Kigali — As farmers move toward growing crops designed to meet growing world demand for food and stand up to tougher climate conditions, they may inadvertently be worsening malnutrition, scientists say.
Such "hidden hunger" stems from a lack of vitamins and minerals in some crops that replace staple favourites, and a narrowing of the range of foods eaten.
"When I was young, we used to feed on amaranth vegetables, guava fruits, wild berries, jackfruits and many other crops that used to grow wild in our area. But today, all these crops are not easily available because people have cleared the fields to plant high yielding crops such as kales and cabbages which I am told have inferior nutritional values," said Denzel Niyirora, a primary school teacher in Kigali, Rwanda's capital.
Now scientists aim to address that problem as well by developing fortified versions of crops that aim to ensure not only that people have enough to eat, but that what they eat gives them sufficient nutrition.
"In the face of climate change, the focus has been on climate resilience, yields and sometimes resistance to emerging pests and diseases, with very little attention on micronutrients," said Yassir Islam, a spokesperson for HarvestPlus, an agricultural research organisation working with 40 countries to improve "nutrition security."
African nations in particular have been working hard to increase crop yields, which remain among the lowest in the world, experts say.
LIMITS OF 'FOOD SECURITY'
"But it is unfortunate that some communities considered to be food secure have anaemic, stunted, visually and sometimes mentally impaired children because they lack important micronutrients," said Agnes Kalibata, Rwanda's Minister of Agriculture and Animal Resource during a conference on bio-fortification of crops in Kigali.
With the advent of climate change, experts say that many staple food crops with sufficient micronutrients are becoming susceptible, paving the way for changes in crops and diets. The problem is that the world is not coping well with such changes, said José Graziano da Silva, director-general for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
In a news article published on the FAO website, Graziano da Silva said that while 870 million people suffer from hunger, there are also over half a billion who are obese and susceptible to non-communicable diseases. One of the reasons for the ill health is because scientists are developing new crops including those that are genetically modified primarily to produce bigger crops and to survive tough climatic conditions.
This has led to a situation where a growing number of people have sufficient food to eat, but suffer from nutritional deficiencies that lead to health problems, scientists say.
A 2013 academic study on "hidden hunger" estimates that two billion people in the world are affected by deficiencies of essential vitamins and minerals. The majority of them are found in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as India and Afghanistan.
In Rwanda, for example, efforts by the government and organisations to improve food security have filled bellies but studies suggest one in three Rwandans is anaemic, a problem particularly widespread among women and children. HarvestPlus estimates that 38 percent of children under five and 17 percent of women in Rwanda suffer from iron deficiency, the main cause of anaemia.
Breeding new varieties of staple foods laced with important micronutrients could ease the problem, scientists say.
BETTER BEANS IN RWANDA
For instance, bio-fortified beans - a staple food in Rwanda - could provide up to 45 percent of daily iron needs for most people, while at the same time yielding crops 14 percent bigger than commonly grown bean varieties.
More than 700,000 farm families in Rwanda are now growing such iron-rich beans created by the Rwanda Agricultural Board and the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) using conventional breeding methods that allow farmers to keep part of their harvest to replant rather than needing to buy seed each year from a dealer.
Joane Nkuliye, a mother of five, has been growing the modified beans on 11 hectares of land in Eastern Rwanda's Nyagatare district since 2012. She says they are high yielding and tasty - qualities as important to her as their nutritional level.
"This bean variety yields much higher than the other varieties we have been growing, they cook fast, and the colour is acceptable in the market. That I am told they have important micronutrients becomes an added advantage," she said.
Howarth Bouis, the director of HarvestPlus, agrees farmers will always go for high-yielding, climate-tolerant crops. Micronutrients - an invisible advantage - are a secondary concern, he said.
As a result, "we are investing in research to ensure that all the bio-fortified crops we release to farmers are high yielding, climate resilient, and acceptable to the consumers," Bouis told Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
Bio-fortified beans are also being grown in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, he said, and studies suggest that are being taken across boundaries and used as well in countries from Burundi to Zimbabwe.
Other fortified crops being planted include maize, cassava and sweet potatoes with extra vitamin A, and rice, wheat and pearl millet with added zinc.
Isaiah Esipisu is a freelance journalist specialising in agriculture and climate change reporting. He can be reached through firstname.lastname@example.org