Growing Flintstones

That's the title of Chapter 5 of Unnaturally Delicious, which discusses a variety of efforts to combat malnutrition in the developing world by breeding crops with higher vitamin and mineral content.  

Providing vitamin supplements (think Flintstones Vitamins on a global scale) has indeed produced positive outcomes in many parts of the world. The approach, however, has proved less beneficial than the optimists had predicted. Vitamin supplements present a number of challenges. First, you’ve got to deliver them to where they’re needed—some of the most remote, unpaved, undeveloped places in the world. Then you’ve got to convince people to take them. Regularly. Then you’ve got to do it all over again. Every year. In perpetuity. Supplements are a one-off, partial solution to an ongoing problem. . . .

A more innovative, bottom-up approach is starting to challenge this top-down approach to ending malnutrition. One of the root causes of malnutrition is lack of dietary diversity, caused by both a lack of access and the inability to afford different foodstuffs. . . .

In this conundrum may lie a solution. If the staple crops of these farm families were more nutrient dense, some of the problems of malnutrition could be solved. Biofortification is the science of breeding crops to increase nutritional content.

I talk about the organization Harvest Plus, and about one of my former students Abdul Naico who's back home in Mozambique working to increase adoption of sweet potatoes that are higher in beta carotene.  Here are a couple pictures he sent me.

While the efforts of Harvest Plus and other organizations have utilized conventional breeding techniques to create, for example, "high iron beans" in Rwanda, others have used biotechnology.  The most famous example is the work of Ingo Potrykus, who graciously answered some questions for me about golden rice, which contains a daffodil gene so that the rice produces beta carotene (which the body converts to vitamin A).  

The initial varieties of rice createdby Potrykus and colleagues expressed only a small amount of vitamin A. Further iterations of golden rice have resulted in a twenty-threefold increase in the carotene content. Current varieties can produce 55 to 77 percent of recommend daily intake of vitamin A by eating a mere hundred grams of uncooked rice (or about half a cupful), and human research has found it safe and as effective as vitamin A supplements

The Golden Rice Humanitarian Board shared the following photos with  me.