“Hidden hunger,” or malnutrition that stems from eating too few micronutrient-rich foods like fruits and vegetables, is gaining widespread attention as a threat to global health. A working paper released by the CGIAR’s HarvestPlus program estimates that as many as 2 billion people worldwide are affected by micronutrient malnutrition. The condition can make people more susceptible to infectious diseases and can impair children’s physical and cognitive development; it is a particularly common problem among poor populations, who often rely on staple crops such as rice or maize and cannot afford a more nutritious, diverse diet.
Biofortification is also garnering increased attention as a potentially cost-effective solution to micronutrient malnutrition. This strategy involves developing and disseminating new varieties of staple food crops that contain higher micronutrient contents than their traditional counterparts. For example, CGIAR researchers have developed a variety of orange-fleshed sweet potato (OSP) that is higher in vitamin A than traditional OSP varieties. Low-cost programs to make this new variety available for planting in rural areas of Uganda and Mozambique have increased consumption of the crop, leading to reduced vitamin A deficiency and lower diarrhea rates among children in the region.
Success stories like this one are likely to encourage even more investment in biofortification, but how can stakeholders be sure that they are investing in the right crops in the right places? HarvestPlus has released an interactive series of Biofortification Priority Indices (BPI) to help provide some guidance. Using secondary country-level data and focusing on three key micronutrients – vitamin A, iron, and zinc – the tool ranks countries according to their potential for production and adoption of nutrient-rich staple crop varieties. In January 2015, HarvestPlus launched an online and interactive BPI tool which illustrates countries that are most suitable for biofortification investments for seven crops, based on their BPI ranking (Prasai and Asare-Marfo 2015). Those crops (iron beans, iron pearl millet, vitamin A cassava, vitamin A maize, vitamin A sweet potato, zinc rice, and zinc wheat) are ranked for their suitability for biofortification investment in 127 countries in Africa, Asia, and the Latin America and Caribbean region. The BPI is calculated by using secondary, country level data compiled from various sources including the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Similar to the Human Development Index (HDI) (UNDP, 1990) and Global Hunger Index (GHI) (IFPRI/Welthungerhilfe, 2006), three sub-indices are generated and used to calculate the BPI: (1) production sub-index (2) consumption sub-index (3) micronutrient deficiency sub-index.
The impact of each crop-country-micronutrient combination is rated based on the per-capita consumption of the specific crop produced domestically, the intensity of production of the specific crop in terms of share of harvested area and land-labor ratio, and the existing micronutrient deficiency rates for the micronutrient that can be bred into the specific crop. To target the index even further, researchers then generated two weighted BPIs that look at countries’ share of target population (children ages 6-59 months and women of childbearing age) in the global target population or share of cultivated land area for a specific crop in the global land area for that crop. These weighted indices make it possible for stakeholders to more closely target interventions to meet their specific desired outcomes; for example, programs aimed at increasing health outcomes for young children would want to use the population-weighted BPI. Dorene Asara-Marfo (of HarvestPlus) notes "The BPI tool has been extensively used by both HarvestPlus and its partners, as well as by various stakeholders/organizations interested in investing in biofortification. For example, breeders in several CGIAR centers collaborating with HarvestPlus have been using the BPI to see for which countries/agro-ecologies they should breed biofortified varieties for and/or adapt the already existing biofortified varieties; USAID has used this tool to identify which biofortified crops would be most appropriate to introduced in the Feed the Future (FTF) mission countries, and similarly World Vision International has used this tool to select the countries in which they will be including biofortified crops as part of their aid portfolios community development programs focused on improving nutrition and livelihoods."
The unweighted BPI finds that African countries have the most potential for the development of vitamin A-fortified crops such as maize, cassava, and sweet potato. Out of the 127 countries examined by the index, the top 15 countries where cassava biofortification interventions could have the strongest impact are located in Africa: Mozambique, Angola, Ghana, Liberia, Benin, Central African Republic, DR Congo, Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire, Zambia, Malawi, Congo, Togo, Madagascar, and Guinea. The findings are similar for maize and sweet potato; 14 and 12 of the top 15 countries, respectively, are in Africa. Certain African countries also have high potential for interventions in iron-fortified beans and pearl millet.
The BPI does face some limits, namely a lack of sub-national data and data on the cost-effectiveness of biofortification programs by area. However, the tool represents an important initial step in increasing organizations’ and governments’ involvement in biofortification efforts.