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Growing grains with extra goodness
Yery Mendoza  

By Yery Mendoza
Project Manager, Biofortification

Several weeks ago, I had the pleasure to return to Nigeria. I have always enjoyed traveling to this part of the world to reconnect with colleagues from Nestlé in Central and West Africa and with other important players in Nestlé’s long-standing efforts to promote biofortification in the region. (In case you are wondering, biofortification is defined as the enrichment of the natural content of selected micronutrients in crops).

At Nestlé, we consider that a capital part of our purpose is to unlock the power of food to enhance quality of life for everyone, today and for generations to come. A diversified diet is the ultimate goal to deliver all nutrients in the required amounts, and we are implementing this view through our Nutrition, Health and Wellness commitments for 2020. In addition, we are focusing on tackling undernutrition by using a two-pronged approach: 1) fortifying foods commonly eaten by vulnerable populations (through the direct addition of micronutrients to some of our recipes) and 2) using biofortified crops in our ingredients.

Biofortification is considered as a very cost-efficient and sustainable way to address micronutrient deficiencies in populations that suffer from them. The problem is that implementing biofortification in the real world is not easy. The lengthy process starts with breeding and selecting enriched crop varieties at specialist agricultural research stations. Once new varieties have been developed and released for use in a country, there is still need to enlist distribution partners and farmers in an effort to replace the existing, well-known varieties with biofortified, micronutrient rich ones. It can then take a decade or two to establish biofortified crops in local markets.

For the past few years, we have worked with other stakeholders in Nigeria to develop supply chains for biofortified maize (also known as provitamin A-rich maize, or PVA maize). In fact, we have started using this material in some of our recipes for maize porridges and similar cereals. However, there is a need for more collective action along the total value chain to increase the penetration of the biofortified varieties. Biofortified grains are still difficult for industry to purchase in Nigeria. We would like to see more improvements related to the yields and resistances of biofortified varieties and a reliable supply of the respective seeds at affordable price. This way, farmers would be more prone to plant and produce biofortified maize, therefore more of it would be available in the local market, and that would allow us to use it more extensively in our products. In addition – and most importantly – that would result in increased consumption of provitamin A-rich maize among the rural populations.

At the beginning of March, a workshop on the development of biofortified maize in Nigeria took place in the city of Abuja. The workshop brought together key representatives from the Nigerian value chain: agricultural researchers, seed producers, farm suppliers, farmer co-operatives, aggregators, millers, food and beverage industries and several non-governmental organisations active in the field. At the end of this meeting, it was concluded that a collective effort is needed to

  • ensure sufficient production to fulfil the needs of the industry, as a way to stimulate production by creating 'market pull', and

  • increase awareness of the benefits of biofortified maize among the population, in order to increase the demand and provoke a more general replacement of existing 'normal' varieties with biofortified ones.

While these outcomes may not seem transformational, for those of us that know the tough road of biofortification and its acceptance, this workshop was an important step towards overcoming the hurdles to increasing nutrient-rich crops in Nigeria. I believe that biofortification will help to improve the nutritional status of the local communities and farmers – since as much as three quarters of the smallholder harvests are retained every year for their own consumption and those of the local population around them. Ultimately, the goal would be to replace common varieties of this and other staple crops with nutrient-rich alternatives, improving access to nutrition almost by default.

I am thrilled to be working with several organisation on this cause and I look forward to the next steps on this journey.

If you want to know more details about what biofortification is and its benefits, have a look at the Harvest Plus Project web page.

Yery leads research projects in improving nutritional value of agricultural crops.

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