When did you stop beating your wife? The micronutrient edition

by Jeremy Cherfas on November 11, 2010

Nicholas Kristof was at the Biofortification Conference, telling the audience How to Get Micronutrient Malnutrition on the Public Health Agenda.1 The organizers took the opportunity to capture the great man’s thoughts on video. And guess what? He thinks biofortification is more sustainable than supplements, even though, as he said:

Biofortification is in a sense unproven. We can’t be sure that these experiments in improving underlying foods are going to be scalable, that customers are going to accept them … there are things that can go wrong. But on the other hand, if you rely forever on drops or pills then that’s always going to cost money. It’s not sustainable in the same way. If you can get people to substitute the kind of rice they eat, the kind of bananas the eat, the kind of wheat they eat, then you’ve solved these nutrition problems that have been with us for all of human history. Is it going to work? We can’t be sure, but it’s a pretty good bet and it sure is exciting.

Absolutely spot on Nicholas. And given the two options your interviewer offered, I’d probably have answered in similar vein. But, er, did no one at the conference mention dietary diversity? Not even in the corridors where the video was filmed.

The value of dietary diversity is not unproven. People do eat diverse diets. And the approach is genuinely sustainable, quite apart from other benefits that come with increased agricultural biodiversity. It’s not a bet, it’s a racing certainty. And it is obviously being ignored by an influential sector of the community.

So, I’ve another topic for Mr Kristof and anyone else who cares to weigh in: How to get Dietary Diversity on the Solutions to Micronutrient Malnutrition Agenda.

Footnotes:
  1. The usual suspects. []

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Karl Haro von Mogel November 15, 2010 at 10:21 am

Perhaps I could venture a guess. Dietary diversity will certainly help those who can get it – but there is still a bet involved. The question is whether it will reach enough people and how much time will it take to do that? Will the social and economic barriers that are currently preventing it from occurring in every dinner bowl today disappear when it is promoted? Malnutrition itself is a drain on economics and feeds back into problem.
Seems to me that it would be easier in the short run to change the varieties of wheat, rice, and bananas that people eat while waiting on the longer run for people to be able to grow, afford, and eat something besides wheat, rice, and bananas.

Reply

Jeremy November 15, 2010 at 11:17 am

Karl, this misses the point on lots of levels. Just a couple, to be going on with. Who are the malnourished women and children? They are the women and children of poor, often landless rural families, and of poor urban families. In the former case, the3y generally save their own seeds or get them from the informal seed networks in which they are embedded. How are the enriched varieties going to get to them? And how are those varieties going to perform in the myriad varieties in which the malnourished people live? And in the second case, how are urban families going to afford biofortified foods, unless those foods are subsidized so that their energy content is cheaper than the food currently available? And if it takes a subsidy to make that food preferable, how sustainable is that?

For all the talk of supplements, fortification and diet each having their place, which is not reflected in much public discussion, my concern is that the whizz-bang simple solutions are taking oxygen from the more sustainable, more complex and more interesting solutions.

Reply

Karl Haro von Mogel November 15, 2010 at 10:59 pm

The difficulty in comparing efforts to increase the nutritional content of staple crops versus increasing the diversity of crop species grown and eaten to increase the amount of needed nutrients obtained is that both depend on a variety of social unknowns. The issue you cite with informal seed networks would not only be a problem for a biofortified staple crops, but also (and perhaps especially) for introducing new crop species. How are the new crops going to get to those same people who rely on those seed networks? How will the individual varieties of those crops selected for distribution fare in the myriad environments in which those poor people live? How are the poor urban families going to be able to afford these crop as well, if they are valued then they will fetch a price. Subsidy? You can make the exact same argument against that proposed solution as well.

The difficulties you bring up may be even more for introducing new species. For instance, how well is the proper cultivation and growth of these species going to fare when information is transmitted through these informal networks? Will people trust a plant that they have never grown that looks, grows, and tastes different from what they are used to? While a biofortified crop may run into acceptance issues due to a difference in color or some precise growth habits (or in the case of a GE biofortified crop, what tales Greenpeace has been telling those rural people), people will already know how to grow it and eat it.

You bring up a good point with respect to the cost of the biofortified crop to urban-dwellers – if it is valued as being superior to the non-biofortified varieties, it will probably fetch a higher price. Certainly, there is something to be gained by a somewhat elevated price, and that is that the farmers will grow it, seeking profit. Perhaps with enough volume, the price difference will be low enough that a lot of those urban folks will not have a problem affording it. Indeed, people who I have talked to on a couple biofortification projects have emphasized that they are not just making the crop healthier, they are attaching grower benefits like virus resistance, better yield, and other such traits so that the growers can produce more and get profit that way, which should IMO keep the price from going like crazy. And like I said above, the price issue is a property of both biofortification and species diversity which you are advocating for.

Biofortification is, as with many things in the same thread, called a mere “technofix” as if this was a label that condemns it to certain doom. But let’s also call the non-technical alternatives what they are as well: “socio-fixes” and “politico-fixes.” Indeed, adding species diversity also has a “techno-fix” component to it, with or without the “whiz-bang.” Sometimes I feel that the critics of techno-fixes portray them as more than a silver bullet than do the proponents, and ignore that other solutions have problems as well. But technological solutions can also have their advantages depending on the situation.

Reply

OrchidGrowinMan November 17, 2010 at 4:59 am

Interesting: would dietary diversity be something that could also be improved by education/social engineering? I mean, I’m an annoyingly enthusiastic supporter of things like carotene rice (but is the carotene bioavailable, even if there’s no fat?) and virus-resistant sweet potatoes being deployed, but the problem is getting them released and then to the people who need them.

Could people be persuaded to accept un-polished rice? Could polished rice be fortified like grain products in the US (think about the old-movie stereotype of the tiny granny and the strapping grandkids: I suspect that actually happened at the advent of grain enrichment, and would like to find a study). Since it is standard practice to rinse rice before using it, would fortification even work? I had envisioned a dusting of alfalfa powder or some such being added, but it would just be rinsed away. What if the polished grain were fortified (“adulterated”) with something that TASTES GOOD so that you wouldn’t want to wash it off?

Anyway, those were throw-away ideas. Way back when I had never thought about such things, I saw footage on TV of starving Ethiopeans staggering through a desolate landscape where the only plants were rows of Opuntia (ficus-indica? they appeared thornless), and my reaction was “don’t they know they can EAT that?” Maybe they didn’t. That got me thinking: Isn’t there some carotene and ascorbate available in every green plant? How toxic would a plant have to be before adding it to a rice diet in sufficient quantities to ameliorate deficiencies would be counterproductive? If I added a bit of chopped grass (or cactus, or Capsicum leaves or acacia leaves…) to my polished-rice diet, could I reduce vitamin deficiencies? Could I persuade other people to do likewise?

My cultural perspective is not right for evaluating such ideas: I have very few food prejudices, and unfamiliar foods are so exciting that I seek them out. Many kids are different. Maybe most people are in general. Maybe other cultures are.

Anyway, it was just a thought. I’ll go away now.

Reply

Anastasia November 18, 2010 at 7:34 pm

That’s a really neat idea. But advocating eating various leaves without knowing which ones are toxic might be a little dangerous. There might also be cultural issues in convincing people to eat things they aren’t used to eating.

If anyone’s interested, I’ve written up a sort of overview of what we talked about at the conference along with general ideas of why some sort of nutritional intervention (whatever form it might take) could be considered a moral imperative: Goals for nutrition.

Reply

OrchidGrowinMan November 19, 2010 at 5:57 am

Anastasia,

At one point I did a rough calc that the quantity of the most poisonous* plant I know that is listed as the minimum qty to cause acute symptoms still had much more than the amount of carotene necessary to alleviate the worst symptoms of deficiency (if taken daily and bioavailable). Of course, it was a very rough calc with lots of approximations. There are many plant families that have no dramatically toxic members, but things like oxalates and come terpenoids (and coumarins and likely atropene+scopolamine, digitoxin, etc) have cumulative effects. If some cosmopolitan easily-identified group like grasses, legumes, amaranths/chenopods or some other of easy identification is reliably more helpful than harmful, it would be nice to know.
*Atropa: tastes nasty though.

Reply

Leave a Comment