A multidisciplinary team of researchers including those working in agriculture, nutrition, socio-economics, geography, and ethics has received more than £4.4m from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help alleviate micronutrient deficiencies (MNDs).
The GeoNutrition project, led by the University of Nottingham, will focus on Ethiopia and Malawi where MNDs – also known as hidden hunger – are widespread.
The project aims to improve baseline evidence on the prevalence and causes of MNDs, and test a promising strategy to alleviate MNDs called biofortification which seeks to improve the micronutrient content of food crops.
Micronutrients including vitamins and minerals are required in small quantities in the diet for a range of functions in the body. MNDs pose a serious risk to human health including the growth and development of children. For example, zinc deficiency in children increases risks of infection and stunting (low height for age), while adequate dietary selenium is essential for a healthy immune system and thyroid function.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the prevalence of MNDs including zinc and selenium is high, especially among poor and rural populations. There are multiple causes including nutrient-poor soils, a lack of access to diverse diets, low nutrient bioavailability in staple crops such as maize (corn), and nutrient losses following infection (e.g. diarrhoea). Other MNDs including iodine, iron and vitamin A are also widespread.
Robust evidence is needed to support policy making
Led by Martin Broadley, Professor of Plant Nutrition in the School of Biosciences and a contributor to the Future Food initiative, the aim of GeoNutrition is to provide new evidence to support policy makers in the agriculture and public health sectors of Ethiopia, Malawi, and the wider region. This will include new, spatially-informed evidence on the prevalence and causes of MNDs. These baseline data are important to identify public health issues and target potential interventions.
The team will also study the potential effectiveness of biofortification strategies to contribute to alleviating zinc and selenium deficiencies. Biofortification can improve the micronutrient content of crops through conventional breeding and application of micronutrient-containing fertilizers. In rural Ethiopia and Malawi, where MNDs are very common, communities are hard to reach with supplementation and food fortification programmes. Therefore, interventions that act through agriculture are likely to play an important role in improving nutrition among many rural and marginalised groups.
Partners in this project include nutritionists and clinical trial experts from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), and Addis Ababa University – the lead partners in Ethiopia; Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR) are leading the research activities in Malawi. Other partners are The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) and the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Ethiopia; CIMMYT and the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) in Kenya; and Rothamsted Research and British Geological Survey (BGS) in the UK.
Professor Broadley said: “Pioneering breeding work, led by several of the CGIAR Centers and HarvestPlus, has increased the micronutrient content of crops including beans, maize, wheat, and sweet potato. New varieties of these crops now reach many people, for example, in Nigeria, Rwanda and Zambia. Micronutrient-containing fertilizers are routinely used in Finland to improve the nutritional quality of food crops. Our team is exploring if biofortification can be effective for improving human health at a national scale in Ethiopia and Malawi including creating new, geographically-informed baselines.”
Dr Dawd Gashu, an expert in food science and nutrition at Addis Ababa University and Ethiopia-lead said: “Zinc and selenium deficiencies are endemic in many communities in Ethiopia and Malawi, affecting more than half the population. Our previous work has shown a strong spatial influence of soil, landscape, and dietary choice on zinc and selenium deficiency risks. Thanks to this project, we can now work with volunteers from Ethiopian and Malawian villages to test how nutrient-enriched crops can improve the diets and health of our children and future generations.”
Dr Edward Joy, an expert in nutrition and sustainability at the LSHTM and co-lead on the project, said: “GeoNutrition takes a geographical approach to nutrition. This exciting approach lets us look at the movement of micronutrients through agriculture and food systems, and how a variety of physical and social factors end up influencing the nutritional status of people. Combined with new evidence from the feeding study trials, the project will provide important evidence to inform the design and delivery of effective policies to address micronutrient deficiencies. Our work builds on several years of collaborative research between academic and policy partners in Ethiopia, Malawi and the UK.”
Dr Patson Nalivata, an expert in crop and soil science at LUANAR and Malawi-lead said: “Soils in southern and eastern Africa are many thousands of years older than most soils in Europe and North America. They are highly-weathered and can lack sufficient micronutrients to keep our crops, livestock and people healthy. We can improve our soils by incorporating organic matter and by applying balanced fertilizers to include micronutrients such as zinc. Whilst such solutions are conceptually simple, the ‘trade-offs’ in terms of investment priorities for farmers can be complex. Experts in agriculture and nutrition need to work together to best advise policy makers, extension services, and farmers.”
Professor Steve McGrath, also an expert crop and soil science at Rothamsted Research said: “We will be able to gain a better understanding of the multiple factors that influence the transfer of nutrients from soil to crops to diets that is spatialy resolved and will allow appropriate interventions to be taken that respond to the specific local conditions that underlie MNDs”.
Professor Joseph Mfutso-Bengo, an international expert in Bioethics and the Director of the Center of Bioethics for Eastern and Southern Africa, College of Medicine, University of Malawi, said: “Values determine the demand, supply and implementation of evidence into policy. Valuing evidence needs people with values that value evidence.”
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