New strategies to combat micronutrient deficiencies

Globally, close to 900 million people continue to suffer from undernourishment despite various improvements and strides made in food security and nutrition outcomes. Dr Delia Rodriguez-Amaya, in her capacity as scientific adviser of the International Foundation for Science (based in Sweden) and representing the University of Campinas, Brazil, points out that the major stumbling block regarding food insecurity is that nutritional security, which forms a vital component of providing suitable food
in any developing country, is mostly overlooked.

“When speaking of food insecurity, most of the focus is on food production and not enough on food safety and nutritional security. When considering whether a household is food secure or not, it is classified into those with light insecurity (referring to food quality, including nutritional quality), those with moderate insecurity (referring to quantity) and those with serious insecurity (referring to hunger),” she says.
According to Rodriguez-Amaya, the increase in micronutrient deficiencies, also known as hidden hunger, and dietrelated chronic diseases, shows that this is a growing problem that needs to be dealt with. “Diet diversification has long been considered as a definitive solution to the problem. We have to acknowledge that micronutrient deficiencies still affect over 30% of the world’s population and cause a variety of other problems like impaired cognitive development, reduced learning abilities and ultimately increased morbidity and mortality.”
Combating strategies
Rodriguez-Amaya says there are a number of developing strategies for ensuring nutritional security:
1. Use of nutrient and bioactive compound contents as a criterion, along with yield and disease resistance, for the selection of varieties for agricultural production.
2. Conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity for food and nutrition.
3. Optimisation or development of processing technologies to provide maximum retention of nutrients and bioactive compounds and utilisation of food industries’ by-products rich in these health-promoting substances.
4. Reduction of the substantial postharvest losses.
Further strategies for combating micronutrient deficiencies include the promotion of breast feeding, supplementation of high-risk groups, food fortification, biofortification and dietary diversification.
“Dietary diversification is being promoted as a definitive solution because contrary to single nutrient interventions, a varied diet provides various micronutrients and bioactive substances. It therefore provides the possibility of addressing several deficiencies as well as preventing of chronic degenerative diseases,” she explains.
Examples of dietary diversification interventions include nutritional educational programmes in and out of schools to raise awareness of micronutrients’ importance as well as small-scale production of fish, poultry and other small animals.
Positive initiative
According to Rodriguez-Amaya, one of the initiatives which has shown much promise is the HarvestPlus breeding crops for better nutrition programme. “The programme is a leader in the global effort to end hidden hunger caused by the lack of essential  vitamins and minerals in the diet, such as vitamin A, zinc, and iron.”
As a collaborator for the initiative, she explains that HarvestPlus develops nutrient-rich seeds, which grow as well, if not better, than those that farmers currently plant. “We understand how these seeds will provide better nutrition when eaten in different ways – and we promote them widely, so farmers and consumers know that that these seeds mean a healthier future for their families, communities and country.”
Between 2007 and 2009 HarvestPlus disseminated orange-fleshed sweet potato (OFSP) seeds to more than 24,000 households in Mozambique and Uganda. Orange-fleshed sweet potatoes varieties can provide 50-100% of daily vitamin A needs. They are also said to be high yielding, virus resistant, and drought tolerant.
“The intake of OFSP among young children, older children and women increased by 66% or more in both countries when they were introduced,” says Rodriguez-Amaya. “77% of project households in Mozambique and 65% of project households in Uganda adopted OFSP, and they are doing well. So it is possible.”
Dr Delia Rodriguez-Amaya: delia@fea.unicamp.br
Harvest Plus: Tel +202-862-5600; HarvestPlus@cgiar.org; website:
www.harvestplus.org
• This article is based on Dr Rodriguez-Amaya’s presentation at the South African Association for Food Science & Technology’s Biennial International Congress and Exhibition in 2013.