SEARCA webinar tackles prospects of biofortification to address food and nutrition insecurity

  • By Jean Rebecca D. Labios
  • 20 January 2021

LOS BAÑOS, Laguna, Philippines - Together with the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice), International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), and Biotechnology Coalition of the Philippines (BCP), the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA) conducted its 21st SEARCA Online Learning and Virtual Engagement (SOLVE) webinar titled Food and Nutrition Insecurity through Biofortification on 13 January 2021 via Zoom and Facebook Live.

The 21st SOLVE speakers (l-r): Dr. Howarth Bouis, Dr Martin Parreno, and  Dr. Reynante Ordonio.The 21st SOLVE speakers (l-r): Dr. Howarth Bouis, Dr Martin Parreno, and Dr. Reynante Ordonio.

The webinar aimed to improve public understanding and acceptance of biofortification and its potential benefits in contributing to food and nutrition security and in improving the quality of life of many in the Philippines and beyond. Webinar speakers included Dr. Howarth Bouis, Founding Director of HarvestPlus and Emeritus Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI); Dr. Martin Parreno, Officer-in-Charge of Programme Unit and Program Policy Officer at the World Food Programme Philippines; and Dr. Reynante Ordonio, Project Lead of the Healthier Rice Project at PhilRice.

For 25 years, Dr. Bouis has been promoting and implementing a strategy of biofortification through plant breeding. His presentation focused on mainstreaming nutrition into agri-food systems through biofortification. He cited that the fundamental cause of widespread mineral and vitamin deficiencies is that the poor cannot afford to buy sufficient nutritious food products, which result to poor dietary quality. This emphasizes the role of agriculture in human nutrition. The challenge lies in producing nutritious high-yielding crops that sell for the same price as regular crops, if not cheaper. Dr. Bouis explained that when food prices rise, the poor protect themselves from going hungry by spending more on food staples, hence lessening their intakes for non-staple foods as well as expenses on non-food items. In a simulation he showed, the iron intake of women declined by 35 percent. This demonstrates the problem of hidden hunger. The nutrition community developed programs on providing food supplements and food fortification, but while these may fill gaps, it did not treat the underlying problem of poor-quality diets. This is how the idea of biofortification came about, where nutrient-dense crop varieties were developed though agricultural research. Studies have shown that it is cost-effective and sustainable for agriculture to supply a higher percentage of minerals and vitamins that people need at affordable prices. There is evidence that increasing the density of vitamin A, iron, and zinc in food staples improve micronutrient status. This reveals improvement in functional outcomes such as less sickness, and better cognitive and work performance. Several biofortified crops are now released in 40 countries, grown by at least 10 million farm households; some are iron-fortified, zinc-fortified, and vitamin A-fortified.

Dr. Parreno’s presentation featured the experiences of the World Food Programme in its study called Fill the Nutrition Gap or FNG.  Started in 2016 and conducted in 33 countries, its results were deemed useful in developing national plans and programs to achieve food security and nutrition. The FNG study found that there is a correlation between non-affordability of nutritious diet and undernutrition. The high cost of affording a nutritious diet leads to high malnutrition, and a common occurrence is a high percentage of childhood stunting, wasting, and micronutrient deficiency. There is also a high cost of nutrition for pregnant/lactating women and adolescent girls. In the Philippines, it was found that the minimum wage is not enough to address the cost of a nutritious diet. Further, one out of three households could not afford a diet that meets nutritional needs, which is probably why malnutrition and micronutrient deficiency remains prevalent in the country. Results also showed that feeding practices of young children are sub-optimal; meeting nutritional needs of adolescent girls and pregnant and breastfeeding women cost households the most; there is a policy focus on rice self-sufficiency with low demand on vegetables which do not incentivize agricultural diversification; with vulnerability to natural disasters, emergency preparedness plans must include strengthened programs and monitoring tools that include nutrition; and existing school meal programs can provide children with nutritious food. Several interventions were determined to address the nutrition gap, but the most common finding is fortification to improve the nutritional status. Dr. Parreno emphasized the stand of WFP that fortification works especially because it reduces cost of nutritious diet and contributes to reduction of malnutrition. Fortification also increases affordability of nutritious diets when included in social safety net programs, and it can be scaled up using existing practical solutions that are also open for innovation.

Dr. Ordonio highlighted the regulatory process to pilot-scale deployment of Golden Rice in the Philippines. This is part of the food security framework of the Philippine Department of Agriculture, aiming to provide not just food, but safe and nutritious food. He discussed the state of nutrition in the Philippines, where Filipinos have the second shortest average height in ASEAN, ninth worldwide for stunting, and 10th for wasting. These are caused by micronutrient deficiencies and hidden hunger. About 2 million children below five years old experience vitamin A deficiency, accounting for 25.8 percent of children living in the poorest households. This deficiency is the main cause for stunting, and can lead to poor immunity, poor eyesight, and poor cognitive development. Since the development of young children are at stake, this can result to reduction in population productivity for the future. Relating this situation to the Filipino diet, households spend almost 30 percent of its daily food cost on rice, comprising almost 40 percent of their daily diet. Rice is the Filipinos’ top source of energy and iron among all age groups. Given these, Golden Rice, a genetically modified rice containing beta-carotene which is converted by the body into vitamin A, is a promising tool and complementary solution to addressing malnutrition. Dr. Ordonio illustrated that extensive research has been done on Golden Rice and research protocols have satisfied local and international regulations on food safety and health. It has been accredited with permits and approval from various international institutions on food safety, as well as the DA. Once regulatory application has been approved, Golden Rice will be released as a common rice variety in the Philippine market.

During the open forum, the speakers addressed questions and comments from participants ranging from perceptions on biofortified crops, how the poorest of the poor can avail of these, and how governments respond to these kinds of programs.

Food and nutrition security is one of SEARCA’s priority thrusts under its 11th Five-Year Plan. Having an accurate, highly credible, sound, timely, and reliable source of information is an indispensable part of the Center’s initiatives to Accelerate Transformation through Agricultural Innovation (ATTAIN).