Gates Foundation Funding Crop Improvements

Gates Foundation Funding Crop Improvements
August 29, 2011

With malnutrition still a longstanding problem in many Third World nations, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is funding biofortification programs that promise to produce more nutritious food staples. Funding genetic modification and conventional breeding alike, the Gates Foundation is helping develop crop staples that offer higher nutritional value per serving.

Micronutrient deficiency has been the focus of research for the past 30 years and has gained the attention of health and nutrition experts. When people don’t get enough key micronutrients, such as vitamin A, iron, and zinc, their health suffers, resulting in higher rates of disease, blindness, cognitive problems, and death, said Lawrence Kent, senior program officer on the Agricultural Development Team for the Gates Foundation.

The Gates Foundation has also supported fortification projects that encourage sprinkling vitamins and minerals into prepared food, as well as standalone vitamin or mineral supplements. 

“But those interventions work best for urban people, people who are buying food that might be fortified, people who are within striking distance of the nutrition units and medical units that can supply those supplements, those pills that have the higher levels of vitamins. But it’s the people in the rural areas who tend to eat what they grow; they’re farmers,” said Kent. 

Hidden Hunger

To address malnutrition in rural areas, the foundation asked whether it would be possible to breed higher levels of these key micronutrients into varieties of crops the poor people of those regions tend to grow and eat, said Kent. The funding is being used to boost the levels of vitamins and minerals in crops that are already familiar to African farmers and their families. 

The foundation has already awarded $79 million for biofortification of staple crops. The money is being used to combat what’s known as hidden hunger; a term used to refer to people in underdeveloped countries that don’t necessarily appear to be starving but are in fact malnourished because of a micronutrient shortage in their diets.  

Enhanced Bean Program

The Centro Internactional de Agricultura Tropical (CIAT) is just one center where biofortification research is taking place. Located in Columbia, CIAT is researching nutrient enhancement of tropical forages, cassava, rice, tropical fruits, and beans. 

“Some of the highest levels of bean consumption in the world are in East Africa, where adults can consume as much as 60 kilograms of beans in a year. These are populations that can benefit the most from the improved nutritional value of beans,” said Stephen Beebe, leader of CIAT’s bean program. 

CIAT’s goal in breeding beans is to increase iron and zinc levels, said Beebe. 

CIAT is researching other potential bean improvements in addition to biofortification. These include increased drought tolerance, resistance toward aluminum toxicity in the soil, and tolerance of low levels of phosphorus. 

“In Africa we have an extensive program called PABRA [Pan African Bean Research Alliance] that coordinates bean research across 28 countries in east, southern, and west Africa. PABRA has components of genetic improvement of beans, agronomic management, nutrition, markets, seed systems, institutional strengthening, and gender,” said Beebe.

Genetic Opposition

Not every agricultural expert accepts the approach taken by the Gates Foundation to combat world hunger, however. The organization AGRA Watch monitors the Gates Foundation’s participation in the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). The organization is particularly opposed to the foundation’s use of genetic engineering to improve crops. 

Kent, however, notes the bulk of the money the foundation has invested has been in conventional breeding techniques. 

“But in cases where biotechnology is the best approach to achieve the higher levels of micronutrients, then we’ve invested in those areas as well,” Kent said. 

Early Positive Results

A Gates Foundation success story is the orange-flush sweet potato, sporting higher levels of vitamin A. In African countries such as Uganda and Mozambique, people have historically relied on a white sweet potato with little vitamin A content. 

“It’s not a side dish that they eat on thanksgiving—it’s something they also eat for breakfast and lunch every day for many months during the year,” said Kent. 

“We’ve done a lot of research to show that the villages and the families that have adopted the orange-flush sweet potatoes—and that’s always been their own choice—they’ve gotten higher levels of intake of vitamin A. And of course we know that’s associated with improved health, particularly for children. So that’s one that we’ve already rolled out, and we’re quite happy about the results as documented to date,” he said. 

More Crops Almost ReadyAnother genetically improved crop, golden rice, also offers promise. The strain of rice boasts higher levels of vitamin A. The foundation is hoping the crop will be released in the next two to three years. 

Varieties of cassava and high-iron beans being bred by CIAT are also expected to be released in Africa in two to three years. 

“One way [to help people battling malnutrition], and certainly not the only way, is to find a way to get higher levels of these vitamins and minerals in the foods that these people are traditionally growing and traditionally eating,” Kent explained. “But that doesn’t mean we think this is the exclusive solution.… Multiple solutions should be tried, and we should throw everything we have at trying to help people escape the scourge of micronutrient deficiency.” 

Alyssa Carducci (ad.carducci@gmail.com) writes from Tampa, Florida.