Bio-fortification – a tool to fray micronutrient deficiencies



Micronutrient deficiencies are also known as “hidden hunger” because these are not clinically obvious, so people suffer from them without being aware. The worlds most serious health risk factors which substantially contribute towards the worldwide increase in diseases are iron, zinc, vitamin A and iodine deficiencies. More than 2 billion people suffer from micronutrient deficiencies in the developing countries. According to the World Health Organization, these cause metabolic impairment of individuals and sometimes permanent impairment of cognitive ability, learning disabilities, reduce intelligence, low work productivity, increased morbidity and mortality rate. The main cause of malnutrition is due to poor quality diets, which consists of staple foods and lacking in animal products. Therefore, to counteract micronutrient malnutrition, the balanced diet would be the best way, but every person has not the access to the balanced diet form of food.

In addition, the world`s population is rapidly increasing day by day and is expected to reach about 10 billion by 2050, so there will be an increased demand for food both in quantity and quality. Two current strategies to meet the future demands for food quantity are; to expand agriculturally productive farm land, which is strongly affected by many factors such as lack of suitable land or degradation of soils. The other way is to increase the agricultural production on already existing farmland, which require intensive cropping practices, adaptation of high yielding genotypes and production of crops on marginal soils. This results in the depletion of micronutrients from soil and produce crops that are micronutrient deficient which reinforce the dilemma of micronutrient malnutrition worldwide. To solve the existing problems; four main public health strategies exist to prevent and combat micronutrient deficiencies. Three are food based strategies (dietary diversification, fortification and biofortification), the 4th is supplementation. Dietary diversification is to increase access, availability and utilization of nutrient dense foods throughout the year.

To reach the desired goals, the application of this strategy requires the knowledge about dietary habits, such as food production, processing and food selection of the targeted population, and dietary habits have to be modulated and the acceptance of these changes has to be assured. The traditional interventions such as supplementation and fortification have substantially reduced morbidity and mortality in developing countries. The reduction in child mortality after Vitamin A supplementation and the decreased prevalence of severe disabilities of newborns following folic acid fortification are only two out of numerous success stories. But these interventions have failed to be universally successful for various reasons, leaving more than 2 billion people still affected by micronutrient malnutrition, most of them living in developing countries. However, each of the traditional strategies has their particular strengths and weaknesses. Until today, fortification, adding micronutrients to food, is considered to be the most cost effective and sustainableapproach to deliver minerals and vitamins to large populations.

Almost 70 per cent of a populations iron requirement can be fulfilled through iron fortification with little cost. Supplementation is the most suitable technique for the administration of pharmacological micronutrient concentrations in acute cases of micronutrient deficiencies but not appropriate for a sustained treatment of large populations. The reason for the less success of some fortification as well as supplementation programs is the lack of infrastructure to reach more remote rural communities in the developing world, which are the areas with highest occurrence of micronutrient malnutrition. Both supplementation and fortification have low or inadequate coverage, in fortification due to the lack of processed food vehicles or less developed commercial technologies and markets, while in case of supplementation due to irregular supply. Another main issue is the higher prices of fortified foods. All traditional approaches require political stability and continued investment and further improvements, absorption, focusing on product stability, costs and development are necessary.

Biofortification of staple foods is a cost effective, more sustainable approach, complementing these efforts by reaching rural populations and suitable for remote areas. Biofortification is the process of delivery the micronutrients through micronutrient-dense crops. Micronutrient enriched plants are more resistant to diseases (mainly root diseases), and their efficient uptake of minerals from soils resulting in the higher yields. Biofortified crops have potential to deliver a wide variety of micronutrients such as vitamin A, iron and zinc to the people with limited access to commercial markets. Biofortification benefits the poor, who mainly eat staple foods that are not commercially processed and sold but rely on household-produced crops. Thus, biofortification has the potential to minimize the prevalence of micronutrient malnutrition and lower the number of people requiring interventions such as fortification and supplementation.

The writer is from the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad, Pakistan. He can be reached at <farooqcp@gmail.com>

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