It’s not in the dictionary, so don’t think it’s going to win your next game of Scrabble. But keep it in the back of your head, because it’s one of those words we’re going to start hearing a lot.
That’s because it describes the latest thinking on how we can deliver the best possible nutrition to the maximum number of people – cross-breeding crops with high nutritional value and those with high yields and the ability to resist diseases.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recently announced a $25 million grant to help combat malnutrition in the developing world by investing in biofortification. Scientists will use the money to develop crops that provide high levels of micronutrients, such as iron, zinc, and vitamin A.
“Vitamin and mineral deficiencies, which contribute to the deaths of millions of children each year, can be easily prevented by adding just a few key nutrients to staple food,” says David Fleming of the Gates Foundation.
There’s incredible potential here to save millions of lives and improve millions more. The problem of global malnutrition deserves our earnest attention, as the Gates Foundation makes clear in a recent press release announcing its gift in support of biofortification. I don’t think I could put it any better, so I won’t even try:
“Malnutrition contributes to over half of child deaths in the developing world, and the UN estimates that nearly one-third of the world’s population suffers from deficiencies in micronutrients such as iron, zinc, and vitamin A. Even mild levels of micronutrient malnutrition can damage cognitive and physical development, lower disease resistance in children, and reduce the likelihood that mothers survive childbirth. Iron deficiency alone affects over 3.5 billion people in the developing world and is responsible for 100,000 maternal deaths during childbirth each year. Vitamin A deficiency causes more than 500,000 children to go blind each year and is a leading cause of child mortality.”
Biotechnology, of course, plays a key role in biofortification. It already has improved farm yields. That’s great for farmers–and consumers, too, in the sense that greater supplies mean lower prices in supermarkets.
The next generation of biotech crops, however, will be very much driven by consumer demand–and genetically-modified plants will be some of the healthiest foods available.
Think about your last stroll down the cereal aisle at your grocery store. A lot of the boxes make a sales pitch based on high sugar content. The old Calvin & Hobbes cartoon strip used to satirize these as “Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs.”
So many other boxes, though, use nutritional content as their main appeal. When you read the side panels, you learn that the cereal companies add micronutrients like crazy–and by doing so, they’re adding nutritional value to our lives.
That’s exactly what biotechnology is going to do for us in the near future.
Cereal boxes, of course, aren’t always easy to find in the developing world. There are probably lots of people who haven’t ever laid eyes on Corn Flakes. They don’t have the option of purchasing products that have had micronutrients added to them–but perhaps they can start to grow crops that are already full of the micronutrients they need. That’s what the Gates Foundation is trying to make possible.
Dr. Norman Borlaug became famous years ago for sparking the “green revolution” that has boosted food yields around the world, making it possible to sustain massive population increases. He won the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his heroic scientific efforts.
Borlaug recently said that the time has come to “extend the green revolution to the gene revolution.” What he meant is that the world should embrace biotechnology and all it has to offer in terms of productivity and nutrition.
The green revolution helped feed more people and feed them better. The gene revolution promises to do the same thing–and biofortification is one of the ways in which it will succeed.