Hidden Hunger, Nutritious Horizons

Professor Martin Broadley

DFID’s support for crop breeding R&D has been in the news this summer. A focus of this major UK investment has been to develop biofortified crops — containing more essential minerals and vitamins in their edible portions — notably through HarvestPlus and the International Potato Center (CIP) as part of wider breeding activities within the CGIAR agriculture research system.

Orange-fleshed sweet potatoes and orange maize, which contain more vitamin A, are scaling rapidly in sub Saharan Africa. Iron-rich beans and zinc-rich wheat are reaching millions of smallholders in sub Saharan Africa and South Asia. The evidence from efficacy studies shows that biofortified crops improve the micronutrient status and health outcomes of people. HarvestPlus aims to reach 1 billion people by 2030, which is possible with ongoing support from the UK and others.

As a Senior Research Fellow (SRF) in DFID’s Research and Evidence Division’s Agriculture Team, I’m excited to be supporting DFID’s efforts to see biofortified crops become mainstream in global food systems. Biofortification is an inclusive technology with the potential to ‘leave no-one behind’. However, more than 2 billion people globally still have insufficient minerals and vitamins in their diets. Resolving this ‘hidden hunger’ needs ongoing multi-sectoral engagement, including robust effectiveness and evaluation studies, private-sector engagement, and capacity strengthening among delivery partners.

Seed multiplication of Zincol 2016, a zinc-enriched variety of wheat released in 2016, in Islamabad, Pakistan. Left: Dr Munir Zia, Fauji Fertilizer Company; Right: the late Dr Baloch Qadir Bux, HarvestPlus. Pictured in November 2017.

Beyond biofortification, food fortification and dietary diversification can also improve dietary quality. These approaches are complementary to biofortification but potentially more expensive and less inclusive. For example, rural populations typically process their cereals locally and may not benefit from centralised flour fortification, as described by Natasha Ansari and colleagues for Pakistan as part of the DFID-funded Leveraging Agriculture for Nutrition in South Asia (LANSA) project. Hannah Kuper and colleagues at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) showed that children living with disabilities in Kenya were more likely to be malnourished due to social exclusion from school-based feeding programmes.

My academic specialism is plant nutrition, at the University of Nottingham, with long-standing interests in biofortification. One of my proudest academic achievements has been to co-author some of the most widely cited reviews of biofortification, including with fellow plant nutritionist and collaborator of over 20 years, Professor Philip White. In May this year, I was honoured (and surprised) to receive “Innovator of the Year award for international impact” from the BBSRC, jointly with Dr Louise Ander from the British Geological Survey, another long-standing academic collaborator. Louise and I use geographical approaches to frame multiple micronutrient deficiency burdens, a.k.a. GeoNutrition. In this work, funded primarily by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we are generating, integrating, and sharing new and legacy food systems data with a major focus on Ethiopia and Malawi. This approach enables the potential of biofortification to be evaluated in wider contexts, including the role of soil management which is a critical but often neglected factor in producing crops of good nutritional quality.

The GeoNutrition project includes sampling of soils and grains to determine their nutritional content. Pictured (top): a teff field in Amhara, Ethiopia, Nov. 2017 (photo credit, Edward Joy, LSHTM). (Bottom): Alem Arega and Wubie Mesfin (Ethiopian Agricultural Extension Service) hand-threshing teff grain.

The award also recognised ‘ways of working’, including partnerships with natural and social scientists, public- and private-sector partners, and R&D capacity strengthening. A key aspect of this work is thanks to support from the Africa Capacity Building Initiative (ACBI), an innovative 9-year programme (2012–21) funded by DFID and managed by the Royal Society. The ACBI’s goal is to support doctoral-level training and increased research capacity. Our ACBI sub-award, which began in 2014, focuses on soil science and involves a network of academic and government colleagues in Malawi (Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources, LUANAR), Zambia (University of Zambia), Zimbabwe (University of Zimbabwe), and the British Geological Survey. Our network supports support three very talented PhD students: Ivy Sichinga Ligowe, Belinda Kaninga, and Muneta Grace Manzeke, alongside specialist technical training (south-south, south-north, and north-south), laboratory infrastructure, and wider research training, for example, including research ethics.

Left-to-right: Belinda Kaninga, Felix Phiri, Grace Manzeke, Ivy Ligowe, together at the start of their ACBI funded PhD projects, September 2015, Harare, Zimbabwe.

The design of the ACBI is innovative. For example, DFID and the Royal Society commissioned the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine’s Capacity Research Unit (CRU) to evaluate the wider ACBI programme, including shortlisting and peer-review of proposals. During our project inception period, we benefited greatly from having a social scientist from CRU conduct baseline capacity assessments and help us to develop our Theory of Change. Their support helped us to us to understand much better the role of individual and institutional agency in unlocking the potential of equitable partnerships, and to reflect more critically on many of our assumptions. My ACBI-related interactions with DFID, Royal Society, and CRU, inspired me to apply for this SRF role.

Dr Louise Ander and I together in a soil inspection pit, Chitala, Malawi, September 2016.

Our project has been transformational for many of us in our network. Grace has won international awards for her research; Belinda and Ivy are publishing high quality papers; all three are being invited regularly to speak at international conferences with the potential to become research leaders and global influencers. Our network has secured a further 11 PhD studentships based in Malawian and Ethiopian universities, through new investment from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Government of Malawi, the UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), and from a University of Nottingham-Rothamsted Research partnership funded by the Future Food Beacon.

As Louise put it succinctly during our BBSRC award panel interview, “Our team continues to work together because we want to, not because we need to”.

To keep up to date with all DFID’s research news, jobs and funding opportunities please follow us on @DFID_Research.



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Research, science and technology news funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office #UKAid (Before 2nd Sept 2020 blogs published by DFID).