Farmers gain a healthy appetite for biofortified crops

By Busani Bafana

Farmer James Rusike loves white maize, the corn variety that’s the national staple here. But he’s since grown to love a different kind of maize: vitamin A-biofortified orange maize introduced to the country six years ago.

It is not hard to see why. Orange maize is nutritious, and it pays handsomely.

In the 2018-2019 growing season Rusike planted 5 hectares of biofortified maize. He harvested five tonnes, which he then sold to Skybrands, an agro-processor. He earned US$1,000, investing part of his profits in farm inputs and cattle.

Rusike, who hails from Bindura in Mashonaland Central Province, is now part of a collective of 300,000 households throughout Zimbabwe growing orange maize that’s been enriched with vitamin A through the process of biofortification.

Biofortification is an innovative solution to boosting the nutritional value of crops, in this case through conventional selective breeding. While crops can be selected and bred for taste, size, and drought tolerance, through biofortification farmers and scientists select for health benefits. The result is foods packed with micro-nutrients and minerals essential for good health and development.

There is great need for these foods. Zimbabwe has a high rate of malnutrition among women and children aged five and under, despite being on track to meet global targets for wasting and exclusive breastfeeding among under-fives, according to the Global Nutrition Report. Stunting, anaemia, and iron deficiency are all prevalent among young children and adults in the country.

Recognising the threat of this ‘hidden hunger’, in 2015 Zimbabwe’s government launched a five-year National Food Fortification Strategy which guides policy in preventing micronutrient deficiencies. HarvestPlus, a non-profit initiative, introduced a biofortification scheme called the Zimbabwe Livelihood and Food Security Program (LFSP) to help the government tackle this hidden hunger.

The effort encompasses 12 Districts. Smallholder farmers are now growing and consuming biofortified orange maize rich in vitamin A. They’re also raising biofortified beans packed with iron and zinc, and more recently biofortified orange sweet potatoes that have a higher vitamin A content than the traditional white variety. These foods are catching on, with studies showing an accelerating uptake of biofortified crops among farmers in Zimbabwe tapping into a growing demand and a ready market for these highly nutritious foods.

More than 20 years ago international researchers developed golden rice, a white rice genetically modified to provide vitamin A and more iron which. But it failed to gain wide approval in many countries because of its GMO roots. This new biofortified orange maize, however, is fast gaining global support. Many governments readily accept it, with national agriculture research institutions involved in developing new healthier orange maize varieties.

“Golden rice was produced through genetic engineering, and therefore a GMO. This affected its acceptance in a world,” said Sakile Kudita, HarvestPlus Zimbabwe’s country manager. The increasingly popular orange maize is conventionally bred and doesn’t carry the socio-political burden that comes with GMOs, Kudita said, noting that it’s also scientifically proven to reduce vitamin A deficiency.

But biofortification is no silver bullet. “Biofortified crops are not a substitute for dietary diversity,” said Kudita, who is urging farmers to eat biofortified crops together with other locally-available nutrient-dense foods.

Agricultural scientist and biofortification expert Dr. Charles Mutimaamba cautioned that, though bred to resist the same field pests and diseases, new biofortified crops are more susceptible to attack by storage insect pests such as weevils. Controlling these pests through cultural practices and insecticides is critical, he said.

The benefits likely outweigh those risks. Mutimaamba said smallholder farmers can grow biofortified crops just as easily as they do non-biofortified varieties but realise higher returns given the stronger demand for these foods.

In addition to orange maize, HarvestPlus is introducing drought-tolerant iron pearl millet rich in both iron and zinc. It plans to scale up vitamin A sweet potatoes following successful on-farm trials done in the 2019/20 growing season when farmers selected their desired varieties. These biofortified crops both improve nutrition and serve as cash crops for smallholder farmers who sell their surplus to off-takers.

There’s also an unmet demand for biofortified beans, especially for NUA45, a sugar bean ‘super seed’ desired for its nutritional content, taste, and ease of cooking. SkyBrands is developing a NUA45 bean sausage as a new product, says co-founder Clive Gahadza.

But farmer Rusike worries that the on-going global COVID-19 pandemic may slow things down, a deeply frustrating development given the initial resounding success. SkyBrands warned him and others that they may not repeat their prior volume purchase due to lockdown measures. “This year I was looking forward to increasing my hectares above 5 hectares, but I have run into a challenge,” Rusike said. “I may have to cut back on the hectarage of orange maize I will grow this year.”

Still, there may be cause for optimism. If it overcomes pandemic hurdles SkyBrands says its hopes to contract 320 farmers to produce 320 tons of the orange maize that Rusike now holds dear.

Busani Bafana is an agricultural and food security journalist based in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

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