Saturday, January 1, 2011


Food fortification is an issue assuming importance in modern days because the food processing industry invariably causes much depletion of nutrients during conversion of raw foods into ready to eat end products. It is well known that even the basic processing techniques like milling of food grains removes major part of the nutrient "treasure" that is naturally endowed. If most of the foods in the market to day are fortified or enriched, one must thank the food industry. But it is another matter that these externally added nutrients may not be as readily absorbed by the human body as that present in natural grains. A typical case is iron supplementation where no matter what form of iron compound one adds in the food during processing, the efficacy of absorption is very low. Biofortification therefore is considered more efficient since the nutrients are generated through biotechnical means with better chance of utilization by the body. However the mode of achieving this goal will decide whether the new products will be acceptable to the consumer or not.

So a decade ago scientists began experimenting with a different approach: What if they tinkered with crops so that they naturally contained iron, zinc or vitamin A? And that's where our hero, the sweet potato, comes in. Orange sweet potatoes on our Thanksgiving tables are full of beta carotene, which the body turns into vitamin A. But our sweet potatoes don't grow well in Africa. Africans eat an estimated seven million tons of sweet potatoes a year, but theirs are white ones that lack vitamin A. So scientists cross-bred sweet potatoes until they came up with vitamin A-rich orange varieties that grow well in Africa. Hard-bitten health specialists go weak-kneed over them. More than 170,000 Ugandan and Mozambiquan families are now growing these sweet potatoes. And the sweet potato is just the first of a number of crops that have been bred or engineered to address micronutrient deficiencies. This mix of agriculture and nutrition is called biofortification, and it's one of the hot words in the global poverty lexicon. Also in the works are rice and wheat packed with zinc, pearl millet and beans with iron, bright orange corn and golden cassava that give people vitamin A. These crops are all in various stages of testing by HarvestPlus, a nonprofit based in Washington. The alliance is financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Bank, aid agencies from Canada, Britain and the United States, and the aim is to produce cheap seeds in the public domain. "Biofortification is slow, but it has a huge impact in the end," said Howarth Bouis, director of HarvestPlus. One of the questions, though, is this: Will rural Africans want to eat orange sweet potatoes? Iron and zinc don't change the color or taste of foods, but foods that produce vitamin A are often an unearthly orange.

Natural breeding is an accepted practice and if the food production has been able to keep pace with the population growth, it is largely due to hybridization technology of marrying high yielding varieties with traditional ones, though the process takes years to fructify. The green revolution in India has been achieved through this route. The process can be expedited through genetic engineering also which takes much less time but there are safety issues that come in the way of universal acceptance of GM foods. Indisputably the new emerging technologies like genetic engineering hold promise for future in many areas of food production but there has to be a consensus regarding their safety credentials which can be achieved through global cooperation at governmental level in stead of through profit driven private interests.


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