In Historic Move, World Food Prize Honors a Four-Laureate Team

Oct 12, 2016

In a first for the organization, the World Food Prize Foundation is honoring four Laureates simultaneously for the 2016 prize. The decision originally caused some trepidation within the organization, and Ambassador Ken Quinn, president of the foundation, says that it's unlikely to happen again any time soon. The four laureates all work in the field of 'biofortification.' Howarth Bouis, founding director of Harvest Plus, explains the idea.

"Through conventional plant breeding you get a high yielding variety and you cross it with a high mineral variety, and through the plant breeding process you get a high yielding, high mineral variety."

And though more Vitamin A, Zinc, and Iron in the crops may seem like a no-brainer, when Bouis introduced the concept, he met resistance.

"I started promoting this idea, 'Can we get the plants to do the work?' in 1993. There was a lot of skepticism in the beginning from plant breeders. They told me it was a bad idea. Their job was to increase yields, pest resistance, reduce poverty; it wasn't to improve nutrition."

On the nutrition community side, people worried the levels of minerals in the crops would be too low to make any significant difference once absorbed; and on the economic side, people questioned whether farmers would accept the biofortified varieties.

In many respects, the status-quo prized calories over nutrition. A lack of quantity is far easier to grasp and tackle than a lack of quantity. Jan Low, the International Potato Center's Regional Leader for Africa, faced this problem when trying to convince the nutrition community that biofortifying sweet potatoes could make a difference in the Vitamin A deficiencies they were seeing across Sub-Saharan Africa.

"People doubted that actually we could make an impact on young child nutritional status. So the key here was providing the evidence base. Nobody wakes up in the morning saying, 'I feel Vitamin A deficient,' unlike hunger. You know if you're hungry, if you're lacking calories, you wake up in the morning and you know you're hungry."

In this River to River interview, host Ben Kieffer talks with Low, Bouis, and fellow Laureates Robert Mwanga and Maria Andrade, who also work with the International Potato Center.