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GMOs not needed: Brazil scientists developing lifesaving superfoods through traditional plant breeding methods

Agriculture scientists in Brazil have spent the past decade developing so-called “superfoods” that will soon become a natural alternative to genetically modified frankenfoods grown in many countries including the United States and will alleviate malnutrition for nearly one-third of the world’s population.

These eight biofortified foods are expected to be widely available to consumers throughout Brazil in less than a decade; already there is a pilot program underway in 15 municipalities around the country, Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported.

Continuing, the paper said:

Biofortification uses conventional plant-breeding methods to enhance the concentration of micronutrients in food crops through a combination of laboratory and agricultural techniques.

The goal is to combat micronutrient deficiencies, which can cause severe health problems such as anemia, blindness, impaired immune response and development delays. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, micronutrient malnutrition affects 2 billion people globally.

Taking on ‘hidden hunger’

Efforts to develop biofortified superfoods began a decade ago, when Embrapa, the government’s agricultural research agency, began the project as part of a group of nations seeking to develop varieties of crops that have higher concentrations of necessary micronutrients. The department chose eight foods that are staples in the Brazilian diet: beans, cowpeas (black-eyed peas), rice, sweet potatoes, corn, wheat, cassava and squash.

“We are working on increasing the iron, zinc and provitamin A content. These are the nutrients most lacking not only in Brazil, but in the rest of Latin America and the world as well, the cause of what we call hidden hunger,” food engineer and a biofort co-ordinator, Marilia Nutti, told Tierramerica.

Nutti said iron was especially important, because half of Brazil’s children suffer from some level of iron deficiency.

In addition to the current biofortification project, Brazilian scientists are also working to breed plants of the same species, choosing seeds that appear to exhibit the best traits regarding micronutrient content.

“This is not transgenics. We want a varied diet. Biofortification attacks the root of the problem and is aimed at the poorest sectors of the population. It is scientifically viable and economically viable as well,” Nutti said.

And it’s not genetic modification, either – and that’s key.

The development project is being supported by HarvestPlus and AgroSalud, a pair of research programs that operate in Latin America, Africa and Asia with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Bank and other developmental agencies.

Booming nutritional content

So far, it looks as though the project is, um, fruitful. The iron content of the beans, for instance, has been elevated from 50 to 90 milligrams of iron per kilogram; cassava, which normally has almost no beta-carotene, now has nine milligrams of the essential vitamin A source per gram.

Meanwhile, the beta-carotene level in sweet potatoes has grown from 10 micrograms per gram to an astounding 115 per gram. Zinc content of rice has grown from 12 to 18 milligrams per kilogram.

Not bad – and without turning the foods into “Frankenfoods.”

Already pre-school children are benefiting from the bio-nutritionally enhanced foods. “In Itaguai, an industrial municipality 44 miles south of Rio de Janeiro, about 8,000 pre-school children are benefiting from these extra-nutritious foods,” the Guardian reported.

Eventually all of the municipality’s family farmers will be included in the project – at least, that’s the goal. Further, within a couple years, the plan is to offer biofortified foods in all schools within the municipality, as well as in stores and public markets.

Curiosity of children is one factor that is “selling” the new biofortified superfoods. “When we tell them that these foods have more vitamins, and they see the deeper colors [of the biofortified crops], they are eager to try them out,” municipal secretary of environment, agriculture and fisheries, Ivana Neves Couto told Tierramerica.

“Brazil is the only country working with eight biofortified crops. Bangladesh, Colombia, India, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Peru, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda are conducting research on one crop each,”

 

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