Tackling malnutrition – with food, not pills

16 June, 2010 by (comments)

We’re sure you’ll be keen to read Michael Latham of Cornell University’s scathing comment piece, The great vitamin A fiasco, published in the first edition of the online journal World Nutrition recently.

The article is an extensive, critical account of how the international nutrition community has responded to worldwide vitamin A deficiency by focusing on distributing vitamin A supplements, to the detriment of other “biologically, socially, culturally, economically and environmentally appropriate” intervention approaches.


We’re sure some members of the international development community will find Latham’s hard-hitting analysis somewhat hard to swallow.

But he makes a very strong point which lends support to ongoing work by CIAT – that improving the nutritional quality of food is a smarter and often more effective option than the quick fix of reaching for the vitamin pills. As Latham himself points out, this view is also enshrined in the Declaration and Plan of Action from the 1992 UN International Conference on Nutrition, which recommends that member states “(e)nsure that sustainable food-based strategies are given first priority particularly for populations deficient in vitamin A and iron, favouring locally available foods and taking into account local food habits.”

While this includes a role for medicinal supplements, these “should be progressively phased out as soon as micronutrient-rich, food-based strategies enable adequate consumption of micronutrients.”

Caranavi Rice20_lo

CIAT has been working on improving the nutritional content of staple crops – known as biofortification – for more than a decade. The institution leads biofortification activities in Latin America through the AgroSalud project (and co-coordinates biofortification work in Africa and Asia through the HarvestPlus project. Both of these international efforts aim to provide sustainable, food-based solutions to nutrient deficiencies in the developing world.

Through these projects and with the support of a range of partners, we have delivered a range of nutritionally improved food crops to millions of people in remote rural areas.

Haiti – 30 tons of quality protein maize (QPM) seed were distributed in 2008 in collaboration with the FAO staple crop seeds program, reaching over 1,500 farmers. QPM maize contains higher levels of essential amino acids than other maize varieties.

Central America – National Agricultural Research System (NARS) of Nicaragua distributed 27,000 orange-fleshed sweet potato (high in pro-Vitamin A) cuttings to four NGOs to help beneficiaries establish family gardens. Furthermore, the commercial production of QPM seed reached 190 metric tons in 2008, enough to plant around 12,000 hectares. Over 700 technicians and farmers (nearly two-thirds of whom were women) received training in QPM seed production.
Bolivia and Cuba – In 2009, commercially released rice with higher iron was planted by 180 farmers in Bolivia and 150 farmers in Cuba.

We expect that CIAT’s drive to improve nutrition by improving food quality is the kind of sustainable intervention that Latham supports.

See the recent picture feature in New Agriculturist about the work of AgroSalud.

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Filed Under: Latin America and the Caribbean, Regions