The mission: bring healthy food to the 2 billion people in the world who lack essential vitamins and minerals. Simple.
Well, not really. But HarvestPlus is determined to make this a reality. So far, the international organization has reached 20 million people experiencing hidden hunger.
The key is biofortification.
With offices in eight countries, operating throughout Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America, HarvestPlus is hard at work eliminating hunger and malnutrition, one seed at a time.
The Problem: Hidden Hunger
Hidden hunger is essentially another phrase for malnutrition, which means a person is consuming enough calories to sustain life, but isn’t getting enough nutrients to be healthy. Though the person may not starve to death, deficient levels of vitamin A, zinc, and iron could cause potentially fatal bouts of pneumonia and diarrhea, in addition to health issues like blindness, stunted growth, and problems with brain development.
Hidden hunger disproportionately affects the developing world where most farmers are smallholders, operating on maybe an acre of land, and subsistent, growing just enough to feed their families.
“These are people who don’t have access to a nourishing diet,” Peg Willingham, HarvestPlus’ spokesperson, told Global Citizen. “Even if they have a chicken they might sell the eggs to get money for school fees. They can’t buy Flintstones vitamins or packaged foods – they’re not going to a supermarket.”
The Solution: Biofortification
Biofortification is the process by which food crops are conventionally bred to have more micronutrients.
"Biofortification differs from conventional fortification in that biofortification aims to increase nutrient levels in crops during plant growth rather than through manual means during processing of the crops," according to the World Health Organization.
In addition to making crops more nutritious, HarvestPlus develops more resilient seeds that can better withstand bugs, heat, drought, or salt water, among other effects of climate change.
Though biofortification isn’t the only way to improve diets in developing countries, it is one of the most effective.
“Many things have been tried, like giving people and children supplements for vitamins and minerals,” said Beverley Postma, HarvestPlus’ CEO. “But biofortification is able to reach those communities that aren’t being reached by supplementation.”
In addition to its range, biofortification is also advantageous in terms of longevity. Instead of a supplement which is applied to one person at one time, by introducing biofortified staple crops, nourishment can be sustained for generations.
“It really is cost effective,” said Willingham. “You don’t need more water or fertilizer. It doesn’t take any longer to cook. Once you breed in micronutrients they stay in.”
HarvestPlus works primarily in central Africa but is also present in Latin America and Southeast Asia. Based on local diets in these regions, the organization develops staple crops like beans, sweet potatoes, cassava, maize, rice, wheat, and pearl millet. They then partner with governments and NGOs to distribute biofortified seeds to vulnerable populations.
The success of this two-pronged strategy – working directly with local farmers and upscaling through grassroots efforts – makes HarvestPlus’ goal of reaching 1 billion people by 2030 completely realistic.
One of the organization’s greatest challenges is differentiating biofortification with genetically modified organisms (GMO), which involves the actual cutting and pasting of genes. GMOs are thought to be unnatural and have a negative stigma as a result, even though the vast majority of scientists agree that they are perfectly safe.
“Some of the controversy is around the technology,” Willingham said. “People think of GMOs as ‘Frankenfood.’ They want to know, is it safe? Are companies crowding out small farmers? That doesn’t apply to us.”
Aside from this misinterpretation leading to negative PR, sometimes minor confusions can arise within the crops themselves.
Willingham says crops with greater levels of vitamin A can turn orange. Because HarvestPlus develops local crops, this creates a potential challenge in explaining to people why a food they have been eating their entire lives is a different color.
Thankfully, it isn’t a major hurdle.
“People get that quickly because they know about vitamin A,” Willingham said.
As with most socially conscious organizations, the only other real obstacle is funding, and even that may not be an issue soon.
HarvestPlus was recently announced as one of eight semi-finalists for a global competition called 100&Change, the winner of which will receive a $100 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation. About 2000 groups applied.
Should they win, the funding will help them scale up at an even faster rate, reach even more people, and become the standard in alleviating the world of hidden hunger.
“We have to press every button, whether it’s a company, government, NGO, or researchers, to make sure biofortification becomes the default,” Willingham said. “We have to make sure to always think about nutrition and how to mainstream it.”
"We’ve had some successes,” she said. “In theory, that is possible because farmers are always switching over their seeds. We want to make sure everyone in the food system gets on board.”