food Program and various countries around the world. For example, in their school feeding programs, introducing biofortified crops in those programs, international financial institutions, the World Bank and their loans to African countries now is including funding for the scale-up of biofortified crops. Private seed companies are starting to develop their own varieties of biofortified crops. About 70% of maize production in Africa is a hybrid seed. So the hybrid seed companies now have their own orange varieties, and the constraint is just building up the demand among the consumers. And we’ll have all the maize seed that we need. And then our centers themselves, I’ve mentioned the bean example, our public agriculture research centers. We’re in the process now of converting all of the lines that they’re releasing that they’re sharing with the national agriculture research system. They’re converting everything into biofortified varieties. So that’s the future for us. Just working towards the most staple foods produced in developing countries so that after the next 20 years, most of them will be biofortified.

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