Four CGIAR researchers win World Food Prize for improving nutrition and health

Four CGIAR scientists, Dr. Howarth Bouis (HarvestPlus), Dr. Jan Low (CIP), Maria Andrade (CIP), and Robert Mwanga (CIP) will be awarded the World Food Prize tonight for their combined success in improving nutrition and health through biofortified crops. The HarvestPlus program works together with ten CGIAR centers to develop climate smart, high yielding biofortified varieties.

The World Food Prize, sometimes referred to as "the Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture", is the most prominent global award for individuals whose breakthrough achievements alleviate hunger and promote global food security. "These four scientists have changed the lives of millions through their efforts," noted CIP Director General, Dr. Barbara Wells. "Nutrition studies have shown that biofortified crops improve health and nutritional status when regularly consumed. They made the case that orange-fleshed sweet potato would be accepted in various African diets, they bred resilient nutritious sweet potatoes that people liked, and now the evidence shows that these communities are healthier as a result."

2015 was a remarkable year for the global biofortification movement. More than 15 million people are now growing and eating these healthier crops. Over 100 varieties of 12 micronutrient-enriched crops are available in 30 countries, and are being tested in an additional 25 countries. HarvestPlus' goal is to scale up delivery so that a billion people worldwide will be reaping the nutritional and agronomic benefits of these crops by 2030.

About 150 million people worldwide have a vitamin A deficiency. In Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia vitamin A deficiency is a leading cause of blindness, disease and premature death among children under five. Pregnant and lactating women are also at high risk of vitamin A deficiency. The vitamin A crops, like orange-fleshed sweet potato, orange maize and orange cassava are great sources of vitamin A. Just 125 g daily of fresh roots from most orange-fleshed sweet potato varieties contain enough beta-carotene to prevent childhood blindness.

Studies have shown that other biofortified crops have similar nutritional benefits. Eating bread made of high-iron pearl millet reversed iron deficiency and improved physical activity and cognitive performance in Indian children aged 12-16 years within four months. In Rwanda, 75% of university-aged women's daily iron needs were met when they ate biofortified, high-iron beans twice daily - helping prevent and reverse iron deficiency. Improvement in iron status was also accompanied by more physical activity and higher cognitive performance in these women. Clinical trials are underway to show the nutritional impact of zinc crops. Initial data show that zinc absorbed from biofortified wheat is significantly greater than from common varieties.

CIP, which adopted sweet potato as a mandate crop in 1988, began working on introducing pro-vitamin A rich orange-fleshed sweet potato in 1995 as most dominate varieties in Sub-Saharan Africa are white-fleshed, having no beta-carotene. Research has also shown that Vitamin A sweet potato can reduce the prevalence and duration of diarrhea, which is one of the leading causes of preventable death in children under five.

Critical to the success of orange-fleshed sweet potato in Sub-Saharan Africa was the participation of health care providers who promoted the nutritional value of the crop to pregnant and lactating women. Another major lesson learned early in the introduction of orange-fleshed sweet potato was that it was necessary to breed in Africa so that the pro-vitamin A trait, beta-carotene, is prevalent in sweet potatoes with taste and agronomic characteristics that consumers and producers wanted. This required convincing donors and governments to invest in a crop that was largely ignored, considered a crop of the poor and, in most countries, a woman's crop.

"We still face immense challenges in eliminating hunger and malnutrition but scientists like Howarth Bouis, Maria Andrade, Robert Mwanga, and Jan Low are making great strides toward those goals," said Dr. Shenggen Fan, director general of IFPRI. "We are proud the World Food Prize Committee believes as strongly as we do in the value of the work of these scientists and CGIAR research."


International Potato Center / Centro Internacional de la Papa


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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