Malnutrition is defined as undernutrition, micro-nutrient deficiency and overweight. Unfortunately, it causes high economic and social costs to society in almost every country. According to FAO’s latest estimates, 12.5 percent (868 million people) of the global population is undernourished. Still, 26 percent of the world’s children have child growth retardation (stunting); 2 billion people suffer from one or several micro-nutrient deficiencies. On the other hand, 1.4 billion people are overweight, including the 500 million who classify as obese. All these nutritional disorders, with more than one form, can be found in every country. A small table has been arranged with a few samples to clarify the importance of nutritional disorders in the world (see Table). Some countries are suffering terribly from child stunting (an indicator of undernutrition), whereas others struggle with iodine deficiency or anemia (often caused by iron deficiency, increases the risk of women dying in childbirth). Iron is an essential metal micronutrient for human health; its deficiency in the human diet contributes to high rates of mortality in developing countries. More than 125 million children under five years of age suffer from vitamin A deficiency (VAD) in the world. More than half of the children who lose their sight because of VAD die within a year. The above table shows how high the VAD is in developing countries. Iodine is another essential, a non-metal micronutrient for human health (its deficiency impairs thyroid functions). When severe deficiency occurs, fetal development can be affected with consequent irreversible brain damage and mental retardation. Interestingly, iodine deficiency seems to be an overlooked issue in the developed world.

Malnutrition may affect economic development by limiting productivity and human capital accumulation. The decline in productivity beyond the social cost of malnutrition and treatment expenditures is equal to 5% of the annual world gross national product (GNP) 3.5 trillion US$ (equal to 500 US$ per capita). The full breakdown of the amount in question has been estimated in 2010 as 1.4 trillion US$ globally, which includes the risk factors of overweight and obesity.

Studies show that reduction of such malnutrition disorders is economically possible. Research results from Ethiopia, India and Nigeria show that every US$1 invested in reducing child stunting generates between $12 and $34 in economic returns[1].

To reduce the cost involved and to provide better nutrition food systems, the solution begins with agriculture. It is, beyond being a source of livelihood, a source for food production. Therefore agriculture is the most significant sector to minimize eating disorders. Bio-fortification is possible in every stage ranging from production, processing, storage, and transport to marketing. So beside the pharmaceutical and food industries, agriculture could also serve to enrich food in some cases, with the insertion of micro-nutrient genes into regarded plant genomes and it would be affordable, especially in developing countries. Actually, the lack of trace elements had been covered by currently commercialized new genotypes in a few food sources, like fatty acid omega-3 enriched rapeseed, antioxidant enriched likopen tomato and folic acid increased lettuce.

The importance of the subject brought the World Health Organization, Food and Agriculture Organization and the CGIAR (Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research) together as the top organizations on this issue, to step up to a more serious level of cooperation in 2004. Starting an international program, namely the “HarvestPlus Challenge”, they have begun with classical plant breeding and transferred genes into the most consumed local plants which did not contain enough vitamins or micronutrients. New genotypes were able to store vitamin or micro-elements in plant leaves, roots and seeds. Let’s take a look at some of the newly commercialized cultivars in some countries:

  • In 2011, vitamin A-enriched cassava varieties in the Congo;
  • In 2012, iron-enriched bean varieties in the Congo;
  • In 2012, vitamin A-enriched maize varieties in Zambia;
  • In 2012, iron-enriched maize varieties in India;
  • In 2007, agricultural vitamin A-enriched sweet potato varieties in Uganda and Mozambique;
  • In 2013, zinc-enriched rice in India and Bangladesh;
  • In 2013, zinc-enriched wheat cultivars in India and Pakistan.

Not every plant has a donor genotype to be enriched with the above mentioned items. So to enrich the rice plants with vitamin A, biotechnology stepped in. The globally recognized GOLDEN RICE project was started in1999. The different forms of Golden Rice contain between 1.6 and 35 µg β-carotene per gram of rice. A recent study with children has shown that the bio-availability of pro-vitamin A from Golden Rice is as effective as pure β-carotene in oil, and far better than spinach in providing vitamin A to children. A daily intake of 60 g of rice (half a cup) would provide about 60 per cent of the Chinese Recommended Nutrient Intake of vitamin A for 6–8-year-old children and be sufficient to prevent vitamin A malnutrition[2]. But it has been blocked by some GOLDEN RICE opponent group, so it has not yet reached to farmers’ field. Economic evaluation of such delay has been estimated with a mathematical model by two scientists (Wesseler J. And D. Zilberman 2014)[3] in a peer reviewed article (The economic power of the Golden Rice opposition) and come to a remarkable conclusion: “Despite Golden Rice being available since early 2000, this rice has not been introduced in any other country. Governments must recognize additional costs that over-compensate the benefits of the technology to explain the delay in approval… The model has been applied to the case of India. Results show the annual perceived costs have to be at least US$199 million per year approximately for the last decade to explain the delay in approval of the technology. This is an indicator of the economic power of the opposition towards Golden Rice resulting in about 1.4 million life years lost over the past decade in India”.

Agriculture can create more than we, the global population receives today. Not only is this true with routine food, but also in terms of bio-fortified products that the global population will need in the future. We have to improve agricultural research strategies to create more sustainable production systems. Orienting existing manpower to agricultural research and giving political priority to agricultural research should be considered an important issue for policymakers.

Nazimi Açıkgöz

[2] Tang G, Hu Y, Yin S, Wang Y, Dallal GE, Grusak MA & Russell RM (2012). ß-carotene in GE ‘Golden’ rice is as good as ß-carotene in oil at providing vitamin A to children. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 96: 658-664.


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