2016 World Food Prize winner Dr Howarth Bouis forecasts that more than 130 biofortified dominant staple crops are likely to be consumed by more than 1 billion people, or up to 25 per cent of the population in 32 countries by the year 2030. Rice, wheat, maize, pearl millet, sorghum, cassava, sweet potato, beans and other crops are now biofortified for better zinc, iron, pro-vitamin A carotenoids, and other nutrients, with more than 100 new varieties in 30 countries. This number is expanding every year.
The use of conventional selective breeding to produce nutrient-enriched crop staples, or biofortification, struggled to gain research funding 20 years ago but is now leading a ‘green revolution’ in combatting ‘hidden hunger’ where micronutrient deficiencies affect more than 2 billion people around the world.
The majority of micronutrient deficiency cases are found in developing countries in which wheat and rice are staple foods. Mild to moderate zinc deficiency affects up to one-third of the global population, leading to impaired immune system function, skin disorders, cognitive dysfunction, and increased susceptibility to lower respiratory tract infections, malaria and diarrhoeal disease. Every year, more than 800,000 deaths are directly attributable to zinc deficiency. Breeding higher zinc presence in grains – rather than via uptake of zinc in the soil by the whole plant – has the added benefit of reducing the ongoing cost of repeated use of often expensive and chemical fertilisers.