From Molecule to Molecule

An agricultural value chain often refers to the sequence of events from a crop being produced to it being ingested. Although ensuring that highly nutritious crops are being developed, distributed and digested is important, to guarantee that they are targeting and relieving micronutrient deficiencies, requires an extending of value chains as we know them: from molecule of micronutrient in the crop to molecule of micronutrient, and its effects, in the human body. Moreover, evidence of impact needs to be collected at each step along this chain.

HarvestPlus, launched in 2004 and part of the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH), has developed several biofortified crops such as orange fleshed sweet potatoes (OSP), which boasts enhanced levels of vitamin A. HarvestPlus works along an impact pathway, not unlike a value chain, for each biofortified crop, which encompasses three phases: discovery of the problem and possible solutions; development of crops and methods of adoption and delivery of crops including measurement of impact.

Much of the evidence in support of biofortified crops comprises investigation into the health problems relating to micronutrient deficiencies (vitamin A deficiency is estimated to account for over 600,000 deaths a year in children under 5) and the impact of adoption on micronutrient levels. A paper published in August 2012 in The Journal of Nutrition investigated the impact of OSP introduction on vitamin A intakes for over 10,000 Ugandan farmer households, specifically looking at three age groups: children aged 6 to 35 months; children aged 3 to 5 years and women.

The overall results were that OSP introduction significantly increased vitamin A intakes for all three groups. Participants were found to be accepting of the new coloured crop and willing to substitute a third of their normal sweet potato intake with OSP. By the end of the study OSP contributed 44% to 60% of total vitamin A intake for the three study groups. But the study went further along the value chain, investigating the form of introduction itself.

Interventions to introduce OSP to Ugandan households comprised three components: 1) agriculture; 2) demand creation/behaviour change and 3) marketing. Combined they represent the traditional value chain: from farm to fork. The agricultural component encompassed the distribution of 20kg of free OSP vines to households and farmer training. The second component covered education on health and nutrition, primarily for women, and broader media campaigns advertising the benefits of OSP. The marketing component aimed to distribute market information to farmers, recruit and train local OSP traders and develop urban and rural markets for selling OSP.

It is argued, however, that this value chain needs to be extended further. Evidence of the impact of increased vitamin A levels on vitamin A deficiency-related diseases requires extending studies across age groups as they develop, intersecting a traditional yet extended value chain with the life cycles of several generations. Vitamin A deficiency begins not only in a child’s development in the womb but even before a mother is pregnant. That said the evidence supporting the use of biofortified crops, whether conventionally bred or genetically modified is compelling and seems to recommend widespread adoption. For the future, HarvestPlus is looking to conduct further studies assessing the diffusion of OSP to non-farmer households and the degree of intensity needed to successfully introduce a new crop.

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