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.

Nibbles: Singapore genebank, Tianjin genebank, Food system transformation, ENCORE biodiversity tool, Italian olive troubles, Agroecology map, Indian millets

  1. Nice write-up of the Singapore Botanic Gardens Seed Bank, which opened back in 2019 to not much fanfare.
  2. The Tianjin Agricultural Germplasm Resources Bank has just opened, to much fanfare.
  3. The Global Alliance for the Future of Food has a report out on Beacons of Hope: Stories of Food Systems Transformation During COVID-19. All far downstream from genebanks, but crop diversity makes an appearance in the form of Rwanda’s Gardens for Health International, for example.
  4. The ENCORE tool, created by Natural Capital Finance Alliance and UNEP-WCMC, can help assess any potential risks to natural capital which may be caused by planned investments by financial institutions. Well, now there’s a biodiversity module. Where’s the agrobiodiversity module though?
  5. Speaking of natural capital, Italy’s olive harvest is threatened by more than that nasty Xylella disease.
  6. Is agroecology an answer to all the gloom and doom? I don’t know, but here’s a map of the experiences of people who think so.
  7. India definitely thinks millets are an answer.

Brainfood: 100 plant science questions, Biodiversity data, Cropland expansion double, CC & yields, Crop diversity & stability, Nutritious crops double, Feminist markets

Nibbles: Food tree, Wild chocolate, Cacao, Cassava in Africa, Indigenous ABS, Abbasid food, Valuing trees

  1. Gastropod episode on The Fruit that Could Save the World. Any guesses what that might be?
  2. Atlas Obscura podcast on an apparently now famous wild-harvested chocolate from Bolivia. But how wild is it really?
  3. BBC podcast on cacao for balance.
  4. Forbes touts an African cassava revolution. What, no podcast?
  5. Very interesting piece from the ever reliable Modern Farmer on how a small seed company called Fedco Seeds designated a bunch of maize landraces as “indigenously stewarded,” and are paying 10% of what they make from the sale of their seeds to a pooled Indigenous fund which goes to support a local, multi-tribal project called Nibezun. A sort of mini-MLS? Definitely worth a podcast. Any takers?
  6. A long but rewarding article in New Lines Magazine describes medieval cookbooks from the Abbasid caliphate. The recipes make up for the somewhat stilted podcast.
  7. BGCI publication on how the Morton Arboretum works out whether it should be growing a particular population or species of tree. The trick is to quantify 5 types of “value”: environmental, evolutionary, genetic diversity, horticultural, conservation. Though one could also consider hostorical/cultural, educational and economic value as well. I suspect in the end it comes down to whether it looks nice in an available gap. If I were to do a podcast on this, I’d test it out with the tree in the first of these Nibbles.

Brainfood: Human diversity, Wild rye, Caribbean cassava, Three Sisters, Old beer, Old apples, Feral crops, Crop resynthesis