Opinion: Biofortification is an obstacle to food justice

September 12 , 2012

By Gene Ethics founder and director Bob Phelps

I grew up in New Zealand with the benefits of a nutritious, diverse diet of vegetables and fruit, fresh every day from our family’s kitchen garden. Our garden was built on the peelings and scraps of past meals and soil nutrients from our hen house and the neighborhood.

The United Nations and its Special Rapporteur on Food Olivier de Schutter, assert the universal human right to nourishing foods so everyone can be healthy and achieve our full potential. But micronutrient malnutrition - hidden hunger – and starvation afflict at least a billion members of the human family, through a lack of micronutrients and access to affordable food.

In 1992, 159 countries at a UN Food and Agricultural Organization/World Health Oganization International Conference on Nutrition pledged to help combat micronutrient deficiencies, especially of iodine, vitamin A, and iron, which then afflicted up to one in three people worldwide. Though food fortification alone would not end nutrient deficiencies and hunger, it claimed to be a step in the right direction. So a lot of scarce research and development resources have been poured into developing the new technology of biofortification. There are no biofortified foods yet.

Gene manipulation

Biofortification uses genetic manipulation techniques to cut and paste a gene into a staple crop, seeking to make a new or lost micronutrient. It is claimed they will be a solution to nutrient deficiencies, starvation, malnutrition and resultant ill health, especially in less industrialized countries and regions.

For  instance, so-called Golden Rice, yellow because it contains the Vitamin A precursor beta-carotene, claims to be biofortified.  But this would merely restore the vitamin A lost when brown rice is polished and its husk, bran, and germ are removed. White rice stores better than brown so is more acceptable in global trade and in communities which do not understand brown rice’s health benefits. Bananas, cassava and sweet potato are also the targets of much biofortification research.

But leading global food biofortification research and development organization, HarvestPlus, also acknowledges: "Fruits, vegetables, and animal products are rich in micronutrients, but these foods are often not available to the poor. Their daily diet consists mostly of a few inexpensive staple foods, such as rice or cassava, which have few micronutrients. The consequences, in terms of malnutrition and health, are devastating and can result in blindness, stunting, disease, and even death."

So, most malnutrition and starvation are really the food access disasters of poverty, inequity and social injustice. Thus, the challenge to feed everyone well is much more than adding one or two key nutrients to an impoverished diet dominated by a staple food or two. Yet HarvestPlus and other biofortification enthusiasts such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation do not intend to redress the lack of access to diverse healthy foods for all. They merely propose to add one or two micronutrients to fortify the same few staple foods that most poor people now have to rely on. Biofortification is not a solution to the core problem of access to a nutritious, diverse, balanced diet, a human right which would satisfy the health entitlements of all people, everywhere.

Biofortification distraction

Instead of fixing the hidden hunger problem, biofortification defuses and delays the quest for food justice, to meet everyone’s right to food. It would further marginalize the world’s poor, malnourished and starving people, mostly landless women and children in rural areas or those displaced into urban slums by destruction of their communities. Biofortification would consign poor people permanently to low value, nutrient deficient, staple food ghettos from which they could not escape, permanently denying them the diverse nutritious meals to which they have a right.

Biofortification is therefore a misallocation of scarce research and development resources that would entrench poor people’s lack of access to the balanced nutritious food of which there is an abundance, if only it were fairly distributed to all. But in food systems dominated by global trade in bulk commodities and food waste, food goes where it is most profitable rather than where it is most needed. We must work to dispel the inequities which allow nutrient deficiency to remain a chronic problem even though, as de Schutter and others confirm, there is sufficient good food to adquately feed everyone in the world right now.

Biofortified food staples will not ensure people's health is improved, nor that their human rights to food are met. Public resources should be directed to helping empower malnourished and starving people to gain access to the land, water and seeds they need to locally produce the fresh fruits and vegetables that everyone agrees will resolve hidden hunger, starvation, illness and death.

It’s our responsibility is to ensure that every child, woman and man has acces to the fresh fruits and vegetables needed for childhood growth and development, and adult health.



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  1. Some clarifications. First, biofortification is primarily being done through conventional breeding methods. For example, the orange sweet potato (OSP) that is providing much needed dietary vitamin A in many parts of Africa, is conventionally bred and similar to the OSP eaten in the US and other parts of the world. Second, there is peer-reviewed evidence published in journal articles that shows a significant increase in intakes of vitamin A as a direct result of this OSP being made available to malnourished communities. Rural children can now get their daily needs for vitamin A met from a food that is familiar, tasty, and that their families can grow at home! Third, rice grains do NOT contain vitamin A precursors, so the assertion that is it removed in milling is incorrect. Fourth, the quote on " toxic amounts of nutrient.." is incorrectly attributed to HarvestPlus. It has simply been cut and pasted from a wikipedia entry on food fortification and refers to synthetic nutrients. Sadly, food fortification and biofortification have been conflated by the author bringing even more confusion to the discussion, than clarity.

  2. Tom says:

    Sheesh, so many wrong claims in such a short article. But disregarding all this, I understand now that it's better NOT to help people improve their nutrition status a little bit now and instead paint the image of a world without poverty and hunger as the only objective (that, alas, will not happen any time soon). For sure everybody agrees that "It's our responsibility is to ensure that every child, woman and man has acces to the fresh fruits and vegetables needed for childhood growth and development, and adult health." But that's more easily said than done in the real world. Go on dreaming and writing self-righteous little essays, do-gooder, and feel morally superior to people who actually take steps (and by they only little) to nudge the world along to make it a better place... (I suppose also in NZ you use iodized salt, i.e. you have not tackled the root problem of this deficiency but instead rely on a fix for a single key nutrient instead of a balanced diet. Of course this is preferable to having higher rates of cretinism in the country, but why deny similar approaches that could help countries who need help much more? Just not be be idle while waiting for great ideas to come true...)

  3. Bob Phelps says:

    Tom: eradication of hidden hunger and meeting people’s right to food is a difficult but not impossible task if we all work on it. Achieving social justice must never be relegated to the too-hard-basket. The global food sovereignty and family farmer movement La Via Campesina is on the right track. But for the past 20 years aid donors and philanthropists have applied their limited research resources to technical bandaids instead of investing in the durable solutions that you also agree should seek to deliver everyone’s right to food.

    Yes, I am a beneficiary of NZ government policy that required iodine to be added to salt to help prevent goiter and cretinism. That was supplementation not biofortification and it only worked because Kiwis had access to diverse balanced diets of nutritious food that provided all our other micro-nutrient needs. These enabled us to benefit from the iodine supplement. Aid agencies and governments also run programs of Vitamin A and iron supplementation in communities that suffer these deficiencies but such programs will only ever be a stopgap. They can never be a final solution to hidden hunger and nor can biofortified crops that consign poor people perpetually to a diet dominated by low-nutrient staples.

  4. Bob Phelps says:

    Response and further clarification for Yassir Islam, Head of Communications at HarvestPlus: 1. If the families who eat HarvestPlus’s Vitamin A biofortified orange sweet potato (OSP) as a staple also had abundant green leafy vegetables and fruit in their diets, their overall health and well-being would be even more improved. Traditionally bred OSP is an exception in the biofortification stakes. For instance, Golden Rice is made using genetic manipulation (GM) techniques and so is the Vitamin A banana under development at Queensland University of Technology, Australia, with Gates’ money. 2. While Vitamin A levels may be increased in OSP, it appears there may still be dramatic deficiencies of iron, B vitamins and other key micronutrients also needed for the health of the poor rural and urban children that HarvetPlus hopes to heal. HarvetPlus’s single track Vitamin A approach does not appear to ameliorate the other aspects of hidden hunger. By all means enable people to grow OSP at home, along with the nutritious fruits and leafy vegetables on which everyone’s good health also depends. 3. I may be mistaken over Vitamin A precursors in unpolished rice. However, it is certainly true that polishing rice to remove its bran to make it white removes or depletes various B vitamins, manganese, phosphorus, iron, dietary fiber and essential fatty acids, also essential nutrients. If rice were not polished and its bran wasted, the lost food value could be available to the malnourished people whose main staple is rice. Brown rice may be more widely eaten if people knew it would improve their children’s health. 4. As you say, HarvestPlus does not appear to attend to the important public health issue of Vitamin A toxicity in its programs or on its website. That is disappointing as toxicity is a major potential problem with biofortified foods, and with synthetic fortification and supplementation programs run by many aid agencies and governments.

    1. Eric Bjerregaard says:

      hey bob, I checked on your useless source. The precursor is excreted if not needed.

  5. Bob Phelps says:

    Another critique of fortification and supplementation has just been published here and you are encouraged to comment: http://independentsciencenews.org/health/vitamin-a-wars-the-downsides-of-donor-driven-aid/#more-1052

  6. Paul Bennett says:

    Helping to feed the hungry and using verbal manipulation to use genetically modified foods (or whatever terms you wanna call it) is a violation of customer choice and human rights, if GM-foodig-monies are made and forced onto the people. Simple as. And as everyone with an IQ knows, nobody with an IQ (unless working for government corporate big-money boys) wants GM-foods. The lies that are being formulated worldwide to try (with nice smiles) "selling" us these abnormal foods is appalling. We all want normal foods - not abnormal ones. Ban GM foods - or clearly label them for all to see. Simple as!

    1. Eric Bjerregaard says:

      Nice lies. I work for no gov't corporate" folks and due to the long and successful use of GE technology think that you, Bob, and the author have quite a few screws loose. Try looking at the actual facts.

  7. donald wolf says:

    This project is backed and funded by.......wait for it.......Bill and Linda Gates and the world bank. Enough said. Say our Prayers. Peace.

    1. Eric Bjerregaard says:

      Gates is doing good work isn't he. Glad you understand.