Creating a More Nutritious Food System with Biofortification

Courtney Meyer, Katrina Boyd, and Jenny Walton

“We want to lead the way to get more nutritious foods on the table.”

The speaker was Arun Baral, chief financial officer of HarvestPlus. His sentiment was shared by the 60 food industry representatives and business leaders who attended the biofortified foods workshop in New Delhi’s Park Hotel.

Following almost ten years of product development and delivery efforts from the HarvestPlus India program, almost half a million Indian farming households were estimated to be growing, consuming, and benefiting from zinc-biofortified wheat and iron-biofortified pearl millet by the end of 2018. In 2018 alone, about 300,000 farming households have been recorded as having procured seeds of these biofortified crops. There are currently nine varieties of iron pearl millet, five of zinc wheat, and one of both iron-zinc sorghum and zinc rice available. Now that crops have been released, attention is turning to exploring opportunities to create a more nutritious food system.

India loses over US$12 billion in GDP annually to vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Biofortification has the potential to become a critical element in the country’s quest for Kuposhan Mukt Bharat (Malnutrition Free India) by 2022; last year the Indian Council for Agricultural Research set minimum levels of iron and zinc for pearl millet varieties—signaling nutrition as a priority for breeders.

But ending hidden hunger and managing a profitable food business can be done simultaneously and sustainably. By addressing the barriers to embedding biofortification into the food system, HarvestPlus aims to increase the access families and communities have to nutritious seeds and foods.

“We will increase the number of farmers in India growing and consuming zinc rice, zinc wheat, and iron pearl millet by creating a market for these foods,” said Wolf Pfeiffer, director of research and development at HarvestPlus.

Following the success of similar food industry workshops, attendees convened with the aim of bringing biofortified food products to more Indian consumers by identifying sustainable routes to market. The goal was to overcome barriers and identify opportunities such as ensuring supply chain integrity and meeting manufacturing standards.

Speakers and attendees spanned the supply chain, from agricultural researchers, seed producers and sellers, farmers, aggregators, millers and food manufacturers, to marketers, consumer researchers, advertisers, communicators, and advocates. Discussions were designed to determine how to best address potential barriers and identify motivating factors that will engage and intrigue consumers and businesses. Participants committed to finding solutions and partners to address bottlenecks in the supply chain.

“As farmers we are proud to be actively involved with the HarvestPlus program since its inception…in testing new zinc wheat varieties, and seed production. Now we are planning to establish a flour mill,” said attendee and partnering farmer Harbansh Singh.

The pioneer of biofortification, HarvestPlus continues to share knowledge and facilitate connections among the growing network of partners to drive and connect supply and demand.

“Let’s work together for a nutrition revolution,” said keynote speaker and chef Ranveer Brar.

Colombia and Bolivia Release More Nutritious Crops

Collaboration between the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and HarvestPlus has enabled women and children in two Latin American countries to now consuming more nutritious versions of the staple foods they depend on.

Using conventional plant breeding or agronomic practices, the crops’ nutritional content was enhanced so that when regularly consumed, they can improve nutrition and health.

Bolivia is the first country in Latin America to obtain zinc-biofortified rice, following only Bangladesh, India, and Indonesia. Nearly a fifth of all children under five in Bolivia are cognitively and physically stunted; zinc deficiency contributes to stunting and loss of appetite, lowers immunity, and increases the risk of diarrheal disease and respiratory infections.

The CIAT BIO-44 + zinc variety contains 38 percent more zinc than traditional rice. The variety was launched at the Center for Tropical Agricultural Research (CIAT) in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, in February with more than 600 attendees present, including Santa Cruz Governor Rubén Costas.

“Our new rice has more zinc, because the plant can absorb more zinc from the soil,” said Daniel Álvarez, food science and nutrition fellow at HarvestPlus. “HarvestPlus seeks not only to provide high-yielding varieties but also more nutritious crops.”

Nearly a third of pregnant women and children under five in Colombia are anemic; iron deficiency is a major cause. Colombia has released its first iron-biofortified climbing bean that can help address this problem.

The release was celebrated by CIAT, HarvestPlus, and the Federación Nacional de Cultivadores de Cereales y Leguminosas(FENALCE), at an event in late February at the El Diamante farm, in the department of Tolima.

BIO102 is the name of the first biofortified climbing bean variety in Colombia suitable for planting in mountainous areas (cordillera) from 1,600 to 2,200 meters (5,249 to 7,218 feet) above sea level. Climbing beans yield three times more than bush beans, providing an eco-efficient solution for densely populated, land-scarce places; biofortified versions of these beans are also available in Brazil, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda.

A variety of red mottled bean, BIO102 is agronomically productive, and tolerant to pests and diseases. It complements the biofortified food basket in Colombia which already contains a bush variety of iron beans called BIO101 (2016) and zinc maize variety BIO-MZN01 (2018).

“BIO102 is a variety that will contribute to the diet of Colombian men and women with up to twice as many minerals as a non-biofortified bean variety,” said Daniel Alvarez, food science and nutrition fellow at HarvestPlus. “For the average Colombian eating about 60 grams of beans per day, that means 29 percent of their total iron, compared to 17 percent if eating conventional beans.”

FENALCE carried out agronomic evaluation tests in the departments of Antioquia, Huila, Tolima, Nariño, and Cauca, where the seed initially arrived. BIO102 has already been registered by the Instituto Colombiano Agropecuario, which enables commercialization.

As Stephen Beebe, leader of the CIAT Bean Program says, “biofortification is one of the tools used to respond to the global malnutrition problem.”

BBC Radio Host targets royal baby with racial tweet

The BBC has dismissed Radio 5 Live presenter Danny Baker over his racial Tweet about the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s new baby.

The world was taken aback when BBC Radio 5 Live presenter Danny Baker tweeted on Wednesday an image of a couple holding hands with a chimpanzee dressed in clothes with the caption: “Royal Baby leaves hospital”.

The now-deleted tweet came shortly after the Duke and Duchess of Sussex showed off their baby boyArchie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor, to the public for the first time.

According to the BBC, after twitting an apology, calling his tweet a “stupid unthinking gag pic”, Baker tweeted about the BBC’s decision, saying: “The call to fire me… was a masterclass of pompous faux-gravity.”

“Took a tone that said I actually meant that ridiculous tweet and the BBC must uphold blah blah blah,” he added. “Literally threw me under the bus. Could hear the suits’ knees knocking.”

Speaking to the media outside his house, he told reporters: “I do not, not understand all of this, I get it. But for 5 Live to chuck us under the bus like this, dear lord.” He also added: “I’m annoyingly ebullient and if you’re accused of the kind of grotesque racism but you’re not, you don’t wring your hands. Ill advised, ill thought out and stupid but racist? No, I’m aware how delicate that imagery is.”

UN Secretary General urges restraint in latest developments across the Gaza-Israeli border

The United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, has urged all parties to exercise maximum restraint in latest developments across the Gaza-Israeli border.

UNUN chief António Guterres

Over the weekend, hundreds of rockets were launched from the Occupied Palestinian Territory into southern Israel, and Israel retaliated with hundreds of airstrikes and tank fire. 

According to news reports, several women, children and men on both have been killed and injured as a result of the violence.

Deploring the “risk of yet another dangerous escalation and further loss of life on the eve of the holy month of Ramadan,” on Sunday, the UN chief condemned “in the strongest terms the launching of rockets from Gaza into Israel, particularly the targeting of civilian population centres”. 

He urged all parties to “exercise maximum restraint, immediately de-escalate and return to the understandings of the past few months,” referring to a fragile Egypt-brokered and UN-backed cease fire recently agreed upon. 
The UN’s Special Coordinator for this conflict’s peace process, Nickolay Mladenov, issued a similar call for calm on Saturday and continues to work closely with Egypt and all concerned parties to restore calm.

Against a backdrop of longstanding shortages of basic goods and services in Gaza linked to a more than decade-long air, sea and land blockade by Israel, Palestinian protests began over a year ago in the Strip. In an ongoing cycle of violence, in over a year, close to 200 Palestinians have been killed, including more than 40 children and over 1,300 have been injured.

Black Hole Image Makes History; NASA Telescopes Coordinated Observations

A black hole and its shadow have been captured in an image for the first time, a historic feat by an international network of radio telescopes called the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). EHT is an international collaboration whose support in the U.S. includes the National Science Foundation.

Using the Event Horizon Telescope, scientists obtained an image of the black hole at the center of galaxy M87, outlined by emission from hot gas swirling around it under the influence of strong gravity near its event horizon.
Credits: Event Horizon Telescope collaboration et al.

A black hole is an extremely dense object from which no light can escape. Anything that comes within a black hole’s “event horizon,” its point of no return, will be consumed, never to re-emerge, because of the black hole’s unimaginably strong gravity. By its very nature, a black hole cannot be seen, but the hot disk of material that encircles it shines bright. Against a bright backdrop, such as this disk, a black hole appears to cast a shadow.   

The stunning new image shows the shadow of the supermassive black hole in the center of Messier 87 (M87), an elliptical galaxy some 55 million light-years from Earth. This black hole is 6.5 billion times the mass of the Sun. Catching its shadow involved eight ground-based radio telescopes around the globe, operating together as if they were one telescope the size of our entire planet. 

“This is an amazing accomplishment by the EHT team,” said Paul Hertz, director of the astrophysics division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Years ago, we thought we would have to build a very large space telescope to image a black hole. By getting radio telescopes around the world to work in concert like one instrument, the EHT team achieved this, decades ahead of time.”

To complement the EHT findings, several NASA spacecraft were part of a large effort, coordinated by the EHT’s Multiwavelength Working Group, to observe the black hole using different wavelengths of light. As part of this effort, NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) and Neil Gehrels SwiftObservatory space telescope missions, all attuned to different varieties of X-ray light, turned their gaze to the M87 black hole around the same time as the Event Horizon Telescope in April 2017. If EHT observed changes in the structure of the black hole’s environment, data from these missions and other telescopes could be used to help figure out what was going on. 

While NASA observations did not directly trace out the historic image, astronomers used data from NASA’s Chandra and NuSTAR satellites to measure the X-ray brightness of M87’s jet. Scientists used this information to compare their models of the jet and disk around the black hole with the EHT observations. Other insights may come as researchers continue to pore over these data. 

There are many remaining questions about black holes that the coordinated NASA observations may help answer. Mysteries linger about why particles get such a huge energy boost around black holes, forming dramatic jets that surge away from the poles of black holes at nearly the speed of light. When material falls into the black hole, where does the energy go? 

“X-rays help us connect what’s happening to the particles near the event horizon with what we can measure with our telescopes,” said Joey Neilsen, an astronomer at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, who led the Chandra and NuSTAR analysis on behalf of the EHT’s Multiwavelength Working Group. 

The story is published courtesy of NASA

Tensions escalate in Venezuela, civilians killed and injured: top UN officials lament excessive use of force by authorities

© UNHCR/Siegfried Modola
Colombia. Venezuelan refugees and migrants cross the Simon Bolivar Bridge, one of 7 legal entry points on the Colombia-Venezuela border.

As tensions escalated on Saturday at various points along Venezuela’s borders with Colombia and Brazil, as well as within the country itself, resulting in the death and injury of various civilians, the United Nations chief, António Guterres, and the head of the UN human rights office (OHCHR), Michelle Bachelet, expressed their shock and appealed for calm.

The UN Secretary-General called for violence to be “avoided at any cost and for lethal force not to be used in any circumstances”. He urged “all actors to lower tensions and pursue every effort to prevent further escalation”.

Ms. Bachelet condemned “the excessive use of force used by the Venezuelan security forces, as well the involvement of pro-government elements”, which have resulted in at least four confirmed deaths and more than 300 injuries on Friday and Saturday, according to OHCHR.

“People have been shot and killed, others have reportedly received wounds from which they will never completely recover, including losing eyes,” she deplored. “These are disgraceful scenes. The Venezuelan government must stop its forces from using excessive force against unarmed protesters and ordinary citizens.”

Ms. Bachelet said she had received reports of numerous and, in some cases prolonged, violent incidents, at different points along the borders with Colombia and Brazil, as the Venezuelan security forces tried to halt the aid supplies coming into the country through closed border points.

OHCHR also received several reports pointing at the involvement of armed pro-government elements in the violent attacks on protestors, and Bachelet urged the Government “to rein in these groups and arrest those among them who have used force against protestors”.

“The use of proxy forces has a long and sinister history in the region,” she added. “And it is very alarming to see them operating openly in this way in Venezuela. The Government can, and must, stop them from exacerbating an already highly inflammable situation.”

‘We cannot lose momentum’ on the road to peace in Yemen, UN envoy warns

UN Photo/Loey Felipe
Martin Griffiths (on screen), Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Yemen, briefs the Security Council on the situation in Yemen. 9 January 2019.

“The difficult part” of reaching a lasting political settlement in Yemen “is still ahead of us” said the UN Special Envoy on Wednesday, urging the Security Council to support the “speedy implementation” of the fragile ceasefire agreed in and around the crucial port city of Hudaydah, at breakthrough talks in Sweden last month.

Martin Griffiths told Council members he was “under no illusion that these are very sensitive and challenging days” for both the Government coalition, and opposition Houthi leaders, “and for Yemen as a whole.”

Mr. Griffiths updated the Council that since the consultations in Stockholm, President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi and Abdelmalik Al-Houthi, leader of Houthi opposition movement Ansar Allah, have recognized the meetings “as an important step towards a comprehensive resolution to the conflict” and were determined to build on that progress through more dialogue.

Noting that the 18 December ceasefire in and around Hudaydah had been largely adhered to, Mr. Griffiths said the fighting was now “very limited” compared to the clashes beforehand, which threatened the lives of hundreds-of-thousands of civilians living inside the Houthi-held port and city.

“This relative calm, I believe, indicates the tangible benefit of the Stockholm Agreement for the Yemeni people and the continued commitment of the parties to making the agreement work,” he asserted.

The special envoy credited the Council’s “swift authorization” of December’s  resolution 2451, and rapid deployment of ceasefire monitors as “a clear signal to the parties and the Yemeni people of the international community’s desire to turn the agreement into facts on the ground” and hoped that security arrangements and the humanitarian access routes agreed in Stockholm will be implemented swiftly.

Turning to the major city Taiz where the two sides have battled for control for more than three years, the UN envoy recalled its “enormous historic significance” and called its people a driving economic and cultural force.

“Civilians in Taiz have suffered far too much for too long, and the destruction in the city has been terrible”, he underscored. “The flow of humanitarian aid needs to increase, and people need the chance to rebuild”, he added, pointing out that the Stockholm consultations provided a platform for this.

On the prisoner exchange agreement, Mr. Griffiths said that although implementation has been “gradual and tentative”, the UN was working with both parties to finalize the lists each submitted in Stockholm and would follow up with talks on 14 January in Amman, Jordan.

“I hope these talks will allow many thousands of prisoners to go home and be reunited with their families”, he said, asking for the Council’s support in encouraging the parties to “overcome any challenges that may be encountered along the way.”

Mr. Griffiths lamented that no consensus was reached on the Central Bank of Yemen or opening the Sana’a airport, which would significantly contribute to the economy and help relieve humanitarian suffering.

“I continue to work with the parties to resolve them,” he maintained, urging both sides to “exert restraint in their media rhetoric”.

With the goal of reaching a lasting political settlement, Mr. Griffiths said “Sweden was just a start” and that it was important to keep up the momentum in moving the process forward.

Calling speedy implementation “crucial”, he stressed that a lot of work needs to be done “before the parties can reach a comprehensive peace agreement”.

The UN envoy spelled out: “We need to convene the next round, but we need substantive progress on what was agreed in Stockholm”.

“Progress in Sweden is a basis for confidence. It would be conducive to further progress at the next round of consultations”, he concluded.