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 Enhancing the Nutritional Qualities of Crops:
A second Green Revolution?
By
Gerda van Roozendaal
 
Keywords:  International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI); Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR); Genetic improvement (plants). 
Correct citation: Roozendaal, G. van (1996), "Enhancing the Nutritional Qualities of Crops: A second Green Revolution?" Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 29, p. 12­15. 

In 1995, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) launched 2020 Vision, a call for a new Green Revolution to fight poverty and malnutrition in developing countries. Two years earlier, it initiated a research project on nutrient-enriched plant varieties. Micronutrient deficiencies of diets, which affect more than 2 billion people, have been related to the massive replacement of local crops by Green Revolution varieties. Whether both separate initiatives will be integrated is uncertain, since the main bodies of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) are reluctant to favour micro-nutrient breeding over other available approaches.

In October 1995, IFPRI, a CGIAR institute located in the USA, published the policy document 2020 Vision (see box). The two year project leading to the 2020 Vision aimed at the development of a strategy to eradicate hunger and malnutrition, and to stimulate donors to increase their funding for agricultural research. In the campaign accompanying 2020 Vision, IFPRI spread the news that their computer model research indicated an increasing gap between rich and poor countries if no action is undertaken. If international aid to Southern agriculture continues to decline, an estimated 10 million children are at risk of being added to the already large group of malnourished.

Global sparks of hope
According to IFPRI's 2020 Vision, the world population is expected to grow to a total of 8 to 12 billion between now and 2020. About 94 per cent of the population increase will occur in developing countries, whose share of the world population will increase to 82 per cent. The projected growth of 1.4 per cent of the world population between 1990 and 2020 is however lower than the growth in the 1960s, when populations grew at a rate of 2.1 per cent. Together with population growth, urbanization and displacement of people will continue, contributing to more hunger and poverty.
On an aggregated level, the relation between world food supply and demand does not give many reasons to worry. 2020 Vision has estimated that between 1990 and 2020 the global effective market demand for food grains will increase by 55 per cent, for livestock products by 75 per cent, and for roots and tubers by 50 per cent. These rises are not only due to population growth and urbanization, but also to, sometimes very modest, rising incomes and related diet changes. IFPRI expects that, if no decrease in current investments in agricultural research and infrastructure occurs, the global food supply will still be sufficient. Even though the per capita grain production has fallen and the availability of other food resources such as marine fisheries is also declining, the current projections foresee enough supply to meet demand. In the case of the world food grain production, supply will even be enough to decrease real prices, IFPRI says.

Regional doom scenarios
However, at regional levels the picture is quite different. Based on the very narrow criterium of a minimum income of US$ 1 a day, more than 1 billion people in the developing world, or 30 per cent of the population, are currently living in absolute poverty. Without any action, poverty will remain entrenched in South Asia and Latin America, and will significantly increase in Sub-Saharan Africa. Only East Asia will witness a decline in absolute poverty.
IFPRI recognizes that in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, the gap between production and effective demand will increase. Aid is expected to decline due to the reduced food surpluses as a result of the abolition of the price-support mechanism in Europe. Those regions that are particularly dependent on food aid will be hit hardest. It is important to recognize that food needs are not always expressed in effective demand. Shortages in food at the local and regional level will occur. Therefore, seen from the regional perspective, the food situation worldwide is indeed alarming.

Middle of the road
The purpose of 2020 Vision is to improve access to and availability of food (food security) and nutrition. The required investments should come from public sources, since developing countries know from experience that the interest of investors in most developing economies, especially the African ones, is limited. Nevertheless, IFPRI sees a larger role for the private sector once the appropriate laws on intellectual property rights are designed and implemented.
Just as in the first Green Revolution, food production and consumption are placed high on the agenda, and much is expected from technological innovation to stimulate this food production. The key is the development of yield-enhancing technologies.
As a result of the criticism following the first Green Revolution, the CGIAR policy research unit IFPRI was established to complement the International Agricultural Research Centres (IARCs) technologically-biased agricultural research. In 2020 Vision, IFPRI clearly indicates on the one hand that a second Green Revolution should pay attention to women as food producers and as household caretakers; to the developmental role of non-governmental organizations; to sustainability, diet patterns, nutrition, markets, and resource mobilization. It calls for relieving the foreign debt of developing countries. On the other hand, IFPRI expresses that private markets should be developed and competition assured, structural adjustment programmes continued (though with more attention to the needs of the poor), and nations should be integrated in the global market.
By taking this position, IFPRI avoids conflict with the majority of the donors. It has integrated in its analysis the 'soft side' of development, while at the same time it reproduces the neoliberal discourse of structural adjustment, open markets and privatization. Although one could say that this neoliberal emphasis is a response to the lack of public funds for development, it simultaneously reproduces the neoliberal call to reduce public spending, since that is an integral part of structural adjustment.

Facts on IFPRI

IFPRI is one of the 16 international research centres which together form the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). It was established in 1975 to identify and analyze policies to meet the food needs of the developing world. The motivation for its establishment was the need to formulate an answer to the mounting criticism of the technological bias of the Green Revolution. The mandate of IFPRI, therefore, includes not only technology issues, but also health, gender, and other socio-economic matters. 
50 Per cent of IFPRI`s funding is provided by the CGIAR. The other 50 per cent is contributed by the individual CGIAR donors, for which funds IFPRI has to compete with the other CGIAR institutes. Besides autonomous research on food-related issues, IFPRI initiates research projects ("System Wide Initiatives"), in order to increase the collaboration with the other CGIAR centres and with the National Agricultural Research Centres. 

For more information: Barbara Rose, IFPRI, 1200 17th Street, NW, Washington DC 20036-3006, USA. Fax (+1) 202 467 4439; E-mail b.rose@cgnet.com

Mixed reception
While in general 2020 Vision has been well received by donors and experts, some criticism has been expressed. Firstly, during an international conference on 2020 Vision in 1995, it was said that IFPRI seems to have no alternatives to high-science, high-technology approaches. For example, while a growing number of people move to marginal lands, modern science has not come up with a solution for adapted food production in these areas.
Secondly, 2020 Vision has been criticized for its failure to set priorities. The tasks IFPRI has attributed to national and international agencies to execute 2020 Vision are simply too large to manage without prioritization.
Thirdly, at the same international conference it was pointed out that 2020 Vision will only be realized if the institutes take on a more interdisciplinary development approach. This approach should not only be horizontal (i.e. scientists with different disciplinary backgrounds), but also vertical (i.e. the inclusion of farmers, representatives of the poor).
Notwithstanding the critics, IFPRI's message was loud and clear. An agenda for development should be set, and above all, agricultural funding should be maintained and hopefully even increase.

2020 Vision

IFPRIís  2020 Vision is concerned with the problems facing the (developing) world: population growth, poverty and environmental degradation. According to the director general of IFPRI, the main message is that "developing-country governments and foreign assistance agencies should invest in poor people, agricultural productivity, measures to conserve water and other natural resources, and improvements in agricultural markets". In the Vision, the following elements are addressed: 
Food security and nutrition. To meet the food needs of the world population, people need to have economic and physical access to sufficient and healthy food. The lack of access is related to insufficient economic growth and poverty. 
Population growth and movements. Due to population pressures, combined with poverty and insecure property rights, natural resources are both overused and misused. These pressures must be reduced by, for example, addressing the sources of displacement and migration, and strengthening of reproductive health services. 
Food supply and demand. Food needs can only be met through agricultural growth, which not only increases food production but also generates employment and income. 
Natural resources and agricultural inputs. Productivity is affected by degradation of natural resources and lack of access to inputs such as water, expertise and fertilizers. The environment and access to inputs can be managed sustainably through appropriate policies and market incentives, for example by discouraging pollution and investing in clean technology. 
Markets, infrastructure and international trade. Governments should support the development of efficient markets, especially for agricultural inputs and output. Through the development of infrastructure, physical access to food and inputs will be enhanced. The integration process of developing countries into in the world economy should be stimulated. 
Resource mobilization. International assistance is needed to accelerate the investments in economic growth and human resource development. 

Sources: IFPRI (1995), A 2020 Vision for Food, Agriculture, and the Environment: The vision, the challenge, and recommended action; IFPRI (1995), News Release on Global Action Plan for Preventing Hunger while Protecting the Environment to Year 20202. Washington DC: IFPRI. 

Micronutrient deficiencies
With funding of USAID, IFPRI has coordinated the activities related to nutrition of the CGIAR centres since 1993. One of the pressing problems 2020 Vision addresses is the micronutrient deficiencies of diets. It estimates that nearly 2 billion people worldwide are iron deficient. This has resulted in 1.2 billion people with anaemia, of whom many are pregnant women. 125 Million infants have vitamin A deficiency, while more than 600 million people have iodine-deficiency disorders. These deficiencies can result in a variety of illnesses, often inhibiting general child development and in extreme cases leading to death. The World Bank has stated that iron, iodine and vitamin A deficiencies undermine productivity and education. The developing world's GDP is 5 per cent lower than it would have been without micronutrient deficiencies.
Ironically, the spread of these deficiencies is most probably related to the spread of the high-yielding rice, wheat and maize varieties during the first Green Revolution. Not only were these varieties low in micronutrients, they also displaced a variety of crops grown previously, such as pulses, vegetables and fruits.
Although 2020 Vision pays attention to micronutrient deficiencies, it does not mention a separate IFPRI project headed by Robin Graham and Ross Welch. Graham and Welch have been associated with the University of Adelaide (Australia) and Cornell University (USA) respectively, and have been working on related problems. IFPRI invited them to develop an alternative strategy to intervention programmes, which aim at nutrition supplementation, fortification and education. Although generally, these programmes have been successful, they are also very expensive and do not reach everyone in need.

Enhancing nutritional value through plant breeding
Graham's and Welch's strategy simultaneously aims at a food policy analysis including socio-economic variables such as food consumption, income and adoption of technologies, and at breeding of nutrient-enriched varieties on micronutrient-deficient soils. Much of the arable land currently used for production is low in plant nutrients. On the basis of the results of soil surveys conducted in China and India, it has been estimated that about 50 per cent of the arable land used world-wide for crop production is low in availability of one or more of the essential micronutrients. Although in most soils the supply of trace minerals is large, they are not easily available for plants because they are chemically bound to soil particles.
The knowledge that certain genotypes are more efficient in the uptake of trace minerals from soils than others is an important impetus for Graham's and Welch's research project. The efficiency of these genotypes depends on chemicals in their roots that unbind minerals from the soil, and make these minerals available to plants. A second step is the translocation of these trace minerals to plant seeds, which depends on genes other than those that regulate uptake. Also vitamin content differs among genotypes.
Until now, research has been directed towards the micronutrients zinc, iron and vitamin A. Iodine is excluded for all crops with the exception of cassava, because the supplementation programmes with the cheap iodized salt have proven to be effective. Additionally, this micronutrient is almost absent from plants, while little is known yet about genetic enhancement. The main crops under study are wheat, rice, maize, beans and cassava. The first three crops represent 54 per cent of the global food production.
The next five years of research will determine: (1) the range of genetic variability available for exploitation by future breeding programmes; (2) the bioavailability of the micronutrients (i.e. those actually absorbed and utilized micronutrients by the human body) of the best selections; (3) the genetics and biochemistry/physiology of the selected traits; and (4) the screening protocols for use in breeding programmes. However, the US$ 9.4 million needed for this phase (excluding the costs of human bioavailability studies) is only partly available. Up to now, the Danish development cooperation agency DANIDA has committed US$ 1.1 million.
Besides the University of Adelaide and Cornell University, the CGIAR centres CIMMYT, IRRI and CIAT are collaborating. When all funding is obtained, collaborative agreements with national programmes will be negotiated. Currently, contact has been established with Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Colombia, Egypt, India, Nepal and Turkey. Exactly how much this will cost each country is unclear, but IFPRI is certain that it will be much less than the traditional approaches, such as fortification.

Problematic start and no guaranteed results?
In the past, other attempts have been undertaken to breed for nutritional characteristics (mainly vitamins or protein), but these attempts have been plagued by the conflict between high nutritional quality and yield. An example is the high-quality protein maize (QPM), developed by CIMMYT in the early 1970s. The variety used was high in lysine, but low in yield and altered consumer characteristics (e.g. texture). Notwithstanding the advances made since then, QPM remains lower yielding than other available varieties. It is therefore not adopted by many farmers. Additionally, as most nutritionists do not consider quality protein as a major factor of malnutrition, this research is not valued highly.
The expectations of lower yields has been one of the reasons why many IARCs researchers were sceptical of breeding for nutritional characteristics at first, since it seems to interfere with the centres' objective of breeding for high-yielding varieties. However, according to Graham and Welch, breeding for trace mineral-dense seeds may not only improve the nutritional quality of plants, but in many cases also improves yields and profits on trace mineral-deficient soils. Additionally, they do not expect that consumer characteristics will be changed, because of the small portion the micronutrients represent of the total physical mass.
The breeding-for-nutrition strategy may avoid some of the pitfalls experienced earlier, due to advances in plant breeding and screening methods, which lower the costs of breeding. The acceptance of farmers is not expected to be a problem. According to Graham and Welch, the plants are developed in such a way that it fits the soil. This therefore does not require a radical change in the farmers' agricultural practices, while at the same time will have no repercussions for the yield. In some cases, higher yields are expected, while in other cases, yields will be the same. The latter is expected for beans and wheat, that are already iron-efficient, and for plants with enhanced vitamin A content.
Seeds with higher levels of particular micronutrients have other advantages as well, such as higher germination, better seedling vigour, and improved resistance in soils deficient in that micronutrient. The strategy can also improve the stress-tolerance of a plant. At Cornell, scientists recently found that the higher the levels of zinc in the root cell membranes of a plant, the higher the tolerance to environmental stresses, such as salinity.
IFPRI scientists have no doubt that if their strategy works, the financial advantages will be large. For example, it has been estimated that Turkish farmers growing zinc-dense wheat varieties would save between US$ 75 to 100 million annually in reduced seedling rates alone. However, more scientific research is needed to determine whether the agronomic advantages are strong enough for the seeds to be adopted, and whether the additional nutrients contained in the seeds will have a stable impact on human nutrition.

Doubts
Some questions have been raised concerning the comparative advantage of the approach. Maria José de Oliveira Zimmermann, a member of the Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) of the CGIAR stated that it may take at least ten years and a substantial amount of money before the first results are ready for the market. Meanwhile, the development of other, more efficient strategies may make the quality crops obsolete. The encouragement of balanced diets, the increase in vegetable production, or the enhancement of food and income security through agricultural diversification might be as good methods as this breeding strategy. These alternatives are low-tech in nature. For example, after the processing phase some cereals, such as rice, may have lost much of their nutritional quality. If rice consumption habits change (e.g. consumption of white rice), the processing will change and some of the mineral deficiencies will already have been overcome. However, continuing consumption patterns will complicate the research since it should not just enhance the nutrition of the seed as such, but should also concentrate on those parts that are actually consumed.
TAC has not formally considered the project as an inter-centre initiative within the CGIAR. This means that the project faces a shortage of funds and is not sure about the commitment of the crop-based CG institutes to execute the project. It is unclear how much support this project will receive from the CGIAR in the future. The only certainty that the project staff has is that if the micronutrient enhancement is achieved at the expense of crop yield, this new research project will be in trouble.
Gerda van Roozendaal

Editor Biotechnology and Development Monitor

Sources
Keith Bezanson (1995), Closing Remarks: A summing up. Speech made at the international conference hosted by IFPRI and the National Geographic Society, Washington DC, June 13-15 1995.

Robin Graham and Ross Welch (1996), Breeding for Staple Food Crops with High Micronutrient Density. Agricultural Strategies for Micronutrients/Working Paper No.3. Washington DC: IFPRI.

IFPRI (1995), Plant Breeding and Food Policy to Reduce Micronutrient Malnutrition: CGIAR strategies for improving dietary quality. Washington DC: IFPRI.

Jane Seymour (1996), "Hungry for a New Revolution." New Scientist, 30 March 1996, pp. 32-37.

Maria José de Oliveira Zimmermann (1996), "Commentary". In: Robin Graham and Ross Welch (1996), Breeding for Staple Food Crops with High Micronutrient Density. Agricultural Strategies for Micronutrients/Working Paper No.3. Washington DC: IFPRI.

Personal communications with Howarth Bouis and Peter Oram (IFPRI), and Ross Welch (Cornell University).



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