Its that time of year again – Nobel Prize season. Prizes go out to categories ranging from Peace to Science and Economics for breakthrough work in the respective field. I’m sure you’re all wondering, “why isn’t there a Nobel prize for food?” It is definitely worthy of its own category.
Turns out, there kind of is – it’s called the World Food Prize. The prize is the most prestigious international award for recognizing research that has “advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity, or availability of food in the world.”
Biofortification is the process of improving the nutritional quality of crops. This can be done through conventional selective breeding of plant lines, or through biotechnology and genetic modification.
Biofortification is different than regular fortification, because fortification adds nutritional value during processing rather than increasing inherent nutritional value of the plant itself. The 2016 prize winners were awarded for enriching sweet potatoes with vitamin A through conventional breeding methods.
Access to sources of vitamin A is extremely important in developing countries where malnutrition is rampant. Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) can be very harmful, leading to blindness, stunted growth, and weakened immunity. VAD is especially dangerous for children, and leads to many deaths in these undeveloped countries – more than Zika or Ebola.
Clearly vitamin A is essential, but why add it to sweet potatoes? In previous years there have been efforts to periodically distribute vitamin A capsules to communities throughout Africa and other developing areas. While it was shown that access to vitamin A decreased child mortality by 25%, these efforts were unsustainable – access to rural communities was difficult and expensive.
By using biofortification to add vitamin A to a staple crop like sweet potatoes, people of many African countries will have sustainable access to a source of vitamin A, and the delivery process will only have to take place once.
While this breakthrough strain of sweet potato was developed through selective breeding of certain strains, another type of biofortification is done through genetic modification. GMOs have a mixed reputation, with many people believing them to be bad for you. However, this is not necessarily true.
Many GMOs are created to solve a problem, whether that’s increasing nutrition or withstanding disease. One such biofortified GMO is Golden Rice. Golden rice is genetically modified to contain higher amounts of vitamin A, along with resistance to molding so that they will last longer in storage.
In many Asian countries rice is a staple food, and adding vitamin A to their crops would have a widespread benefit. Some are concerned with the safety of GMOs, but all approved GMOs undergo rigorous screening before they are allowed on the market.
With the increasing population of the world and the changing climate conditions, genetically modified crops provide a way to prevent widespread food shortages and decrease further malnutrition in developing countries. By 2050, the population is expected to grow to over 9 billion (up from 7 billion) and the amount of land available for farming is expected to decrease as has been the trend over past decades.
In order to make the most out of this land and produce enough nutritious food for the world, farming must become more efficient. Biofortification and GMOs can be used to reduce malnutrition and provide sustainable food sources across the globe.