Financing Scale-Up of Nutritious Staple Food Crops

Financing Scale-Up of Nutritious Staple Food Crops


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For more than four decades, the World Bank Group (the Bank) has played a critically important role in promoting agricultural research to benefit the poor, as a co-founder and supporter of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, or CGIAR. Thanks to the Bank and other funders, this global network of agricultural research centers promotes poverty reduction and equity by continuously improving crops to increase yield and enhance resistance to disease, pests and the effects of climate change.

In recent years, the CGIAR system has also begun including nutrition as one of its breeding targets. Researchers comb through seed banks to find varieties that are naturally high in vitamins and minerals. Through a process known as biofortification, vitamin A, iron and zinc are then conventionally bred into the seeds of widely consumed staple food crops like wheat, rice, maize, beans, cassava, sweet potato and millet. Biofortification was developed specifically to target low-income smallholder farm families who have very limited access to other important nutrition interventions and subsist on these low-cost, starchy staples that are filling but not nourishing.

Impact of Biofortification on Nutrition

First greeted with skepticism by plant breeders who worried that adding micronutrients would reduce yield, it has now been demonstrated conclusively that these high mineral and vitamin traits can be combined with high yields. Peer-reviewed published data demonstrate that these nutrient-rich foods improve nutritional status and reduce disease incidence and duration. For example, a study in Mozambican children1 who consumed biofortified vitamin A-rich sweet potatoes showed an impressive 42% reduction in the incidence of diarrhea in children under five, and a 52% reduction in children under three. The same study showed a reduction in the duration of diarrhea among children who fell ill – 10% in under-fives and 25% in under-threes. A study2 published in 2015 showed that eating flatbread made from iron-rich pearl millet was able to reverse iron deficiency in school-aged children in India - the first study to show that a food naturally rich in iron can reverse iron deficiency in such a short period of time. Previously, the same high-iron pearl millet was shown to provide iron-deficient children in India under the age of three with enough iron to meet their daily needs, and adult women in Benin with more than 70 percent of their daily needs.

More than 15 million people in 30 developing countries are already growing and eating biofortified foods, and the number continues to grow rapidly. (A map showing countries and crops is available here.) Ex ante and ex post cost-effectiveness analyses have been conducted for several micronutrient-country-crop combinations. Cost-effectiveness of biofortification interventions has also been compared to other micronutrient interventions within several countries. All of these analyses indicate that biofortification is highly cost effective and has the potential to engender significant reduction in micronutrient deficiencies.

Support and Uptake

The Bank was an early supporter of biofortification, providing $17 million in early-stage funding (2003-2010) and hosting an inaugural event in 2003, when the CGIAR’s biofortification program, HarvestPlus, was officially founded. Since then, the Bank has continued to promote this intervention in a number of ways. The Bank is implementing a number of projects supporting biofortification, including the (Global Agriculture and Food Security Program) GAFSP-awarded Multisectoral Food Security and Nutrition Project in Uganda that is accelerating the scale-up of vitamin A sweet potato and high-iron beans.  This is very much a country-led phenomenon. Already convinced of the benefits of this relatively new technology, ministers of agriculture, health and even education are increasingly calling for more biofortified crops to be introduced in their countries. Dr. Akin Adesina, who was Nigeria’s Minister of Agriculture before becoming the President of the African Development Bank, stated at the November 2015 meeting of the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition, “We must aggressively promote bio-fortification… We know that biofortification works. What is needed now is to build greater demand for biofortified crops within national nutrition programs.”3

Potential for Collaboration

Looking ahead, the Bank can play an even stronger leadership role in promoting biofortification in a number of significant ways and across several sectors. As a convener of other development partners, the Bank’s leadership is critical in making agriculture nutrition-sensitive through strategies like biofortification, especially in arenas like the Global Donor Platform for Rural Development and activities like the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) partners meeting. The Bank should promote nutrition as a key component of agriculture and food security, strengthening the growing global momentum around nutrition and contributing to the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 2 (SDG 2): End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture. On the policy front, this could include further encouraging governments to include biofortification in their agriculture and nutrition strategies, seed systems, and agricultural research and extension service programs.  

Programmatically, the Bank should expand its investments to introduce and scale biofortified seeds through its own loans and grants; the Bank also can leverage additional funding via initiatives like the Power of Nutrition. Other measures could include advocating for biofortification in local breeding programs; supporting innovative mechanisms to scale up seed replication; and promoting regional mechanisms to roll out biofortified crops at scale. HarvestPlus stands ready to provide technical assistance in all of these areas, including arranging for multi-location testing of large numbers of biofortified crop lines in given countries, and securing release of the best-adapted varieties through varietal release committees.

1. Jones, K., and A. de Brauw. 2015. “Using agriculture to improve child health: Promoting orange sweet potatoes reduces diarrhea.” World Development.
2. Finkelstein, J., S. Mehta, S. Udipi, P. Ghugre, S. Luna, M. Wenger, L. Murray-Kolb, E. Przybyszewski, and J. Haas. 2015. “A Randomized Trial of Iron-Biofortified Pearl Millet in School Children in India.” Journal of Nutrition.

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Thank you for your comment Nashon, the very first on our new site! We appreciate you describing the work of UMCS Ltd.

For others who would like to discuss or share thoughts, we have a short Comment Policy on our "About Us" page: We will focus on principles of good dialogue such as courtesy (acknowledging the author and other contributors), inclusion (encouraging others to join in), integrity (demonstrating care when drafting a comment), and translation (describing how content relates to your work).

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Your Name: 
Aaron Buchsbaum - SecureNutrition Moderator

I would like to interchange in research. I am working in research with staple foods in Perú such as beans, lentils, vicia faba, etc.

Your Name: 
Luz Bravo Zamudio

Thank you for your comment Luz! It's great to know about ongoing work in Peru around staple foods. We're glad to see people from around the world connecting with the blog and interested in connecting with each other. We would then encourage you to be as specific as possible in describing your work and whom you'd be most interested to talk to. There are different groups carrying out research and sharing ideas on these issues, for instance Ag2Nut is a community with many members who talk over email, and may like to respond to you. Check out for more information. Good luck with your research!

Your Name: 
Laura Figazzolo - SecureNutrition Facilitator
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