Investing in change: Improved agriculture and consumption behaviors
We are all witnesses and culprits: the unavoidable truth that change is difficult, especially when we are talking about changing what we eat. In the rural areas of developing countries, where families barely have enough to eat, perhaps the issue of changing what is eaten – in the sense that we, Westerners, think about it – may seem easy. They will eat what you give them, right? Especially when it is a nutritious crop! Well, we would love to think that this is true, but as in any and every context, the issue remains the same: change is difficult. And in the depths of the rural developing world, promoting change has some important, often overlooked, implications.
I came upon this thought as I recently had the pleasure of participating in a Brown Bag Lunch Seminar on Biofortification, which included three presentations by Dr. Moursi of Harvest Plus, Dr. DeBrauw of IFPRI, and Dr. Gilligan of IFPRI. They presented, respectively, the results of the distribution of a biofortified crop – in this case, orange-fleshed sweet potatoes (OFSP) – on the nutritional status of women and children; the main aspects of what made this intervention successful (and should therefore be repeated); and how social networks influenced OFSP adoption rates.
But before I get into these results (which are presented in my next blog), let me back up. Many of you may be wondering, what is biofortification, anyway? How does it work? Is this a disguised GMO intervention?
Almost a decade ago, HarvestPlus identified certain staple crops in a given number of countries, that could be conventionally (therefore, no, not using genetic modification) bred to create healthier, more nutritious versions of themselves. The classic example I like to use to explain how this works is that of the sweet potato. For many of us, the sweet potato has always been a deep orange food that we most likely associate with Thanksgiving in some delicious concoction, such as a sweet potato pie. In a large number of countries in Africa, however, this same food that we call a sweet potato is white or light yellow in color and is typically eaten boiled or roasted, without having undergone much preparation. And although the color difference of these three varieties of sweet potatoes (white, yellow, orange) would be nearly impossible to detect in a blind taste test, their nutrient content is highly variable.
So, HarvestPlus spent many years working with rural famers in Mozambique and Uganda to identify their best sweet potato crops, in terms of pest/virus and drought resistance, yield, taste, texture, biochemical composition, and general acceptability, to breed "the perfect crop". And this "perfect crop" is, conveniently, much more nutritious that the traditional varieties of sweet potato - it is closer to the orange sweet potato that we know so well, than to the white sweet potato that they know so well. To provide some perspective, the traditional sweet potato crop in Mozambique and Uganda has an average of 2 micrograms of provitamin A content per gram of sweet potato.1 The Harvest Plus team was able to breed a sweet potato that had at least 32 micrograms of provitamin A per gram of sweet potato: an increase of 1500 percent in provitamin A!1
Which leads me to my next point: Why do we want people to consume vitamin A?
An estimated 127 million children are affected by vitamin A deficiency, and most of this burden is concentrated in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.2 Given the critical role that vitamin A plays in the visual and immune cycles, having low vitamin A stores leaves children highly vulnerable to infection and reduced immunity to fight common childhood illnesses, and greatly increases their risk of death. Pregnant women are also at risk for vitamin A deficiency, which can cause night blindness and increase the risk of mortality.
Given the global spread of vitamin A deficiency and its close link to mortality, breeding and introducing a staple crop that is high in vitamin A made a lot of sense. But once that crop is bred, we return to the issue of behavior change, where another set of questions arises: Will farmers grow it? What will they do with it? Will people eat enough of it to make a difference in their nutritional status? Will the crop be consumed by population groups that are most vulnerable to vitamin A deficiency, such as pregnant women and young children?
The answer, at the time, was: Who knows, but let’s find out by giving it to farmers for free (or a small cost), teach them how to grow it and educate them on the nutritional benefits of it. The first trial with sweet potato by Harvest Plus began in 2006, for which an impact evaluation was performed in 2009. You can read about some of the results of this evaluation in my next blog.
1 HarvestPlus, 2009. Provitamin A sweet potato.
2 UNICEF, 2011. Vitamin A supplementation: A decade of progress.
You can find out more about the work that HarvestPlus is doing, including the crops and countries in which they are working at the HarvestPlus website.