Biofortification “news”

Some people are just born ingrates. Sherry Tanumihardjo, who has “worked on provitamin A biofortification efforts since 2004 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison” is unhappy with the welcome gave to biofortified crops in its article Biofortified crops ready for developing world debut. Not warm enough, she seems to be saying in her letter at In defence of biofortification. Was it being attacked? I didn’t think so.

To be perfectly frank, I can’t be bothered to take Dr Tanumihardjo’s complaints all that seriously, not least because although her “lab strongly advocates the promotion of vegetables and fruits to enhance overall health and general well-being,” she doesn’t actually mention that except under the blanket of “other approaches”. Methinks she doth protest too much.

On the other hand, the world does not yet seem to be beating a path to biofortification’s door, judging by the comments at a blog post designed specifically to enable interested parties to “share your thoughts” on a Proposed Framework For Action that emerged from the recent First Global Conference on Biofortification. Two comments in over a week? Maybe everyone who was at the conference is perfectly happy with the draft Framework? Or maybe they are sharing their thoughts privately. On the other hand, I looked at the draft and, despite being assured by one participant that everyone was talking about dietary diversity, honest, and not just techno-fixes, I could find no evidence of that in the Framework for Action. So why aren’t I sharing my thoughts? Perhaps because I’ve seen no evidence that they’ll be given any notice.

2 Replies to “Biofortification “news””

  1. I have to say I find your disparaging remarks frustrating. As I wrote in Goals for nutrition, the whole point is that people won’t be able to make better lives for themselves unless their macro and micro nutrient needs are being met. We know all the negative effects of malnutrition. For how long are we going to try small strategies to pass out some vitamins here, grow a garden there, attempt to bolster an economy there, etc until we realize – people need those nutrients before they can do anything else! How can we expect people to change their countries from the inside if they can barely walk and are gripped by disease? So, yeah, we’re focused on getting those nutrients to people.

    The cost of vitamin distribution is very high because you have to keep doing it. They spoil, have low acceptance rates, some health side effects, etc. We already know that farmers can be persuaded to try a new crop trait, especially when the trait is bred into a variety they already like (see flood tolerant rice for an example). Once they have that trait in their possession, they can keep breeding with it, farming it, and eating the food produced for however long they like. If they’re already growing rice, add nutrient traits to their favored varieties, and while we’re at it, add some stress tolerance traits too. Those nutrients will help 1) the farmer and family 2) people who buy the rice. Since we know the most poor people can typically only afford grains, improving the vitamins in the grain could have a big impact.

    Alex Stein, an ag economist, has done cost benefit analysis for supplements compared to Golden rice, and unsurprisingly, Golden rice comes out ahead. Development costs and distribution only need to be done once, compared to repeated interventions. See his list of papers. How many kitchen gardens could be set up for the same cost of developing and distributing pro-vitamin A maize or sweet potato? I would be very surprised if you could reach as many people with the same amount of funds. Provide the micro nutrients needed and then people gain the ability to set up their own gardens.

    Anyway, this was a conference on biofortification. Most of the people there are experts on biofortification. Does that mean we don’t care about kitchen gardens, education on food preparation and storage methods, and so on? Of course not! Are we going to switch our focus, try to get new education and training, and switch to cultural interventions? No. Will we encourage cultural intervention in addition to biofortification when we’re discussing things with policy makers? Heck yes.

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