Feeding the world is about more than just satisfying stomachs. Food scientists and nutritionists have long recognized that the foods we eat not only need to fill us up, but nourish our bodies as well.
The problem of ‘hidden hunger’ — deficiencies in essential vitamins and minerals — continues to pose serious threats to populations and economies around the world. A lack of micronutrients like iron, zinc and vitamin A in diets can lead to blindness, disease or even death, particularly for women and for children under the age of five.
New research evidence could have significant implications for breeding approaches to combat harmful aflatoxin contamination in maize while simultaneously contributing to alleviate vitamin A deficiency. The study ‘Provitamin A Carotenoids in Grain Reduce Aflatoxin Contamination of Maize While Combating Vitamin A Deficiency’ is the first published report to document how biofortification – the process by which staple crops are bred to increase micronutrient content in their edible parts to address hidden hunger – with provitamin A (proVA) can contribute to reduce aflatoxin contamination in maize, thereby addressing two major health concerns.
Aflatoxins are harmful compounds that are produced by the
fungus Aspergillus flavus, which can
be found in the soil, plants and grain of a variety of legumes and cereals
including maize. Toxic to humans and animals, aflatoxins are associated with
liver and other cancers and weakened immune systems that result in increased
burden of disease, micronutrient deficiencies, and stunting or underweight
development in children.
Only 20 years ago, the idea that maize could reduce vitamin A deficiency (VAD) would have been summarily dismissed. Agricultural scientists were focused on increasing yields and developing more robust varieties that could withstand the constant assault of new pests and diseases. The idea of making maize and other staple food crops more nutritious by breeding in vitamins and minerals, a process called biofortification, was a novel concept. However, with the launch of HarvestPlus in 2003, a collaborative research partnership was launched to bring together scientists across disciplines in an effort to reduce hidden hunger caused by micronutrient deficiencies. One of the fruits of this partnership were the world’s first “orange” maize varieties rich in vitamin A. This ‘orange’ vitamin A maize has been conventionally bred to provide higher levels of provitamin A carotenoids, a naturally occurring plant pigment also found in many orange foods such as mangoes, carrots and pumpkins, that the body then converts into vitamin A.