Harvest Plus Saving Lives One Seed at a Time

B. McPherson

Put a new word into your vocabulary -- biofortified. The Harvest Plus organization is researching and breeding plants with enhanced micronutrients. This is not the high tech gene manipulation so in the news with companies like Monsanto. It is going back to basics in plant husbandry.

Howath Bouis initially floated his ideas about breeding food plants with increased micronuturients in 1994 when the shine was still on the science of gene swapping. He received little support for his initiative
Harvest Plus.

Now that the prospect of gene altered plants has been found wanting, Bouis has improved the amount of zinc, iron and a precursor to Vitamin A in cassava by selecting varieties higher in the micronutrients to plant, selecting the offspring that are higher yet, planting those and so on until the desired plant content is reached. The technique of artificial selection has been used by farmers for thousands of years and has given us such familiar organisms as  dairy cows, orange carrots, poodles and Siamese cats.

The initial crop targeted was cassava. It is the staple crop for approximately 500 million people. It will grow in poor, dry soil. Both the tubers and leaves are edible. The two countries targeted to receive the new super nutritious cassava variety were the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria with nearby countries eventually receiving cuttings as well.

Other crops that Harvest Plus is developing and distributing are: iron beans, iron pearl millet, vitamin A maize, vitamin A sweet potato, zinc rice and zinc wheat. The distribution of these carefully bred plants is estimated to save over half a million children’s lives each year.

A story on the foundation’s web page tells the transformation in the life of an Ugandan farmer who parlayed his small experiment growing the improved vegetable into a successful business which has transformed his life and that of his children.

The seeds of these enriched vegetables are owned by the farmers. They can save the seeds, sell the seeds and plant them without the interference of Big Agra. Additionally, the plants that the Harvest Plus group develops are suited to the climate and soil where  they are distributed.

Dr. Howath Bouis deserves our highest accolades for fighting hidden malnutrition among the worlds’s poorest people.

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