Nutrition

Staple crops biofortified with increased vitamins and minerals: considerations for a public health strategy

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Background

Nutritionists, agronomists, economists, food scientists, food chemists, sociologists, environmentalists, ethicists and researchers working on public health related issues who are interested in preparing review papers on diverse topics related to staple crops biofortified to have increased micronutrient content for improving vitamin and mineral status in populations.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is currently working on the development of global guidelines on fortification of several staple foods with vitamins and minerals as part of public health programmes. One of the possible approaches to improve the nutrient content of foods is through biofortification.

“Biological fortification” or “biofortification” refers to crops that have been nutritionally enhanced using agronomic practices, conventional plant breeding, or modern biotechnology.

Biofortified crops offer the possibility of rural-based interventions that could reach remote populations, where micronutrient deficiencies are more prevalent, and also could penetrate to urban populations as production surpluses are marketed. From an economic point of view, once the biofortified crops are developed, there are no costs of buying the fortificants and adding them to the food supply during processing.

On the other hand, biofortified foods may be not accepted if they have different characteristics compared to their conventional counterparts. Other concerns refer to allergies or intolerance and from the environmental perspective cross-contamination of crops have been raised as an issue, particularly with bio-engineered crops. Concerns also exist on the reduction of the diversity in crops thus limiting diversification of foods with local varieties of staple and non-staple crops in some countries.

In addition to an ongoing Cochrane systematic review on the effects of staple crops biofortified with increased micronutrient content for improving vitamin and mineral status in populations, with particular emphasis on iron, vitamin A and zinc, the Evidence and Programme Guidance Unit at the Department of Nutrition for Health and Development, is seeking to commission review papers on several topics related to biofortification (see next page).