Fortification is the practice of deliberately increasing the content of an essential micronutrient, i.e. vitamins and minerals (including trace elements) in a food, so as to improve the nutritional quality of the food supply and provide a public health benefit with minimal risk to health.
Biofortification is the process by which the nutritional quality of food crops is improved through agronomic practices, conventional plant breeding, or modern biotechnology. Biofortification differs from conventional fortification in that biofortification aims to increase nutrient levels in crops during plant growth rather than through manual means during processing of the crops. Biofortification may therefore present a way to reach populations where supplementation and conventional fortification activities may be difficult to implement and/or limited.
Examples of biofortification projects include:
- Iron-biofortification of rice, beans, sweet potato, cassava and legumes;
- Zinc-biofortification of wheat, rice, beans, sweet potato and maize;
- Provitamin A carotenoid-biofortification of sweet potato, maize and cassava; and
- Amino acid and protein-biofortification of sourghum and cassava.
Deficiencies of various micronutrients, including vitamin A, zinc, and iron are common in the developing world and affect billions of people. These can lead to, amongst other symptoms, a higher incidence of blindness, a weaker immune system, stunted growth and impaired cognitive development. The poor, particularly the rural poor, tend to subsist on a diet of staple crops such as rice, wheat and maize, which are low in these micronutrients, and most cannot afford or efficiently cultivate enough fruits, vegetables or meat products that are necessary to obtain healthy levels of these nutrients. As such, increasing the micronutrient levels in staple crops can help prevent and reduce the micronutrient deficiencies – in one trial in Mozambique, eating sweet potatoes biofortified with beta-carotene reduced the incidence of vitamin A deficiency in children by 24%.
This approach may have advantages over other health interventions such as providing foods fortified after processing, or providing supplements. Although these approaches have proven successful when dealing with the urban poor, they tend to require access to effective markets and healthcare systems which often just do not exist in rural areas. Biofortification is also fairly cost effective after an initial large research investment – where seeds can be distributed, the “implementation costs [of growing biofortified foods] are nil or negligible”, as opposed to supplementation which is comparatively expensive and requires continued financing over time, which may be jeopardized by fluctuating political interest. Research on this approach is being undertaken internationally, with major efforts ongoing in Brazil, China and India.
Authors: Sami Ullah*1 and M. Mohsin Raza2
1 Department of Agronomy University of Agriculture Faisalabad, Pakistan
2 Arid Zone Research Institute (PARC) Bahawalpur, Pakistan.