Meeting the world’s future food needs will test the capacity and ingenuity of agriculture producers everywhere. The problem is one not merely of quantity, but of quality. More than 1 billion people lack adequate amounts of nutrient-rich foods such as meat, eggs, milk, and vegetables, according to a 2009 U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimate.
“Hidden hunger” is how the Micronutrient Initiative, one of the advocacy groups seeking solutions to the problem, describes malnutrition. “When hidden hunger is widespread, it can trap families, communities and whole nations in cycles of ill health and poverty,” the organization explains on its Web site.
Childhood deficiencies of key vitamins and nutrients that support proper growth can saddle youngsters with lifetime disabilities.
Supplying all the world’s people today and in the future with abundant nutrient-rich foods is the most desirable, but the most difficult, solution. Other answers are to distribute nutrient supplements — vitamin pills — to populations; or to provide fortified foodstuffs like iodized salt and milk with added Vitamin D and calcium. These solutions received support in a United Call for Action from a coalition of many of the world’s major aid agencies in 2009, including the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.N. Children’s Fund.
Still another answer to malnutrition is biofortification — creating new versions of staple food crops that come out of the ground with higher nutrient content.
HarvestPlus, one international agricultural research project, is pursuing this solution with efforts to boost the nutrient content of seven key staple crops grown in Asia and Africa. These crops are beans, cassava, maize, pearl millet, rice, sweet potato, and wheat.
Sometime later this year, HarvestPlus aims to get the first biofortified crop into the ground. A strain of beans with a higher than average iron content has been bred for cultivation in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo where up to 50 percent of children can suffer from an iron-deficient diet.
By 2011–2012, HarvestPlus aims to develop a strain of cassava that will triple the Vitamin A content of the starchy staple crop and provide about half of the recommended amount of the vitamin necessary for proper vision. Though still in development, the biofortified cassava is set to be in the fields of Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo by 2011–2012.