Reflecting on the power of food science

by Keith Nunes
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Keith Nunes

The past few years have been challenging to those practicing the disciplines of agronomy and food science on an industrial scale. As consumer preferences for products that are organic, manufactured without the use of genetically modified ingredients, and perceived as “clean label” have grown, it may appear as if science is moving backward, shifting from new developments that may enhance functionality and nutrition, and toward an imagined time when things were simpler. Regardless of the tug of war under way with regard to food technology in the United States, without question there is great work being done in less developed parts of the world where inadequate nutrition to this day causes far too much illness and even death.

Last month Drs. Maria Andrade, Howarth Bouis, Jan Low and Robert Mwanga were awarded the 2016 World Food Prize, Three of the 2016 laureates — Drs. Andrade, Low and Mwanga of the International Potato Center — were honored for their work developing one of the most successful examples of biofortification — the orange-fleshed sweet potato. Dr. Andrade and Dr. Mwanga, plant scientists in Mozambique and Uganda, respectively, bred the vitamin A-enriched orange-fleshed sweet potato, using genetic material from the Potato Center and other sources, while Dr. Low structured the nutrition studies and programs that convinced almost 2 million households in 10 separate African countries to plant, purchase and consume the nutritionally fortified food.

In 1971, The International Potato Center was founded as a root and tuber research-for-development institution to conceive and deliver sustainable solutions to the global issues of hunger, poverty and the degradation of natural resources. While working for the center, Drs. Andrade, Low and Mwanga undertook a project to develop disease-resistant, drought-tolerant, high yielding varieties of orange-fleshed sweet potato that may flourish in the variable soils and climatic conditions found in sub-Saharan Africa in an effort counter the effects of vitamin A deficiency, which contributes to high rates of blindness, immune system disorders, and premature death in children and pregnant women in Africa.

Dr. Bouis is the founder of HarvestPlus at the International Food Policy Research Institute who, over a 25-year period, pioneered the implementation of a multi-institutional approach to biofortification as a global plant breeding strategy. As a result of his leadership, such crops as iron- and zinc-fortified beans, rice, wheat and pearl millet, along with vitamin A-enriched cassava, maize and orange-fleshed sweet potato are being tested or released in over 40 countries.

Dr. Bouis created the organization HarvestPlus in 2003 as a global multi-sector, multidisciplinary effort to improve nutrition and public health through biofortification. Under his leadership, a large partnership of plant breeders, agronomists, nutritionists, and economists have worked together to form one of the most successful initiatives to improve nutrition through changes in the food systems.

Africa may seem distant from the United States in many ways, but it shouldn’t. While micronutrient deficiencies no longer wreak havoc in the United States as they do in many parts of the emerging world, that wasn’t always the case. It wasn’t until the fortification of milk with vitamin D in the 1930s and enrichment of grains with B vitamins and minerals in the 1940s that many nutrition-related illnesses were reduced or eliminated.

Still, to this day a number of “nutrients of concern” have been identified by U.S. public health authorities. Adherence to numerous fad diets may result in further deficiencies. Adequate intake of micronutrients is nothing to take for granted, and the kind of work conducted by the World Food Prize winners merits attention far beyond the continent of Africa. 

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