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Benefits of biofortification explored during meeting in Zambia

Over 50 experts gathered in Lusaka, Zambia during 15-18 March 2010 for HarvestPlus’s 5th Maize Team Meeting. The meeting, organized by CIMMYT and hosted by the Zambia Agricultural Research Institute (ZARI), included overviews of progress reports, four field visits, and identification of needs and development plans for further success.

HarvestPlus is a CGIAR Challenge Program that uses biofortification to improve the nutritional value of staple foods.

A key topic at the meeting was the development and use of maize varieties with high amounts of provitamin A and their potential benefits for consumers in Zambia. Between one third and half of all Zambian children suffer from vitamin A deficiency, which weakens their vision and immune systems, makes them more vulnerable to various diseases, and reduces their productivity and quality of life. Maize is Zambia’s staple food. HarvestPlus uses conventional breeding to create maize hybrids and open-pollinated varieties with a high density of pro-vitamin A.

ZARI and private companies are currently evaluating advanced experimental varieties for yield and agronomic characteristics; the best of these will be tested for pro-vitamin A content. Additionally, a new generation of varieties with higher amounts of pro-vitamin A than today’s best hybrids is now being bred. New information on a crucial gene that increases pro-vitamin A has made this possible. This information was published in a March 2010 article in Nature Genetics.

During the meeting, attendees presented and discussed several other topics and studies. These included socio-economic work to assess the likely consumer acceptance of biofortified orange maize; food technology to assess the effects of food preparation on the nutritional value of maize; biochemistry to assess the causes and losses of pro-vitamin A during milling and storage; and nutrition to assess the health impacts on children who eat biofortified maize.

A particularly fruitful session involved several stakeholders from Zambia, including representatives from the Ministry of Health, nongovernmental organizations, ZARI, and seed companies. Partnerships with these and other Zambian colleagues are essential for the delivery of biofortified maize to farmers and consumers. CIMMYT attendees included Kevin Pixley, Natalia Palacios, Hugo de Groote, John MacRobert, Sebastian Mawere, and Amsal Tarekegne.