Feeding Crops, Feeding the World – Part 4: 2 More Ways to Improve Plant Nutrition

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Each year, one in nine people lack access to basic nutrition. With 795 million hungry, it’s easy to see how urgent the issue of malnourishment has become.

Earlier, we showed you 2 ways to improve plant and human health by utilizing fertilizer, foliar spray and secondary and micronutrient (SMN) blends. While these methods are an integral part of the nutrition-building process, they cannot accomplish everything alone. That’s where fortification comes in.

If fertilizer is like the chain of a bike, then fortification is its wheels – without both elements working together, food security is going nowhere. Let’s take a look at two methods commonly used to combat malnutrition: bio- and industrial fortification.

Biofortification

Think of a plant’s seed as the blueprint for its best possible outcome. Without a high-quality seed to start with, a plant will never grow to its full potential. When designing a building, a good architect knows that the first draft almost never becomes the final design. Instead, the architect reworks the initial plan until a stronger, more stable end product emerges. The process of biofortification functions much the same way.

Biofortification improves seed quality by altering the nutritional value of plants at a genetic level. To accomplish this, farmers breed together two varieties of plants with different advantageous characteristics to produce enhanced offspring. Improving a seed can fortify staple crops in areas where a well-balanced diet is difficult to achieve. The bottom line is this: better seeds make better plants, and better plants contribute to a more nutritious diet.

Let’s take a look at cassava. This starchy staple crop possesses qualities that allow it to withstand diseases, pests and drought. This makes it a cheap and reliable food for smallholder farmers to grow. However, it lacks critical vitamins and SMNs. By modifying cassava with Vitamin A, farmers can introduce a crop that is both nutritious and affordable to cultivate.

The intentional breeding of plants dates back to the beginning of human civilization. And while the core methods remain mostly the same, scientists have honed and perfected biofortification over the years, allowing for higher yields, larger crops and an overall more wholesome harvest.

Unlike other methods, altering plants through selective breeding doesn’t put a dent in smallholder farmers’ incomes. In fact, biofortification remains one of the most cost-effective techniques for combating malnutrition. Every U.S. $1 invested in breeding nutrients into plants generates an estimated $17 gain in health benefits.

Industrial Fortification

Nutritional development doesn’t stop when a seed reaches maturity.

Just like an architect may modify a building after it’s fully constructed, farmers and scientists can still alter a plant’s nutritional qualities even after it has been harvested. When SMNs aren’t readily available in local crops, processors can fortify harvested plants to increase their nutritional value.

Inserting vitamins and nutrients at the processing stage helps nourish people who lack access to dietary diversity. In fact, you may notice that liquids such as orange juice and milk fortified with Vitamin D are available in your local market.

While this type of fortification helps strengthen plants, it cannot fight malnutrition alone. Similar to the foliar spray methods discussed in our previous blog, industrial fortification is quite costly for consumers. Because it requires expensive resources, its use is limited to regions with a well-established infrastructure.

The intervention areas outlined in this blog and the previous one must be utilized in conjunction whenever applicable to produce the best possible product. By working together to combat malnutrition, we can provide people access to healthier, more nourishing food.

This concludes our Feeding Crops, Feeding the World blog series. If you missed parts 1, 2, or 3, be sure to go back and read more about improving global nutrition. What are your thoughts on the intervention areas discussed above? Are there any we missed? Share them with us on Twitter @IFDCNews.

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