One way to help is to give out vitamin and mineral supplements, but that’s expensive and you have to do it every year.
So, the winners of this years World Food Prize decided to take food staples and build in more vitamins or minerals, using a process they call biofortification. With conventional breeding, they combine varieties that are healthy with those that are strong yielding. Then get those out to the farmers, like high zinc rice or high iron beans.
In Africa, a staple food is the white sweet potato, but families there suffer from Vitamin A deficiency. So, the prize laureates worked on an orange sweet potato that is fortified with Vitamin A.
Dr. Howarth Bouis, one of the prize laureates and the founding director of HarvestPlus, says a hurdle for the project is the potatoes are a different color than what people are used to.
He says, “If you just give it to them and you don’t say anything, they’ll just see it’s a strange color and they won’t adopt it. So you have to give them a reason, you have to say, ‘This is what happens when your children suffer from vitamin A deficiency. These things go wrong with their health. But if you substitute this orange variety for the white variety, you can protect your family from that.'”
Bouis says when farmers get information they tend to switch, though it does help that the biofortified crops will yield the same or sometimes better than the traditional crop.
He estimates four million farm households are using biofortified crops now, which is about 20 million people, “Our vision is that 1 billion people will be eating the biofortified crops in 2030. So going forward we have a huge job to scale up. We’ve identified 32 countries. If we can capture 20 percent of the staple food supply in those countries as biofortified, then we will have reached a billion people.”
Bouis says it takes about 10 years of work for a new variety to be distributed to farmers.
The three other World Food Prize winners work with the International Potato Center: They are Drs. Maria Andrade, Robert Mwanga, and Jan Low.