HarvestPlus works to reduce micronutrient deficiencies worldwide by developing and disseminating high yielding staple crops rich in vitamins and minerals. These crops are bred conventionally through a process called biofortification. New evidence has suggested that biofortification can be a particularly effective strategy to reduce micronutrient deficiencies, particularly when it can be complemented by other interventions, such as fortification and supplementation. Micronutrient deficiencies can occur even when individuals have enough staples to eat, but are lacking fruits, vegetables and animal products in their diets. This can lead to stunting, lower resistance to disease and increased risks during childbirth. Because it is a one-time investment, biofortification is considered to be both sustainable and cost-effective. Once seeds are adopted by smallholders, most of these nutritious crops can be grown year after year without requiring additional interventions or cost.
HarvestPlus’s Second Global Conference on Biofortification was hosted by the Government of the Republic of Rwanda from March 31 to April 2, 2014. More than 300 leaders from around the world discussed opportunities and affirmed commitments to scale up efforts to improve nutrition by increasing access to biofortified crops.
Increasing access to nutritious staples
To date, P4P has developed a partnership with HarvestPlus in three of their target countries: Rwanda, Uganda and Zambia. To increase the amount of seed in circulation, smallholders are participating in multiplication activities, growing the biofortified crops and selling part back to HarvestPlus for re-distribution. They are also retaining a portion for household consumption. Since 2012, 19 farmers’ organizations in Rwanda have been involved in multiplying Iron Beans, selling some 210 metric tons (mt) (210,000 kg) back to HarvestPlus and 77 mt (77,000 kg) to WFP. The production of biofortified crops provides smallholders with a source of increased income. It also has the potential to improve their nutrition, as well as that of their families and communities, by introducing micronutrient-rich foods to their diets.
In Zambia, Vitamin A Maize is being multiplied by smallholder farmers’ organizations with the support of HarvestPlus. In 2013, 6 mt (6,000 kg) of biofortified maize was supplied to six schools through WFP’s school feeding programme to test its acceptability. While the maize was well received, greater quantities of seed are required to scale up efforts. In order to catalyse production, partner organizations have also linked smallholders’ surplus orange maize to millers through the AgResults programme, which promotes the consumption of industrially produced orange maize meal. In Uganda, HarvestPlus is supporting farmers to grow Iron Beans and Vitamin A Sweet Potatoes. Some of these farmers are also participating in P4P.
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Increasing demand through awareness-raising
Unlike Iron Beans, the biofortification process causes crops such as maize and sweet potatoes change flavour and colour, becoming more orange. This may pose a challenge when introducing the unfamiliar variety into communities’ diets. In Zambia, a government-led awareness-raising campaign was fundamental to overcoming this challenge. When introducing orange maize to the home grown school feeding programme, WFP, in collaboration with HarvestPlus, held cooking demonstrations at school and community levels to illustrate the benefits of orange biofortified maize in comparison to the traditional white variety. These efforts proved successful, as the schools later requested orange maize seeds, which were donated by HarvestPlus for planting in their school gardens. Studies have shown that the orange colour of the maize does not pose a significant challenge to its acceptance when nutrition education is provided.
The importance of government ownership
P4P has learned about how to encourage the production and consumption of nutritious biofortified foods by working with smallholder farmers. Raising awareness about the advantages of nutritious crops has been particularly effective when health benefits are explained during training on agricultural production. As seen in Zambia, government involvement, particularly in advocacy efforts, is vital to the initiative’s success and can ensure its sustainability.
The Government of Rwanda illustrated their continued commitment to nutrition-sensitive agriculture by hosting the Second Annual Conference on Biofortification, where Prime Minister Pierre Habumuremyi said: “Our time is now, to scale up what we know works to end hunger and malnutrition because we have the resources, tools and evidence at our disposal.”
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