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Symposium honors food prize winners, biofortification work

The World Food Prize last week recognized the growing role biofortification plays in global health by naming four laureates for making staple foods more nutritious.

On Oct. 21, Cornell will celebrate two of those laureates with deep ties to the university while showcasing Cornell scientists at the forefront of a movement to increase the density of vitamins and minerals in crops. Hosted by Cornell and the Institute for Nutritional Sciences, Global Health and Technology (INSiGHT), the symposium, “Biofortification to Alleviate Micronutrient Malnutrition,” will be held at the Statler Hotel Amphitheater and G73 Martha Van Rensselaer Hall.

Agricultural economist Jan Low, M.S. ’85, Ph.D. ’94, and HarvestPlus director Howarth Bouis shared this year’s prize with Maria Andrade and Robert Mwanga for their work developing, researching and promoting biofortification to alleviate malnutrition in developing countries.

Low, at the International Potato Center in Nairobi, Kenya, and an alumna of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, played a crucial role in introducing the orange-fleshed sweet potato into millions of households in sub-Saharan Africa. Bouis, whose HarvestPlus program at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C., has supported decades of Cornell research, has assembled a coalition of plant breeders, agronomists, nutritionists, social scientists and economists dedicated to improving nutrition by increasing micronutrients in foods.

Increasing the nutritional content of food requires a dedicated effort across the entire food system, and Cornell researchers have been a driving force in making biofortification a reality.

Jere Haas, the Nancy Schlegel Meinig Professor Emeritus of Maternal and Child Nutrition in the Division of Nutritional Sciences, says there are five distinct steps to make biofortified crops viable. First is the discovery phase, whereby plant breeders and agronomists improve the micronutrient content of crops. Next, scientists ascertain whether those nutrients are absorbed by humans when consumed as food. Nutritionists then must determine whether humans experience health improvements from eating the biofortified food.

Low’s work proved crucial in the next step, which is establishing a biofortified crop in a community. Low paved the way for farmers and consumers to accept orange-fleshed sweet potato, a variety that differs in taste, texture and, most importantly for health, in vitamin A content compared with the white-fleshed sweet potato favored by communities in Africa for generations.

Finally, economists must measure if the changes balance costs and benefits.

“Malnutrition hampers human lives and impedes global development in profound ways,” said Haas. “Biofortification is a way to reach people in dire need of nutritionally dense food. The impacts of this work not only change individual lives but have the potential to reverberate across generations as people gain the opportunity to live healthier, fuller and more productive lives.”

Haas and Saurabh Mehta, associate professor of global health, epidemiology and nutrition, and Einaudi Center international faculty fellow, organized the symposium to celebrate the crucial steps Cornell has taken to address “hidden hunger,” a nutritional deficiency of vitamins and minerals faced by hundreds of millions of people, and most acutely by those in the developing world.

Low and Bouis won’t be the only World Food Prize laureates on hand: 2001 winner Per Pinstrup-Andersen, professor emeritus in the Division of Nutritional Sciences and the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, will also speak at the symposium.

Other speakers include: Haas and Mehta; Ross Welch, Raymond Glahn, Elad Tako of USDA/ARS, Robert W. Holley Center for Agriculture and Health; Dennis Miller, Department of Food Science; Kimberly O’Brien and Julia Finkelstein of the Division of Nutritional Sciences; Xingen Lei, Department of Animal Science; Mike Gore, School of Integrative Plant Science; Erick Boy, HarvestPlus; and J.V. Meenakshi, Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi, India.

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Matt Hayes is managing editor and social media officer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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Melissa Osgood