Biofortification – solution or distraction?

November 21, 2014 by Louise Green

Creating GM foods that contain high levels of nutrients is often seen as an important way to help tackle malnutrition. But do we need GM to do that and isn’t there more to nourishing the world than focusing on single, isolated nutrients?

The fact is malnutrition is a complex problem.

Despite increasing food supplies, micronutrient malnutrition (MNM) affects more than half the world’s population, particularly in developing countries. Deficiencies of iron, vitamin A and zinc are ranked among the World Health Organization’s (WHO) top 10 leading causes of death through disease in developing countries.

We all wish there was a simple solution.

According to UN Standing Committee on nutrition, diverse food based strategies, building on local and indigenous food systems are a necessity to tackle malnutrition, but in cases where behavioural changes are required, supplementation and biofortification should play a supporting role while education and changes in food production, behaviour and access are enacted.

Traditional public health interventions including industrial food fortification (e.g. fortification of flour with folic acid) and supplementation (e.g. high dose vitamin A supplements for children up to 5 years of age) have had success in reducing MNM-related mortality.

However, such systems depend on widespread infrastructure and availability of industrially processed foods, and/or access to healthcare (with continual funding of health programs), both of which are often inaccessible or unaffordable to the world’s rural poor.

‘Biofortification’, the strengthening of staple crops with higher levels of desired nutrients, either by conventional breeding or genetic modification, aims to create a cost effective method for boosting nutritional health that can reach rural populations through traditional cultural food behavior and via existing food processing routes and markets.

Underlying causes of malnutrition 

The UN cites poverty and restricted access to food as the main underlying cause of malnutrition, issues that can only be tackled by increasing household food security. It notes:

“Food security, at the individual, household, national, regional and global levels [is achieved] when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”

Sustainable improvements in household food security amongst the rural poor need to be based on the promotion of small-scale community based agriculture and food processing, with access to local markets. By offering employment, income and availability of food, such activities directly increase local wealth and standards of living. Research from FAO confirms that women tend to spend a significant part of any additional income on food and other necessities for the family.

Making credit available to the poor, particularly women who tend to lack collateral, can also result in vital new sources of income.

Increasing nutritional levels through biofortification is a valuable part of a health strategy when diets are inadequate from poor food quality or lack of variety, but are dependent on access and availability. However, such an intervention needs to be seen as a supporting tool while other strategies are in place to sustainably increase base levels of household food security over the longer term.

Conventional or GM?

So does it matter whether biofortified crops are developed though biotechnology or conventional breeding programs?

If you want poorer farmers and families to be able to feed themselves, the answer is yes.

Conventional open source breeding allows farmers to save seed for future harvests, exchange seeds within the community and selectively breed to establish robust crops able to best cope with specific local habitat, building on generations of expertise. Up to 1.4 billion people, including up to 90% of farmers in Africa, many of them women, depend on saved seed. This ability to save and trade seeds is a key to household food security.

Because GM crops are not the same as conventional crops, and often take decades longer to produce and come to market, they are a poor choice if you are looking for a quick or short-term prop for food security. They bring problems over the longer-term as well.

Genetic engineering introduces intractable moral and ethical issues regarding food ownership and seed sovereignty. When biofortification is achieved through biotechnology, the genetic trait of the alteration becomes the intellectual property of the company who developed it, and is likely to lead to increased costs to farmers, either through initial higher seed prices, and/or by curbing the farmer’s right to save seed for future harvests.

In this respect the biotech route may be directly in conflict with the underlying requirement to tackle malnutrition by increasing rural incomes and boosting household food security.

Patented seeds threaten centuries old seed sharing practices, displace or contaminate local seed supplies, weaken local markets and reduce biodiversity through the promotion of homogenous commercial varieties, and increase farmers’ dependence on commercial monopolies.

Protecting food futures

“Monsanto Law”, is a term coined for regulations that protect the intellectual property of plant breeders deemed to have “created” or “discovered” new plant varieties, or genetically modified existing ones. This means that the property right of seeds, or plants grown from those seeds, belongs to the developer, not the farmer.

Possession of seeds saved from harvests would be an offence punishable by law, and the development of hybrids (intentionally or otherwise) of protected species cross fertilised with local varieties would also be illegal. Farmers, indigenous groups and civil rights activists across the globe have been resisting such laws in order to protect their food freedoms.

Farmers in Guatemala have so far succeeded in battling against “Monsanto Law’, farmers in Ghana are fighting now. The Plant Breeders Bill proposed by the Ghanaian government seeks to replace traditional seeds with homogenised commercial varieties, paving the way for biotech crops, and increase small-scale farmers’ independence on commercial seed companies.

The farmers believe that this is against their right to sow, share and breed their own seed, threatening their income, communities and future food security.

Naturally does it

To create conventionally grown biofortified crops, seed and germplasm of staple crops from world seed banks are assessed for varieties with naturally higher levels of target micronutrients. These varieties are then crossed with modern high yielding varieties with the aim of achieving new natural varieties that are high yielding, perform well in the field, and provide higher a nutrient profile.

Conventionally bred, such crops should be able to cross with local species to raise overall crop nutritional standards, and be grown via traditional seed saving systems to harvest year on year, giving cost effective and sustained nutritional improvements into the future.

Conventionally grown biofortified crops are already making a difference in the field. Examples include beta-carotene enriched orange maize and cassava, millet rich in iron, and iron-fortified maize. Indeed natural varieties of many biofortified and other GM ‘supercrops’ already exist in nature; they simply need to be brought back onto the farm.

Closer to home

Though we think of malnutrition as a problem for developing countries, increasingly issues of poor health through diet are seen in even our wealthiest nations. In 2006, the UN recognized a new term ‘Type B malnutrition’, characterised by multiple micronutrient depletion. An issue caused not by lack of food availability, but by lack of food quality and/or where dietary choices are poor.

Reductions in crop nutrient profiles are becoming a widespread issue as intensive farming practices base agricultural choices on yield, appearance and other commercially desirable characteristics to the detriment of nutritional value. Compounding the problem, intensive agriculture and the overuse of synthetic fertilizers leads to a reduction in important soil minerals such as calcium, magnesium and potassium, which in turn affects the quality of the crops produced – something which affects all of us.

A study of British nutrient data from 1930 to 1980, published in the British Food Journal in 1997, found that in 20 vegetables the average calcium content had declined 19 percent; iron 22 percent; and potassium 14 percent. Over the past 60 years the levels of iron, magnesium and other minerals have declined by between a quarter and three-quarters in fruit and vegetables.

Moving forward

According to the UN UNSCN,Poor diets result more often from poverty than from ignorance, however, and the ultimate solution lies in economic and social measures that can ensure a more equitable distribution of resources, including food”.

So how can we ensure that everybody gets the nutrients they need? Increasing levels of single nutrients in selected foods, however worthy the goal, is a mechanistic and reductionist approach to feeding the world that is unlikely to be the answer not the least because to stay healthy our bodies need a whole suite of nutrients on a regular basis.

Human ability to effectively take up nutrients is complicated, and often requires the presence of interacting components in the overall diet – e.g. vitamin C’s important role in increasing the availability of non-haem iron. This is a good reason why biofortification can form part of a solution, but is not in itself a ‘magic bullet’.

A sufficient and varied diet of fresh, well-prepared food will always be the ideal situation, and biofortifications are a supporting ‘band-aid’ rather than a cure.

Biofortification is often presented in the Western media as a kind of magic bullet for increasing the nutrient density of food. But malnutrition is a complex problem. It cannot be addressed through simple tech fixes. It is a political, social and economic problem.

In addition to ensuring that all people have access to food, if we want to feed the world – or more accurately ensure that people all over the world can feed and nourish themselves well – we need to ensure that the food we grow and eat is nutrient dense. This in turn depends on a host of factors including soil health, geography and climate.

In the developing world it means crops that are geographically and culturally appropriate and available to all farmers and families, and in the developed world, cultivating the cultural will to choose fresh healthy foods over ready meals and junk food.