Biofortification
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Biofortification

Food fortification is the practice of adding micronutrients to foods to ensure that minimum dietary requirements are met. Fortification is a nutritional intervention programme with a specifically defined target, and it is expected to help prevent nutritional inadequacy in targeted populations in which a risk of nutrient deficiency has been identified.
Biofortification is the development of micronutrient-dense staple crops using the best traditional breeding practices or modern biotechnology.  Biofortification differs from ordinary fortification because it focuses on making plant foods more nutritious as the plants are growing, rather than having nutrients added to the foods when they are being processed. The technology increases the levels of micro-nutrients and minerals within the seed, plant or grain that may be directly or indirectly consumed as food. As people consume the nutritionally enriched food, it reduces their susceptibility to nutrient-based non-communicable diseases and conditions thereby reducing the extent of malnutrition.   

In conventional traditional breeding, plant breeders search seed banks for existing varieties of crops which are naturally high in nutrients. They then crossbreed these high-nutrient varieties with high-yielding varieties of crops, to provide a seed with high yields and increased nutritional.  The result will be the production of crops with high yield and highly rich in nutrients. This method is only possible, provided there is sufficient genetic variation in crop populations for the desired trait (such as high protein content). Conventional breeding is also very difficult in vegetatively propagated varieties (such as cassava and potatoes), due to the scarcity of genetically well-defined breeding lines. In addition, conventional breeding can change important traits of the crops desired by consumers, such as taste.

The use of biotechnological methods involves inserting a gene which codes for the nutrients into the seed.  This seed is then bred with a high yield quality crop, resulting in the production of crops rich in micronutrients. Agricultural biotechnology methods, and in specific genetic modification, represent therefore a very valuable, complementary strategy for the development of more nutritious crops.

Biofortification has recently developed from industrial fortification where during food processing, minerals and vitamins such as iodine, Vitamin A, Vitamin B3, Iron and Zinc are added so as to enrich the nutritional content. Despite over 50 years of efforts, conventional or industrial fortification has had limited success

For example, the South African government launched a national food fortification programme in 2003. Over 90% of wheat flour and 70% of maize is fortified in South Africa. However, malnutrition is still rife with one in five children stunted and one in ten underweight.

The advantages of biofortification are significant. It can improve the nutrient intake of low-income households especially people living in remote rural areas by improving the nutrient content of unprocessed staple foods that dominate their diets. Also, the technology is a one-time investment in producing a high nutrient seed that can reproductively perpetuate itself in future generations.

The biofortified crop system is highly sustainable. Therefore, nutritionally improved crops will be grown and consumed year after year. Breeding for improved nutritional content in seed does not reduce the crop’s yield. In fact, the technology may increase farm productivity as the nutritionally enhanced seeds may have increased proteins, minerals and vitamins that help the plant to resist diseases, adapt to environmental stresses, improve survival and spur growth that ultimately increases yields.

Biofortification is not the only solution. It complements conventional fortification and other nutritional initiatives to turn the negative trend in the fight against malnutrition especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. The ABS project choose GM biofortification as it is a more effective and efficient way to bring together the different nutritional and digestibility characteristics into one variety. As the technology barriers are overcome, biofortification is likely to have a wider application to more crops and play a more significant role in combating malnutrition.

Policymakers mull strategies to stem malnutrition. Faranaaz Parker, Mail & Guardian Newspaper, April 2nd 2010. http://www.mg.co.za/article/2010-04-02-policy-makers-mull-strategies-to-stem-malnutrition

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