11 November 2010

Growing More Nutritious Cereals and Tubers: Will It Work?

In about 1993, Howarth Bouis, then a Research Fellow at IFPRI, now Director of HarvestPlus, asked plant breeder Gurdev Khush at IRRI about the variation of bioavailable iron in rice. “No one ever asked me that before” said Khush. Thus the strategy of trying to breed food staples such as cereals and potatoes that are high in micronutrients such as iron, zince and vitamin A.

Seventeen years later, 300 researchers from nutrition, agricultural and economics came together to review progress and think about next steps in the First Global Conference on Biofortificaiton, organized by HarvestPlus, the CGIAR organization leading the development of high micronutrient staples.

To date, biofortification has relied on conventional breeding techniques and behavior change research to answer 3 questions:
  1. Is there a significant, in terms of human nutrition, variation in the micronutrients zinc, iron, provitamin A in naturally occurring varieties of rice, wheat, maize and tubers?
  2. Can these varieties be crossed with high yielding varieties so that they are equally profitable for farmers to adopt?
  3. Will they be acceptable to consumers?
The evidence is accumulating and is looking increasingly positive on all 3 counts--but not for all crops and not in all contexts. Contextual factors such as consumption patterns, deficiency profiles, technology, innovation and adoption systems and farmer ability and willingness to take risks have a large impact on the benefit-cost ratios (see Meenakshi et al. on this) and hence on the competitiveness of this strategy to improve human nutrition vis a vis other nutrition strategies. No matter how promising, the public health impacts are only confirmed for orange flesh sweet potato (see Low, J. of Nutrition 2007).

I gave a presentation arguing that: (1) it was in agriculture’s own interests to forge closer links to nutrition (e.g. the emphasis from donors on the need for agriculture to demonstrate impact at the human level), (2) we could learn from biofortification’s success in getting the different scientific silos to work together, and (3) there are many carrots and sticks that can be used to create an environment in which it is easier for agriculture to improve nutrition. I argued that public investments in agriculture have a solemn obligation to actively seek to improve nutrition: to move from a Harvest Plus to a Harvest Driven mode. My paper is here and my powerpoints are here.

Key points I took away:
  • Resist the temptation to put off the public health impact pilots on biofortification. Make sure that there are enough positive nutrition impacts before attempting to deliver these crops in real world contexts. Everything hinges on these studies. Succeed and they will create momentum. Fail and they will force a re-think.
  • Don’t separate delivery and scaling from M&E—learn from BRAC’s experiences with the scaling of oral rehydration therapy
  • Innovation and scaling are two very different skill sets—bring in new partners with proven track records in inclusive scaling
  • Science is always about political choices, but biofortification as a strategy is entering a much more explicitly political stage, so make sure (a) that political scientists and anthropologists are included in the research programme, (b) to design inclusive non hierarchical processes that allow multi-stakeholder deliberations on what is acceptable risk, sufficient regulation, necessary access, relative prioritization, and definition of success, (c) to be as open and transparent as possible—share all results (good and bad), share data, and create open democratic spaces for exchange of views. Commission external evaluations. HarvestPlus should consider signing up to Publish What You Fund and IATI.
  • Trusted stakeholders for shaping biofortification adoption are different in each context—trusted brokers will include religious leaders, community based organizations, food traders, food preparers, all depending on time and place. We had presentations telling us that governments, businesses, UN agencies and researchers are near the bottom rung of the trust ladders on these issues
  • Don’t let biofortification crowd out other nutrition improvement strategies—it needs to be positioned where it can generate the biggest net addition. There are plenty of critics who say diet diversification is the way to go to improve the quality of diet. This is the ideal goal, but even in rich countries there is a need for salt iodization. If biofortification is proven effective (and cost effective) it is well placed to do this since it focuses on staple food crops which are relatively more important than other foods in the diets of people living in poverty.
My IDS colleague, Sally Brooks at the STEPS Centre has done some really interesting work on the politics of biofortification and the need to build space for multiple perspectives to influence the forward shape of this innovative strategy.

If those working on biofortification can be sufficiently self-critical, resist the seduction of thinking the strategy is going to be an inevitable success, and be healthily skeptical about biofortification’s chances to make a positive net difference, they will maximize its chances of actually doing so. I wish them well.


Sarah said...

An interesting topic but do you think you could try and use a little more plain English please? Sentences such as, "the need to build space for multiple perspectives to influence the forward shape of this innovative strategy," are a bit impenetrable. What exactly is a 'forward shape'?

lawrence said...

Sarah, point taken, thanks for the reality check...the sentence means basically involve lots of diverse perspectives in the conversation going forward... good to call me on it. thanks for reading despite the jargon. best, Lawrence