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Biofortification: Helping meet nutrition needs worldwide


By Dr Erick Boy, Nutrition Head, HarvestPlus

Dr Erick Boy is a public health practitioner and has a doctoral degree in nutrition from University of California, Davis. He currently heads the HarvestPlus nutrition programme, overseeing dietary intake and nutritional status surveys, as well as food science and epidemiologic research required to assess the nutritional merits of biofortification in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Before joining HarvestPlus he worked as chief scientific adviser at the Micronutrient Initiative (1999-2008).

Content for this article was secured by Charulatha Banerjee, ENN Regional Knowledge Management Specialist (Asia).


Location: Global, India

What we know: Micronutrient deficiency is common in populations that rely primarily on staple foods; poor, rural communities are particularly affected.

What this article adds: Biofortification is the process of increasing the density of vitamins and minerals in a crop through plant breeding and agronomic practices, so that when consumed regularly the crops will generate measurable improvement in vitamin and mineral nutritional status. HarvestPlus is a global partnership programme that leads the global development and promotion of biofortified crops, involving crop development, work with policy-makers and engagement with communities. Biofortified crops can provide 30% to 80% of a woman’s or child’s daily needs of vitamin A, zinc and iron (key focus nutrients). Evidence is emerging on nutrition and health impact. Developments in India are promising for biofortification at scale. Biofortification now reaches more than 15 million people in Africa and Asia; new crop varieties are available/pending release in 55 countries.

Micronutrient deficiency is usually the result of consumption of monotonous plant-based diets composed predominantly of a starchy staple food (cereal, roots/tubers), which results in a lack of essential minerals and vitamins required for proper growth and development of the body. When large segments of a population are affected by micronutrient deficiency, their health and economic development are curtailed.

Biofortified staple crops rich in micronutrients are most beneficial to groups who are vulnerable to micronutrient deficiencies, especially infants, young children and pregnant and breastfeeding women. Deficiencies in micronutrients such as zinc, iron and vitamin A can cause profound and irreparable damage to the body, including blindness, growth stunting, mental retardation, learning disabilities, low work capacity and even premature death.

Biofortification can help in the prevention of micronutrient deficiencies. Biofortified crop varieties will eventually provide from 30% to 80% of a woman’s or child’s daily needs, depending on the nutrient and the amount of the biofortified food consumed regularly. Biofortification targets in particular the rural poor, who are more vulnerable to the underlying causes of undernutrition and consume large quantities of staple foods, often with little else.

HarvestPlus is a global partnership programme that leads the global development and promotion of biofortified crops (see Box 1). Together with local farmers and researchers, HarvestPlus develops and promotes staple crops that are climate-smart, high-yield and packed with micronutrients. HarvestPlus also works with policy-makers to develop programmes to promote the crops, and with communities to take the crops ‘from fields to meals’.

Box 1: About Harvest Plus

HarvestPlus began as a research (‘challenge’) programme of the global research partnership CGIAR ( It is coordinated by two members of the consortium, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). In addition to IFPRI and CIAT, HarvestPlus works with more than 200 scientists, researchers and other experts around the world, working closely with scientists from International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT), International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), and the International Potato Centre (CIP) to select and breed biofortified crops. HarvestPlus nutrition generates the research required to consolidate the case for single-nutrient crops and extend its proof-of-concept approach to traditional combinations of biofortified crops.

Origins of biofortification: Intersection between nutrition and agriculture

Traditionally, economists believed that energy intake was the primary dietary factor constraining better nutrition outcomes in developing countries. This was the underlying premise of the ‘Green Revolution’ which, in the late 1960s, allowed farmers to increase their agricultural output of mainly cereal grains such as rice, maize, and wheat. However, research by Dr Howarth Bouis, an economist at IFPRI and founder of HarvestPlus, found that vitamin and mineral intake in non-staple foods and animal products is more highly correlated with health outcomes. Making staple foods – on which poorer, rural communities were so dependent – more nutrient-rich could therefore contribute to addressing so-called ‘hidden’ hunger. This intersection between nutrition and agriculture led to biofortification, a movement that has brought ministries of health and agriculture under one roof (although it took two decades to achieve this). In many HarvestPlus target countries, these two ministries are coordinating closely to enable biofortification.  

Biofortification in practice

Conventional plant breeding is not new. Early farmers chose the best-looking plants and seeds and saved them for next year’s planting. As the science of genetics became better understood, plant breeders were able to select certain desirable traits in a plant to create improved varieties. All the nutritious crops released or in the near pipeline through the efforts of HarvestPlus and its partners were or are being developed using conventional plant breeding.

Farmers do not have to make changes to grow biofortified crops. After the initial outlay of funds for development of the biofortified crops, the recurrent costs are minimal. Advantages are many: biofortification is built on what poor households, who likely have no access to or cannot afford commercially marketed fortified foods grow and eat (staple); there is a one-time-only investment to develop seeds that fortify themselves (which keeps recurrent costs low); the germplasm (the living tissue from which plants can be grown) can be shared globally; and biofortification produces higher yields in an environmentally friendly way.

In most cases, farmers will be able to save their seed and replant it, or grow new plants from stem and root cuttings. Many crops, such as sweet potato, cassava, pearl millet and beans, can be replanted every year from plant cuttings or seed that the farmer has saved. In the case of hybrids, farmers usually purchase fresh seed for each planting season in order to maintain high productivity. Biofortified nutritious crops are being made available as public goods to national governments. Wherever these seeds are typically sold in markets, they are competitively priced so that subsistence and smallholder farmers can afford them. In the long run, the cost difference between these seeds and non-biofortified varieties should be negligible.

HarvestPlus approach

HarvestPlus focuses on three crucial micronutrients that are most limited in the diets of the poor: vitamin A, zinc and iron, and breed these into key staple crops. Thousands of different types of crop seeds stored in seed banks that have naturally higher amounts of iron, zinc and vitamin A are screened. Nutritional genomicists use tools such as marker-assisted selection to help speed up the breeding process. HarvestPlus uses these more nutritious seeds to breed new crop varieties with higher micronutrient content that are also high-yielding and have other traits farmers want.

These new varieties are tested in the target region, partnering with farmers to ensure buy-in from the farming communities. Studies are conducted to ensure that these new crops have sufficient amounts of the nutrient needed to improve nutrition. The national government then officially releases the best-performing varieties of micronutrient-rich crops for farming communities to grow, eat and sell in local markets.

Experiences from India

The future of biofortification in India looks promising (see Box 2).  The 2013-2014 budget in India allocated funds equivalent to 40 million US dollars to develop farms growing micronutrient-rich crops, reflecting India’s plan to develop ‘nutri-farms’ where iron-rich pearl millet, zinc-rich rice and wheat, and protein-rich maize will be grown. India’s strong scientific infrastructure is an asset in developing biofortified crops, while there are sophisticated marketing networks of seed companies that are essential to disseminate these crops. Policy-makers and other stakeholders are key targets of evidence generated on the nutritional benefits of biofortified crops and how this food-based approach can be effective in improving nutrition on a large scale. There are also ongoing efforts to leverage private and public sector partners and work out ways to mainstream biofortified crops in India.

Box 2: Developments in India

In India, HarvestPlus and its partners are developing new varieties of rice and wheat with increased amounts of zinc (and iron) and pearl millet with increased iron (and zinc) using conventional breeding. While there is a one-time cost fixed to developing these nutrient-rich varieties, which are also high-yielding, they can be grown by farmers and consumed year after year alongside other traditional foods.

Pearl millet is eaten daily by more than 50 million people in the semi-arid regions of India. The iron-rich pearl millet variety was developed in partnership with the ICRISAT in India.  Through partners Nirmal Seeds and Shakti Vardhak, some 140,000 farming households were reached with iron pearl millet seed in 2015. That included over 340 metric tons of the open-pollinated variety Dhanashakti and 13 metric tons of the hybrid variety Shakti-1201. Cumulatively, more than one million people across four states (Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana) have accessed iron pearl millet in the three years since the first variety was released. For wheat-producing states, four zinc-rich varieties have been distributed to 35,000 farming households, thanks to partnerships with various seed companies. Farmers in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar received and planted 350 metric tons of zinc wheat seed produced through Astha Beej Co, Sood Foods, Said Seeds and Shakti Vardhak.

Evidence of nutrition impact

With more people and countries adopting biofortified crops globally, evidence is emerging on the nutritional and health impact of these crops. Over the last few years, leading scientific journals have published studies that demonstrate the efficacy of biofortified crops (see Box 3). Nutrition data demonstrates that biofortified foods can reverse iron deficiency and reduce the incidence and duration of diarrhoea, one of the leading causes of preventable death in children under five years old. A small daily ration of orange sweet potato is enough to provide a young child with his/her daily vitamin A requirement.

Box 3: Selection of published evidence of nutrition impact

A 2015 study found that vitamin A-rich orange sweet potato (OSP) reduced both the prevalence and duration of diarrhea in young children in Mozambique (Hotz et al, 2012).

In India, pearl millet bred to be richer in iron was able to reverse iron deficiency in school-aged Indian children (Finkelstein et al, 2015). Previously, the same iron-rich pearl millet had been shown to provide iron-deficient Indian children under the age of three with enough iron to meet their daily needs, and to provide adult women in Benin with more than 70 per cent of their daily needs (Kodkany et al, 2013).

A study from Rwanda found that daily consumption of meals with beans bred to be richer in iron helped prevent and reverse iron deficiency in women in just four and a half months (Haass et al, 2016).

In Zambia, switching to orange maize, which is rich in beta-carotene, provided maize-dependent populations with up to half their daily vitamin A needs. In a controlled efficacy study, children who ate vitamin A maize showed significant increases in their total body stores of vitamin A (Gannon et al, 2014). There is also evidence that maize that has been bred to have higher zinc content can provide enough zinc for a growing child in their formative years (Chomba et al, 2015).


The 2008 Copenhagen Consensus, comprising the world’s leading economists, estimated the health benefit-to-cost ratio of biofortified nutritious crops as US$17 of benefits for every dollar invested. Once a particular micronutrient is bred into a crop line, the trait remains. This makes the process of biofortification, over time, sustainable and cost-effective.

A very simple cost comparison between supplementation, fortification and biofortification was done by HarvestPlus researchers. They found that one year of vitamin A supplementation for 37.5 million pre-school children in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan can be bought for US$75 million. The same amount can buy enough iron fortification for one year for the same populations. It is also the cost of developing and disseminating iron and zinc-rich rice and wheat varieties for South Asia, which will be available year after year without much investment.


Biofortification is an approach to preventing micronutrient deficiency that is sustainable and scalable: it now reaches more than 15 million people in initial focus countries in Africa and Asia. Cumulatively, more than 100 biofortified varieties across ten crops have been released in 30 countries, where second and third waves of even higher nutrient lines are being tested for future release. Candidate biofortified varieties across 12 crops are being evaluated for release in an additional 25 countries. The goal is to reach 100 million people with biofortified nutritious foods by 2020 and one billion people with biofortified foods by 2030.

It is a nutrition-smart agricultural intervention supported by robust scientific evidence demonstrating that regular consumption of traditionally cooked biofortified food crops improves the nutritional status of the most vulnerable groups: rural and marginal-urban, poor women of child bearing age (pregnant or not) and children aged 0 to 24 months.

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Chomba, Westcott CM, Westcott JE, Mpabalwani EM, Krebs NF, Patinkin ZW, Palacios N and Hambidge KM. Zinc Absorption from Biofortified Maize Meets the Requirements of Young Rural Zambian Children. J. Nutr. January 21, 2015, doi: 10.3945/?jn.114.204933. html.

Finkelstein JL, Mehta S, Udipi SA, Ghugre PS, Luna SV, Wenger MJ, Murray-Kolb LE, Przybyszewski EM, Haas JD. A Randomized Trial of Iron-Biofortified Pearl Millet in School Children in India. J Nutr. 2015 Jul;145(7):1576-81. doi: 10.3945/jn.114.208009.

Gannon B, Kaliwile C, Arscott SA, Schmaelzle S, Chileshe J, Kalungwana N, Mosonda M, Pixley K, Masi C, Tanumihardjo SA. Biofortified orange maize is as efficacious as a vitamin A supplement in Zambian children even in the presence of high liver reserves of vitamin A: a community-based, randomized placebo-controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014 Dec;100(6):1541-50. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.114.087379.

Haas JD, Luna SV, Lung’aho MG, Wenger MJ, Murray-Kolb LE, Beebe S, Gahutu J-B and Egli, IM. Consuming Iron Bioforti?ed Beans Increases Iron Status in Rwandan Women after 128 Days in a Randomized Controlled Feeding Trial. J. Nutr. June 29, 2016, doi: 10.3945/?jn.115.224741. html

Hotz C, Loechl C, Lubowa A, Tumwine JK, Ndeezi G, Nandutu Masawi A, Baingana R, Carriquiry A, de Brauw A, Meenakshi JV, Gilligan DO Introduction of β-carotene-rich orange sweet potato in rural Uganda resulted in increased vitamin A intakes among children and women and improved vitamin A status among children. J Nutr. 2012 Oct;142(10):1871-80

Kodkany BS, Bellad RM, Mahantshetti NS, Westcott JE, Krebs NF, Kemp JF and Hambidge KM. Biofortification of pearl millet with iron and zinc in a randomised controlled trial increased absorption of these minerals about physiologic requirements in young children. J. Nutr. July 10, 2013, doi: 10.3945/?jn.113.176677





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Reference this page

Dr Erick Boy, Nutrition Head, HarvestPlus (). Biofortification: Helping meet nutrition needs worldwide. Field Exchange 53, November 2016. p58.



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