Friday, July 3, 2015

Improving health through agriculture-diet interfacing-New approach

Most ideal way to produce food is to shun the use of chemicals and other man-made inputs to boost production. Also selecting right variety for planting for crops with highest nutrient content is a desirable goal. It is true that evolution of food processing has seen progressive dilution of nutrition because significant part of the nutrients are removed as waste in order to improve functionality of raw material for various operations and also to improve the aesthetic quality to attract consumers. Plant breeder during olden days attempted to select plants with high nutrient denssity and diversity and cross breed them to improve the overall quality of these crops. Modern biotechnology has found newer techniques for genetic modification that can be done much faster compared to the old hybridization technology. Unfortunately modern day plant breeders using GMO technology have not been able to convince the consumers that they are absolutely safe. Look at the messy food landscape in the US where GMO foods have taken a vice like grip on the market and relentless fight back by the consumers going on to force the manufacturers to declare GMO foods on the front of the package label. A recent report from Africa claims that new sweet potato varieties with orange color in stead of white or yellow, can bring about dramatic improvements in the health status of the local population. Read further below to understand the implications of this development. 

"Farmers in Mozambique had been planting white and yellow sweet potatoes, not the orange-colored ones. The white and yellow potatoes have very little Vitamin A. However, one small, orange sweet potato has a fullday's supply of Vitamin A. A lack of Vitamin A is dangerous. Without enough Vitamin A, you face an increased risk of getting a serious disease or dying from infections.
Around the world, 190 million young children are not getting enough of this important vitamin in the foods they eat. That number comes from the spokesman of WorldHealth Organization. He saysabout 70 percent of children there were Vitamin A deficient. They were not getting enough Vitamin A. "About 70 percent of kids under the age of five were vitamin A deficient. So,you have this huge need for new solutions. If you can do something throughagriculture to increase the amount of vitamin in the diet … you're in muchbetter shape because that's much more sustainable.". Mr. de Brauw says the potatoes had a surprising effect on the health ofchildren. At the end of the three-year study, the researchers compared the health of children in villages growing orange sweet potatoes with those not growing them. Children living in the sweet potato villages had 40 percent fewer cases ofdiarrhea than other boys and girls. Among children under the age of three, the difference was 50 percent. According to Mr. de Brauw showing the impact of a food-growing project on health is very important, or as he says, a big deal.Health specialists say lack of vitamin A can cause blindness in children (Photo Courtesy - Light for the World)
"This is a big deal because nobody has shown in thepast that an agricultural production intervention can have big health impacts … have had any healthimpacts."Nutrition experts say vitamin supplements – that is,fluids or pills you take in addition to normal meals -- canonly do so much. One expert goes so far to say that supplements are a Band-aid -- a short-term fix to along-term problem. Anne Herforth is an expert on global food security andnutrition. She was not part of this study but talked about it with VOA's SteveBaragona on Skype."It's sort of a Band-Aid solution to a more fundamental problem, which is people not having access to high-quality diets."Experts are suggesting that linking agriculture and health issues is a natural and effective partnership.They say teaching farmers how to grow healthier food is among the best ways to improve health.Different types of millet are helping feed people in India, Africa and other parts of the world..Ms. Herfoth says the findings do a good job making the link between food production and health. "To say, 'You know, look, you produce a food and it'savailable to people to eat and they like it,' then it does good things for health."HarvestPlus is now helping farmers in other countries. In India, the group is helping farmers grow iron-richmillet. And in Bangladesh, it is helping farmers grow high-zinc rice."

No doubt the intention of the developers of orange variety of sweet potato must be noble but what is not revealed is how such new varieties have been evolved by the scientists achieving this breakthrough. According to the developers this variety has been evolved using traditional techniques which means that there is no gene level manipulation to get this special trait. Also of some doubt is whether the so called bio-fortified produce has carotenoids which are readily assimilated by the body as not much has been done on this aspect. But some trials seem to indicate that those fed on this variety were "healthier" than others with better vision and other biological functions. Similar efforts in Asia to evolve varieties of crops enriched with iron and zinc also are also going on though it may take some time before stable versions are developed. A big question that haunts policy makers is how to convince the farmers to switch over to the new varieties from their traditional ones to which they are used to for decades. Probably the farmers can understand only the language of "crop yield" which is linked to more profits and higher incomes. Nutritional superiority is rarely a USP for farmers world over. Unless the new varieties with better nutrition can compete economically with traditional crops, promoting them will be an arduous task.


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