A Conversation with Howarth Bouis, Founder and Former Director of HarvestPlus
On a cool day in March, the Crop Trust had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Howarth Bouis, otherwise known as “Howdy”, at our offices in Bonn. Winner of the 2016 World Food Prize, Howdy is a formidable figure at the intersection between agriculture and human nutrition.
Biofortification has been his life’s work, and we took the opportunity of his visit to learn more about his journey and the ongoing efforts of HarvestPlus and its partners to address “hidden hunger” around the world.
Hidden hunger, the less well-known little brother of lack of calories, stems from mineral and vitamin deficiencies, often caused by a lack of diversity in the diet. As you read this sentence, about 2 billion people around the world are suffering from these deficiencies, which can lead to blindness, cognitive impairments, stunting, and even death. In fact, it’s hidden hunger that accounts for 50% of all mortality in developing countries. On the occasion of World Hunger Day on 28 May, we invite you to read this Q&A with someone who’s doing something about that.
Crop Trust: You started off your career as an economist, yet here you are tackling the world’s major hunger and nutrition challenges of the 21st century. How did this journey begin?
Howdy: At first, I was doing research at IFPRI to understand how economic factors were affecting diets, health and nutrition outcomes. I was attending nutrition conferences and just beginning to learn about this problem of dietary quality and vitamin deficiencies. I worked for a system of institutes [CGIAR Consortium] that developed high-yielding crops, and one day the thought occurred to me that if I can get the plants to do the work – to load more minerals and vitamins into the seeds – that this would be a very efficient way to get the nutrients to people in need. This idea hadn’t been tried before for minerals and vitamins, so I started looking into it.
CT: And this idea is what we now call biofortification?
H: Exactly. Biofortification is essentially taking a high-yielding crop variety and crossing it with a different crop variety that may not be high-yielding but is nutrient dense, with higher levels of iron, zinc or pro vitamin A, for example. Through the conventional breeding process, which can take upwards of ten years, breeders can eventually develop a high-yielding, high-nutrient variety — the end result being a variety that gives farmers and consumers the best of both worlds.
CT: How did the agricultural research world first react to the idea of biofortification?
H: Originally, the breeders said, “I already have a lot of work to do increasing yield, pest-resistance and disease-resistance. If you give me another breeding objective, it really increases my work. Let the nutritionists worry about nutrition. I’ll worry about productivity; that’s my job.”
It took a while to convince people that this was something useful to do, but I’d say that now breeders are excited about the possibilities, and the CGIAR system as a whole recognizes that they can do something to help improve nutrition.
CT: Wouldn’t it be easier to give people suffering from hidden hunger the minerals and vitamins directly, as pills?
H: Biofortificaiton is a more cost-effective, long-term solution. For example, 500 million Vitamin A supplements are given out each year, at about a dollar per supplement. That’s 500 million dollars this year, 500 million dollars next year, and over a decade you spend five billion dollars. Yet, you still haven’t addressed the underlying cause of hidden hunger – the lack of vitamins and minerals in the diet. Supplements save a lot of lives, but biofortification is a way to address the underlying cause by breeding plants with higher nutrients, thereby substantially reducing the need for more short-term measures.
We don’t want to claim that biofortification is a silver bullet or will eliminate all nutrition problems. It’s just one of the things that needs to be done and can be done in a cost-effective way.
The cost-effectiveness of biofortification derives from the fact that the basic research can be done in central agricultural research institutes, then biofortified varieties can be made available to lots of countries around the world. Once mainstreamed into plant breeding programs, biofortification piggybacks on the best agronomic properties of newly developed varieties, which eventually account for a high percentage of total supply. Recurrent costs are very low. Imagine if the high iron and high zinc traits, which are invisible and tasteless, had been bred into the original modern varieties that were the basis of the Green Revolution!
CT: And where do you find these varieties with high nutritient density?
H: Diversity in the germplasm bank is totally essential for this process. We couldn’t do this work of biofortification without having first found the variation in genebanks. And, of course, the Crop Trust plays a critical role in ensuring that these genebanks exist in perpetuity, run efficiently, and that the diversity is carefully conserved within them.
You’re also working to increase the efficiency with which genebank users can extract information. This is also crucial because if seeds just sit there, and we don’t have the information on the traits within them, they can’t be used in breeding. This doesn’t just apply to nutritional traits either, but also to traits for environmental stresses. I know that IRRI, for example, has developed submergence-tolerant rice to maintain productivity despite increased flooding; CIMMYT has developed drought resistant varieties of maize; and CIAT has developed heat-tolerant beans – all to cope with climate change. None of those varieties would have been possible without utilizing genebanks and finding those traits. All these climate-smart varieties should be nutrition-smart as well, that is, biofortified.
Currently, we are working on combining nutritional traits with climate-smart traits. We have high-iron, heat-resistance beans that are now being released in Africa. Without being able to tap into that variation within crops in genebanks, we couldn’t do any of this work.
CT: We couldn’t agree more. When you’re looking at all of these traits, how do you decide which nutrients to put into which crops?
H: Vitamin A, iron and zinc deficiencies are the most widespread and serious, so we decided to focus on these three nutrients. At the moment, we are working on 12 crops.
How we choose which nutrient goes into which crop depends on a number of factors.
Let’s take rice as an example: we had a target for iron, and wanted to create a high-iron rice variety. But rice is milled, and we saw that most of the iron is deposited in the outer layer of the seed and is actually milled away before people eat the rice. Thus, we had to drop out quest for iron-rich rice. We then looked at vitamin A, but you can’t use conventional breeding to put vitamin A in rice because no rice variety has vitamin A in the seed itself. So then we looked at zinc, which is deposited throughout the rice endosperm, the part of the seed that is consumed after milling. Some of the zinc is milled away, but a substantial portion remains in the seed itself when it’s eaten. So we saw that we could breed rice for high zinc. We focused introduction of high zinc varieties into countries that eat a lot of rice and where zinc deficiency is a problem. Mineral and vitamin deficiencies are so widespread that it is not hard to find countries where these deficiencies exist.
We basically went through that same process for all 12 crops and found the nutrient for each that we could breed for maximum effect.
CT: Does this work require much international cooperation, for people to work together?
H: Sharing this material is extremely important. For example, we found some good sources of pro-vitamin A in Brazilian cassava varieties, which were really important. We were able to transfer some material from Brazil to CIAT in Colombia in order to do some work on yellow-fleshed cassava. Then, CIAT sent some material to our sister center in Africa, IITA, that also works on cassava. The breeders at IITA already had resistance for very important diseases in Africa, but they got the vitamin A trait from Latin America. It’s this kind of international cooperation that is helping those who need it most – all the time.
CT: Speaking of cooperation, which partners are working with HarvestPlus to make biofortification a reality?
H: There are so many different types of partners. It starts with the plant breeding, so we work with CGIAR Centers and their scientists; national agricultural research systems that do the adaptive breeding and submit the varieties to the variety release committees; and then also upstream researchers, typically at universities, on gene identification for marker-assisted selection.
In the area of human nutrition, we work with universities, both in developed and developing countries to design the nutritional studies that we do to prove that the biofortified varieties can actually reduce iron deficiencies, zinc deficiencies, and vitamin A deficiencies under controlled conditions.
We also work with food scientists because we have to understand how the minerals and vitamins are lost after harvest – in processing, storage, and cooking. For example, rice is milled and cassava is highly processed as flour before it is eaten, so a certain amount of the minerals and vitamins are lost in those processes. We have to understand these things because it is the amount of extra nutrients that the people get when they eat the crop – not the amount that is in the crop when it is harvested – that matters.
Then we go to farmer delivery: depending on specific circumstances, we work with private seed companies, NGOs, and government extension agencies, all of whom can have extensive networks of farmers.
We have to spread the word, create demand. Radio is used widely. Also, for example, movies have been made by the Nollywood film industry in Nigeria with yellow cassava as sub-texts. There is a rap video about high-iron beans that came out in Rwanda.
Lastly, we work with economists, because we have to demonstrate to our stakeholders the types of impact that we are achieving, measure the benefits and the costs that are incurred.
Everyone has a role to play, and if anybody fails, none of us are going to reach our vision.
CT: Going back to the beginning of your work, who was the first breeder you convinced to try biofortification?
H: It was Steve Beebe, who is the head of the bean-breeding program at CIAT. He came to our first meeting in 1994, liked the idea, and started screening his germplasm immediately for high iron. He was actually the person who coined the term biofortification back in 2001. We’ve used the term ever since.
CT: From that point, how long did it take before biofortified varieties were released?
H: We started our work in 2003 across several crops. Then our first varieties were released in 2012 and 2013. So it did take 10 years for the entire process. Now biofortified crops have been released in 30 countries, and they are in testing in an additional 25 countries. Four or five years from now we will have biofortified crops available for famers to grow in 55 countries.
CT: That’s an impressive feat. As you’re an economist by trade, have you looked into the economic benefits of biofortification?
H: The benefits derive from the health outcomes – from having more minerals and vitamins in your diet. Biofortification provides these health benefits, essentially free to farmers and consumers, because the prices of the biofortified crops are the same as the prices of the non-biofortified crops.
Our studies have shown better cognitive abilities in children when they eat high iron pearl millet. We’ve seen better work performance from women who ate high iron beans in Rwanda. We’ve witnessed lower morbidity levels in women and children who ate high zinc wheat in India.
All of those health outcomes have economic benefits. If we can capture a very high percentage of the total supply in the country, those benefits accrue to practically everybody in the country.
You have a fixed cost in the plant breeding, but it is relatively low compared to the high number of people who will eventually be eating the biofortified crops. We’ve estimated that for every dollar invested, we can have an average of USD 17 return in benefits.
CT: What is your vision for this work in the future?
H: Our vision is to reach a billion people with biofortified crops by 2030. We’ve identified 40 target countries for this work. If we can capture 20 to 25% of the staple crop supply in those countries, we will have reached a billion people.
Let me illustrate with an example. In Sub-Saharan Africa, maize is the most widely eaten staple crop. Vitamin A deficiency is a serious public health problem. White maize varieties, which have no vitamin A, are highly preferred. Through research and other activities, we now have high yielding, high pro-vitamin A maize varieties released in Africa. So what is my vision 30 years from now?
A little girl will talk to her grandmother and say, “Grandma, did there used to be such a thing as white maize?”
And her grandmother will say, “Yes, when I was a child I used to eat white maize, but now it is mostly orange.”
The production and marketing of orange maize will be totally driven by the private sector, just as that of white maize is totally driven by the private sector today. And that will go a long way towards reducing vitamin A deficiency in Africa, and beyond.
– The End –
This conversation has been shortened and condensed for clarity.