Q&A: How Biofortified Sorghum Boosts Vitamin A

Q&A: How Biofortified Sorghum Boosts Vitamin A

October 8, 2014
Food Quality & Nutrition 

A new variety of biofortified sorghum that uses plant science technology could help end vitamin A deficiency in sub-Saharan Africa. CropLife International spoke with Dr. Marc Albertsen, DuPont Pioneer’s team lead for the African Biofortified Sorghum project.

Q: What is the ABS project?

A: Sorghum is the only viable food grain for many of the world’s most food-insecure people. The African Biofortified Sorghum (ABS) Project is developing a new biotech variety of sorghum that contains beta-carotene – a compound our bodies need in order to naturally produce vitamin A. When brought to market, biofortified sorghum could improve the health of over 300 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa who rely on this crop as their staple food.

Q: Why was sorghum chosen for biofortification?

A: Sorghum is Africa’s second most important cereal and it provides the majority of daily calorie consumption for millions of residents. Sorghum is also one of the few crops that grows well in sub-Saharan conditions because it is drought- and heat-tolerant. While sorghum provides a large amount of carbohydrates for local diets, it lacks a key nutrient: vitamin A.

The human body cannot produce vitamin A without the relevant precursors – primarily beta-carotene, the same compound that gives carrots their orange colour. Vitamin A deficiency can have devastating consequences, particularly for children. It can lead to blindness, vision problems and other developmental and growth problems.

There’s also a compound in sorghum that naturally decreases the body’s ability to absorb and use iron and zinc. These deficiencies can lead to anemia, reduce the body’s resistance to disease and prevent normal growth and development.

We believe that by biofortifying sorghum, we can improve its nutritional content, the availability of vitamin A and the absorption of iron and zinc.

Q: What is your research trying to accomplish?

A: We are focused on three major objectives in sorghum: (1) increasing the accumulation of beta-carotene; (2) increasing the bioavailability (the body’s ability to absorb a given nutrient) of iron; and (3) increasing the bioavailability of zinc. We’ve also been researching ways to stabilize beta-carotene in sorghum so the compound does not quickly degrade during the months sorghum is stored between harvests.

The variety we’re currently testing in confined plot trials contains enough beta-carotene to deliver 100% of the daily requirements of vitamin A for children under five – it will do that for the first three months of its shelf life. Then, for the next three months of shelf life, it will still deliver 40-60% of a child’s daily requirements.

We’ve also identified two more ways to enhance sorghum: improving the uptake and bioavailability of iron and zinc, and improving its protein digestibility once cooked.

Q: Who will see the greatest impacts?

A: Just two weeks ago, I was in an African village meeting with local farmers. At first, I was quite impressed by the local children I presumed were one and two-years-old: they were running around and playing enthusiastically. Then I realized these children were actually closer to four years old. Because of the poor nutritional quality of their diets, these children were at the developmental stage of toddlers. It was a striking example of the very people who will be the most impacted by this project.

It is an African tradition for mothers to feed their children sorghum. Locally, it’s thought to be a healthy food, but we now know it actually lacks the vitamins and minerals that children need for healthy development. For me, visiting that village really drove home the impact the ABS project will have on children and their communities. Biofortification can make sorghum a much more nutritious food and significantly improve childhood nutrition.

Q: Who’s involved in the project?

A: The project began in 2005 as part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Grand Challenges program, which focused on biofortifying four staple food crops in Africa to improve health through better nutrition. Those crops were sorghum, cassava, rice and banana. Five years later, the Howard G. Buffet Foundation, along with DuPont Pioneer, provided funds and the plant science technology to continue improving the nutritional content of sorghum.

A number of African-based organizations are also involved in the project, especially in carrying out confined trials and identifying local sorghum varieties for biofortification. In Nigeria, they include the National Biotechnology Development Agency and the Institute for Agricultural Research, and in Kenya, they include the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation. Testing activities at the National Agricultural Research System are coordinated by Africa Harvest, a non-governmental organization that ensures research complies with national and international regulation and will help distribute biofortified sorghum once it’s ready for market. Africa Harvest is part of the global CropLife International network and is dedicated to alleviating hunger, poverty and malnutrition in Africa.

Q: Why was a public private partnership the right model for the ABS project?

A: The Gates Foundation sought out a partner that already had experience biofortifying crops similar to those identified for Africa. DuPont Pioneer already had the technology in one of its other crops, and the Gates Foundation felt DuPont Pioneer’s technical expertise could advance the sorghum biofortification project. Our company has had a long history of improving agriculture worldwide through commercial and philanthropic activities, so it was an ideal partnership.

The Gates Foundation understood that it couldn’t just develop a North American crop and transplant it into Africa. By working with local agricultural groups, farming organizations and research institutions, they identified the right crops to biofortify and ways to educate farmers and stakeholders on the value of the new varieties.

Q: Why did DuPont Pioneer donate their crop technology to the project?

A: When we realized how many people rely on sorghum as a staple food, we wanted to provide our technology and expertise royalty-free to smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa. We saw it as a chance to demonstrate our commitment to developing agriculture worldwide. The Gates Foundation and DuPont Pioneer have a shared goal of improving agriculture and nutrition globally. The partnership was a natural fit philosophically and the ABS project was a great fit for DuPont Pioneer’s technical expertise and experience.

Q: What is the current status of the project?

A: We’re working with farmers in Nigeria and Kenya to identify ways we can cross our biofortified sorghum with local varieties which farmers already favor. By the end of 2015, the goal is to have an integrated beta-carotene variety to put into African varieties farmers can plant and grow. We are also looking to our African-based partners to help find the best way to educate farmers, communities and regulators on the benefits of responsible use of the biofortified sorghum. Local groups will help the ABS project navigate the seed industry, regulatory requirements and authorizations needed to commercialize the biotech variety.