November 10, 2010

Orange maize to curb vitamin A deficiency

Most Zambian children regularly tuck in to `nshima’, a stiff maize porridge, but if they can be persuaded to eat an orange-coloured variety made of fortified maize, their health prospects could be enhanced. More than half of Zambia's under-five children are affected by vitamin A deficiency, which can increase the risk of illness, retard growth and cause blindness, according to the government's National Food and Nutrition Commission.

The government tried fortifying margarine with vitamin A in the 1970s and sugar since the 1990s, but neither of these efforts proved to be very successful. A study by the Commission in 2003 found vitamin A deficiency levels to be as high as 54 percent in children under five, and 13 percent in women aged 15-49.

"People in the rural areas do not eat margarine," explained Eliab Simpungwe, a scientist involved in efforts to grow biofortified crops and orange maize in Zambia. Simpungwe works with HarvestPlus, a global alliance of research institutions and implementing agencies working together to breed and disseminate crops for better nutrition. It is basedin the US.

In the past few years, developing countries have launched several programmes to fortify staples with vitamin A and iron. Biofortification is the process of breeding higher levels of essential micronutrients such as vitamin A, iron, and zinc in food crops. Zambia has also made its own efforts to biofortify maize with vitamin A - led by the government's Zambia Agricultural Research Institute (ZARI), which is collaborating with HarvestPlus. After three years of work - identifying maize varieties with high beta-carotene content and then cross-breeding them to increase the content naturally - the scientists appear to have been successful.

Beta-carotene which is converted in the body as vitamin A is naturally found in maize, explained Simpungwe. The researchers led by ZARI have managed to develop a maize variety with a beta-carotene content of nine milligrams per gram, which should improve levels of vitamin A in consumers quite substantially, he said. According to him, the seeds will be made freely available initially, and subsidized thereafter. (IRIN/SADOCC)

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