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Author Topic: Africa: Orange' maize could save eyesight of millions of African children  (Read 2487 times)
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Francis Umeoguaju
Expert in Bioscience Issues
Posts: 657

« on: September 27, 2010, 09:57:57 am »

'Orange' maize, a variety of the common cereal crop, could improve the lives of millions of malnourished people by providing increased vitamin A in their diet, according to a new study released here this week.
Vitamin A deficiency is endemic in many poor populations, causing up to 500,000 children a year to go blind and increasing the risk of other diseases and death. Sources of Vitamin A like meat, eggs, darkly coloured green vegetables, and orange fruits are generally too expensive for poor populations, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa.
But amongst other things, maize is a major source of everyday nutrition in the region. People consume white maize porridge in large amounts, sometimes eating as much as a half kilo a day.
Conscious of this traditional preference, researchers have bred orange maize to contain more beta-carotene, which the human body converts into vitamin A.
A recent study headed by Dr. Wendy White of the Iowa State University Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition discovered the new vitamin A source.
HarvestPlus, which supported the study, is a programme of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a World Bank-based consortium of 15 research centres worldwide devoted to enhancing agricultural productivity, particularly in developing countries.
In the study, six healthy women were given three different types of maize porridge, one of which was orange maize. The research proved that the beta-carotene from the orange maize was converted at nearly twice the rate previously assumed for maize. The findings were published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition earlier this week.
"This study answered a major feasibility concern for the biofortification programme," said White. "Plant breeders were quickly successful in ramping up the beta-carotene content in the corn, but then the question was, 'Would it be available to be absorbed and utilized by people?'"
"So what we've shown is the beta-carotene is bioavailable to be converted to vitamin A in the body, and much more so than previously expected," White continued.
In 2012, HarvestPlus intends to introduce the variety into Zambia, where vitamin A deficiency affects over 53 percent of the child population. They speculate that the new crop could account for 30 percent of the daily vitamin A required for children two to six years old and 40 percent for women of child-bearing age.
According to Dr. White, HarvestPlus is already conducting a pilot programme in Zambia to provide young children with the biofortified, beta-carotene maize.
Though the variety is developed for northern climates right now, Dr. Kevin Pixley and the Zambian Agricultural Research Institute (ZARI) are now developing the adaptations for growth in Zambian conditions.
Once fully developed, the maize would be meant for "growing zones" rather than country borders, explained Bonnie McClafferty, HarvestPlus's chief of development and communications, in an email exchange with IPS.
Though the maize will be introduced within Zambia, she expects the varieties produced will have large spillover benefits for other countries in the region.
While there may be numerous health benefits to bringing orange maize to Zambia, history has shown that introducing new crops is not always an easy task.
A similar attempt to relieve vitamin A deficiencies came in 2000 with the development of 'golden' rice by researchers in Switzerland. The 100 million-dollar project was supported by four different public funding institutions.
After much optimism on the discovery's potential impact on malnutrition in Asia, planting of golden rice was stalled over concerns about growing genetically modified crops. Only this year has one country, the Philippines, begun cultivating the new rice strain. In 1987, a study on soybeans in Nigeria by Agricultural Research for Development in Africa (IITA) revealed that consumer resistance to soybean consumption at the household level arose from a lack of information on the correct processing and cooking methods for the bean.
"Consumer communication is essential for the creation of sustained demand for biofortified maize," according to HarvestPlus, which said there were two major strategies for popularising its cultivation and consumption.
"The push strategy is supply driven and focuses on the supply of biofortified seed. The pull strategy is demand oriented. By creating effective demand, a chain for the production and consumption of biofortified varieties is put in place."
Consumer research in Zambia has shown that the current market is dominated by white maize, the preferred ingredient for the widely consumed meal nshima. Yellow maize has been typically rejected because it is associated with drought and food aid.
"If this negative perception carries over to orange maize," according to HarvestPlus, "there is reason to be skeptical that biofortified maize will find enough of a niche in Sub- Saharan Africa to be able to make an appreciable difference in micronutrient intakes among target populations."
But findings by HarvestPlus indicate that orange maize has a different connotation in Zambia. "Orange maize is considered to have added value and is clearly distinguished from the less desired yellow maize varieties," explained McClafferty. "In addition, a nutrition campaign would translate into substantial value added for orange maize which in turn would spur greater adoption among farmers."
To advance on these findings, HarvestPlus hopes to promote national and local ownership of the crop from the beginning.
"As a truly multidisciplinary approach to agri-health interventions,HarvestPlus invests in research and development of these varieties and does not pass costs on to farmers or the national agricultural sector," said McClafferty.

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