Up to 500,000 children in developing countries go blind each year due to Vitamin A deficiency
The NUI Galway Plant and AgriBiosciences Research Centre (PABC) has been closely working with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) on the development of more nutritious and higher yielding crops for smallholder farmers in Africa since 2009. The NUI Galway – IITA research has now been published in the international scientific journal BMC Plant Biology.
Vitamin A deficiency in the diets of the poor is currently a global health problem affecting millions of people in Africa and other regions of the world. Vitamin A deficiency retards growth, increases risk of disease, and can cause reproductive disorders.
IITA, Irish Aid and NUI Galway are engaged with the international Harvest Plus initiative of the CGIAR and national agricultural research systems to develop and disseminate new varieties of staple crops (e.g. maize, sweet potato, beans) that contain higher levels of essential micronutrients such as vitamin A, iron and zinc.
Up to 500,000 children in developing countries go blind each year due to vitamin A deficiency, with over half of these children dying within a year of becoming blind. For instance, in Malawi 73% of children currently do not have enough Vitamin A in their diets. The high prevalence of vitamin A deficiency amongst mothers and children (particularly during the first 1000 days of life) perpetuates cycles of poverty.
A key aim is develop even more improved maize varieties which have sufficiently high levels of vitamin A to impact on human health and which are high yielding under African growing conditions. Working closely with Prof. Charles Spillane (NUI Galway) and Dr. Abebe Menkir (IITA), a PhD student and maize breeder Girum Azmach has been conducting research between NUI Galway and IITA on development of vitamin A rich maize varieties for African smallholder farmers and growing conditions.
Working within IITA’s maize breeding program, Girum has identified combinations of naturally-occurring genes in maize lines that result in major increases of the level of vitamin A in the types of maize varieties that are grown by farmers and consumed by poorer households in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Girum has been able to screen and identify maize lines within the IITA breeding program that recorded as high as 17 microgram per each gram of a dry maize kernel. This concentration of provitamin A is much higher than that of commonly grown maize cultivars, which is mostly less than 2 micrograms per each gram of dry maize kernel.
This means that IITA and other maize breeding programs in Africa now have access to lines that have levels of provitamin A that are necessary for biofortified maize varieties to reduce the levels of vitamin A deficiency amongst the poor in Sub Saharan Africa.
The identification of these gene combinations and high vitamin A maize lines now allows IITA and national research programs to better develop vitamin A biofortified tropical maize varieties adapted to growing conditions and consumer preferences in Africa.
IITA in collaboration with national partners in Nigeria has released the first generation of two pro-vitamin A rich hybrids and two open-pollinated varieties. An open-pollinated variety with intermediate level of pro-vitamin A was also released in Ghana in 2012. Seeds of the released pro-vitamin A rich open-pollinated maize varieties have been sent to Liberia, Mali, and Sierra Leone for testing, multiplication and deployment with the support from HarvestPlus and AGRA.
The high vitamin A lines identified by Girum will be provided to national breeding programs in countries such as Ethiopia, Uganda, Sierra Leone and Liberia for use to develop their own vitamin A rich varieties for smallholder farmers and the rural poor.
Overall, the development of staple crops with improved micronutrient composition and content for African smallholders is set to contribute to both improving smallholder agriculture and prevention of maternal and child undernutrition in Africa.