The case against biofortification

Wait, what? Against biofortification? What can possibly be the case against breeding staple crops to have higher concentrations of micronutrients? How can you argue against making wheat or beans more nutritious?

Well, in his latest Eat This Podcast episode, Jeremy interviews one of the authors of a paper which argues just that. And that author is…Jeremy:

…we focus on four things, really. One is about the yield. There seems to be a yield penalty. That is, you don’t get as much total crop from a biofortified food as you do get from a non biofortified variety. Another worry is genetic uniformity. A third is about their suitability for the very poor subsistence farmers who are probably the ones who most need more micronutrients in their diet. And finally, there’s almost no evidence that it actually works, that it actually improves the health and well being of the people who eat biofortified foods. In fact, it’s really strange to … It’s really difficult to find evidence that it works.

Maarten van Ginkel and Jeremy go on to say that a much better way to tackle micronutrient deficiencies — hidden hunger — is more diverse diets.

In fact, I think even uber-biofortificators such as HarvestPlus would probably concede that point, judging by an article they have just released marking their twentieth anniversary. Though I suspect that was not always the case.

Be that as it may, I think each of Maarten and Jeremy’s drawbacks of biofortification can be disputed, or indeed rectified, as they in fact concede, to be fair. For example, does a yield penalty actually matter everywhere? And has the release of a biofortified variety in an area actually led to a decrease in genetic diversity there? And if it has, could that not be addressed simply by more, and more diverse, biofortified varieties? And yes, the evidence that release of a biofortified variety translates into positive nutritional outcomes is limited and patchy — but not non-existent.

Anyway, the central fact remains that we still don’t know whether a more holistic approach to hidden hunger through diet diversification would have been more cost-effective and sustainable than the at least $500 million or so that Maarten and Jeremy say have gone into biofortification over the years.

LATER: Oh and BTW, there’s a Biofortification Hub.

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