Plant breeding programs, led by pioneering work at the University of Adelaide and for more than a decade at Flinders University, have helped to make inroads into relieving malnourishment and poverty, and to improving human health in developing countries.
By 2030, Dr Bouis forecasts that more than 130 biofortified dominant staple crops are likely to be consumed by more than 1 billion people, or up to 25 per cent of the population in 32 countries.
The use of conventional selective breeding to produce nutrient-enriched crop staples, or biofortification, struggled to gain research funding 20 years ago but is now leading a ‘green revolution’ in combatting ‘hidden hunger’ where micronutrient deficiencies affect more than 2 billion people around the world.
Rice, wheat, maize, pearl millet, sorghum, cassava, sweet potato, beans and other crops are now biofortified for better zinc, iron, pro-vitamin A carotenoids, and other nutrients, with more than 100 new varieties in 30 countries. This number is expanding every year.
“US Department of Agriculture scientist Dr Ross Welch, based at Cornell University, has inspired plant-soil-nutrition researchers around the world to use agricultural food crops to do the work of vitamin and mineral supplements in nutrient-deficient diets,” Washington DC-based Dr Bouis said at Flinders University during a recent visit to Australia (see National Press Club address, August 15, 2016).
Ironically, it was poor soil quality and grain nutritional deficiencies in Australia that kickstarted the important agricultural research in SA soon after biofortified crop development began 25 years ago.
“It started here in Adelaide in response to trace-element-deficient soils in Australia,” Dr Bouis said.
“Australia has some of the most zinc-deficient soils in the world.
“So it’s been a great place to look for improvements for domestic markets, along with overseas markets.”
Dr ‘Howdy’ Bouis, who leads the US-based HarvestPlus, said micronutrient analysis and molecular marker development at Flinders University was helping breeding programs in a range of major food crops, including wheat and rice.
He paid tribute to the contribution of American agricultural scientist Professor Welch, retired Adelaide and Flinders Professor Robin Graham, the University of Adelaide’s Dr Graham Lyons and Flinders University Associate Professor James Stangoulis at a special reception at Flinders to celebrate the SA contribution to the global crop improvement program.
After almost two decades, the biofortification research movement has attracted significant philanthropic and government funding, including from the Asian Development Bank, World Bank, and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Associate Professor Stangoulis said farmers and consumers in developing countries were embracing the new crops bred to provide naturally enriched nutritional value.
“It’s a no-brainer,” he said, adding that the Flinders nutritional biology and Flinders Analytical in the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences were currently testing crop samples from countries as diverse as Nepal (lentils), Bangladesh (rice), Mexico (maize) and India (pearl millet and sorghum).
The plant physiology, soil and nutritional experts at Flinders are working on a range of micronutrient analysis and molecular marker development.
“The developing world is really embracing these new varieties and what HarvestPlus research groups are achieving is giving them the know-how at low cost,” Associate Professor Stangoulis said.
“We are making it a lot easier for plant breeders to identify the best way forward.”
One of the research projects involves the Flinders team working on novel molecular marker technology that will enable faster and more accurate development of high-yielding, zinc-dense wheat grain.
The majority of micronutrient deficiency cases are found in developing countries in which wheat and rice are staple foods.
Mild to moderate zinc deficiency affects up to one-third of the global population, leading to impaired immune system function, skin disorders, cognitive dysfunction, and increased susceptibility to lower respiratory tract infections, malaria and diarrhoeal disease. Every year, more than 800,000 deaths are directly attributable to zinc deficiency.
Breeding higher zinc presence in grains – rather than via uptake of zinc in the soil by the whole plant – has the added benefit of reducing the ongoing cost of repeated use of often expensive and chemical fertilisers.
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