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Originally published August 7, 2011 at 9:19 PM | Page modified August 8, 2011 at 11:29 AM

Could more-nutritious crops help fight hunger?

The Gates Foundation is spending millions on programs to boost nutrients in the crops many Africans rely on. The approach epitomizes Gates' belief in the power of science to combat hunger. But some experts are skeptical that such tech-heavy approaches will make much of a dent in malnutrition.

Seattle Times science reporter

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CALI, Colombia —

Steve Beebe dreams of the perfect bean the way some men dream of the perfect sports car.

It goes without saying it would be delicious. High-yielding, too. But Beebe's ideal legume would also be far more nutritious than your average pinto.

"You would want to eat it every day," he said, squatting between rows of bush beans to finger the leaves of one potential candidate at a research station outside Colombia's third-largest city.

A son of Iowa farmers, Beebe is breeding beans to improve the health of African farmers and their families — millions of whom do eat beans every day, and often little else. One of his high-iron varieties is being rolled out in Rwanda. Dozens more are under development here at the Centro Internactional de Agricultura Tropical (CIAT).

Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the work is part of a broader effort to boost the levels of vitamins and minerals in crops many Africans rely on for the bulk of their diets. The Seattle-based foundation has committed more than $160 million to these so-called biofortification programs.

The approach epitomizes Gates' belief in the power of science to combat hunger, and mirrors many of the giant philanthropy's other investments in improved seeds and fertilizers. But some agricultural experts are skeptical that tweaking nutrient levels and other tech-heavy approaches will make much of a dent in malnutrition, because they ignore the complex social, political and economic roots of the problem.

"Why aren't they focused on helping farmers grow a balanced diet?" asked Eric Holt-Giménez, executive director of the Oakland-based Institute for Food and Development Policy. "Because they think there's a technological solution to everything."

Much of the Gates-funded work involves genetic engineering, including $22 million for Golden Rice, a controversial strain with genes spliced in to boost vitamin A.

But slightly more than half of the foundation's biofortification budget goes to conventional breeding, like Beebe's. In addition to his iron-rich beans, conventionally bred cassava, corn and sweet potato high in the vitamin A precursor beta carotene are on the market or in the pipeline for Africa. Pearl millet high in iron and zinc is in the works for India.

Even absent the furor that surrounds genetic engineering, biofortification's focus on single crops and Western-style agriculture is at odds with several expert panels that concluded a more sustainable solution for African poverty would use less water and chemicals and incorporate varied crops, said University of Washington professor emeritus Phil Bereano. He now leads Seattle-based AGRA Watch, which monitors Gates' multibillion-dollar push for a new "Green Revolution" in Africa.

The foundation's biofortification manager agrees the ultimate solution won't come until farmers are lifted out of poverty and able to afford a balanced diet. But that's not likely to happen soon in the world's poorest corners, said Lawrence Kent.

"In the meantime, people are suffering. People are dying," he said in an interview monitored by a public-relations representative. "If the starchy staple foods they depend on have higher levels of vitamins and minerals ... that could be a sustainable way to help them get more of the nutrients they need."

A $25 million chance

The World Health Organization estimates 2 billion people, mostly in the developing world, suffer from vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Forty percent of children in poor nations are anemic due to low iron. More than 250 million kids don't get enough vitamin A, and up to half a million go blind every year because of it.

Many African nations distribute pills in urban areas to combat this "hidden hunger." Fortified foods are also increasingly available, as in the United States, where B vitamins are added to flour and salt is iodized.

But neither approach reaches the poorest people in rural areas, said Kent, an agricultural economist who lived and worked in Africa for 10 years.

The idea of breeding better nutrition into crops is relatively new. Higher yields and resistance to pests and disease dominate traditional breeding programs, said Howarth "Howdy" Bouis. So scientists were skeptical in the early 1990s when Bouis began pushing to add nutrients to the equation.

Even after he proved it was possible, money was hard to come by.

His HarvestPlus initiative scraped together about $5 million in its first decade, just enough to keep the research alive.

"There were times along the way when we thought about giving up on it," said Bouis, based at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C.

Everything changed in 2003, with a $25 million grant from the Gates Foundation.

"We're willing to take a risk and ... find out if this will really work," Kent said.

Gates funding for HarvestPlus, which incorporates work at CIAT and several other labs, now stands at $90 million. The commitment by one of the world's richest men helped attract another $90 million from donors including the World Bank and Canada.

Conventional breeding

The infusion of cash was galvanizing for plant scientists like Beebe. But conventional breeding is a slow process, particularly when the goal is a crop with multiple attributes.

"The nutritionally enhanced varieties need to be at least as good as what farmers have now" in terms of yield and hardiness, Beebe said. "We actually aspire to make them superior, to jump-start their adoption by farmers."

His quest for the ultimate bean started with nearly 1,500 "parent" strains, picked from the 25,000 in CIAT's seed bank. A variety from the northern Andes had the highest levels of iron.

Six years, 21 generations and thousands of crosses later, some varieties growing in Beebe's fields are knocking on the door of perfection with nearly double the iron of ordinary beans and the ability to withstand drought and disease.

Likewise, Argentine researcher Hernán Ceballos is now producing yellow-fleshed cassava at CIAT with nearly triple the vitamin A of ordinary white roots.

The cassava root is the main menu item for more than 250 million people in Africa, Ceballos said. Americans know it as tapioca, but elsewhere cassava is ground into flour, boiled for stews and fried like potatoes.

Unfortunately, without biofortification there's not much to it. "It's only starch," Ceballos said. "Nothing else."

But will African farmers accept these crops?

Touted as a nutritional savior for more than decade, genetically engineered Golden Rice has yet to be grown commercially. But HarvestPlus' focus on conventional breeding avoids the political and social storms that surround genetic-engineering quagmire, Bouis pointed out.

"We're not opposed to transgenics, but there are all sorts of hoops we don't have to worry about."

(About 3 percent of HarvestPlus' budget goes to transgenic research.)

HarvestPlus' first crop to market is a sweet potato high in vitamin A. In a two-year test with 25,000 Ugandan households, those who ate the new crop saw their vitamin A levels roughly double. And while Ugandans traditionally prefer white-fleshed potatoes, mothers were eager to try the new variety once they learned about the health benefits.

HarvestPlus is now working to expand distribution and educational programs. Like all varieties developed under the program, the sweet potato is not patented. Seeds and cuttings of biofortified crops should be no more expensive than existing varieties and can be freely replicated, Bouis explained.

A "Band-Aid approach"

The 1,200-acre CIAT complex was founded in 1967 as one of the original outposts of the Green Revolution. With the goal of fending off famine in the developing world, Western scientists raced to produce higher-yielding varieties of rice, wheat, corn and other staple crops.

But agricultural experts, including Bouis, acknowledge the vitamin and mineral deficiencies that biofortification programs now seek to solve were caused in large part by that focus on single-crop systems.

The mix of traditional foods that provided a varied diet was skewed in favor of starchy staples. While the price of rice, wheat and corn fell, the cost of vegetables soared. At the same time, small farmers were pushed onto smaller, more marginal plots, Holt-Giménez said.

"So now the Gates Foundation comes with another green revolution solution — which is not to diversify agriculture, not to address the needs of land reform, but just: 'Let's inject some nutrients into the monocrops we have forced on the world,' " he said.

HarvestPlus may focus on conventional breeding, but Gates is also pouring millions into other programs to develop transgenically biofortified cassava, bananas and sorghum — projects Holt-Giménez sees as "Trojan horses" to open the door for genetically modified crops.

McGill University nutrition professor Timothy Johns doesn't oppose genetic engineering, but also doesn't expect much bang for the number of bucks being spent on biofortification. It's very hard to transfer technology of any kind to the world's poorest farmers, particularly via a top-down approach that doesn't start by asking those farmers what they really want.

"Biofortification is a small, Band-Aid approach," he said.

Johns believes a better use of money would be to encourage farmers to add traditional crops back to their fields and prevent nutrient deficiencies through a more balanced diet.

Even Beebe, who's devoted his career to improving beans, sometimes wonders whether it might be more helpful to boost spending on microcredit — small loans that help farmers expand production, improve their methods and sell produce.

But he can't stop thinking about those families for whom beans are a daily staple. A bump in iron might be enough to restore the vitality drained by anemia.

"If we can double the amount of iron," Beebe said, "that's like eating twice as many beans."

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com

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