Vitamin A bio-fortification: Why Cassava was chosen

By Onche Odeh

An expert in crop genetics, Dr. Paul Ilona, has given insight into why cassava had been chosen for bio-fortification with Vitamin A in Nigeria, highlighting the crop’s easy accessibility to resource-poor farmers as a major reason.

Farmers get provitamin A cassava planting materials for the planting season

Farmers get provitamin A cassava planting materials for the planting season

Ilona, who spoke in a statement on how fast the Pro-Vitamin A cassava varieties are being accepted across Africa, said besides, other factors such as food preferences, the number of people consuming cassava and cassava-based products, and the size of the population of those in need of vitamin A were also considered in the selection of cassava and Nigeria as a pioneer country.

Popularly called yellow cassava, vitamin A cassava was bred by a coalition of partners, including International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI), Umudike, and International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), and released in Nigeria in 2011.

The bio-fortified cassava, which is rich in vitamin A, is becoming widespread in Africa, driven by increasing awareness of its health and nutrition benefits; and the variety is changing the description of cassava, a root crop often referred to as “Africa’s best kept secret.”

Consumed by over 300 million people in Africa, cassava has been marginalised in several debates because of myths and half-truths about its nutritional value and role in farming systems.

The greatest burden of the crop is the stigma of being considered an inferior, low-protein food that is uncompetitive with the glamorous crops such as imported rice and wheat.

The perception about cassava is, however, changing, according to Deputy Director (Operations), HarvestPlus, Dr Wolfgang Pfeiffer, who spoke at the just-concluded Crop Meeting in Abuja.

Adding, Pfeiffer said, “With vitamin A cassava, we are not talking just about a crop that is rich in starch but about a crop that has one of the vitamins that are most important for human Development.”

According to the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), farmers’ adoption of the varieties is on an impressive scale, as the appeal for the varieties has fuelled their spread for research trials to other African countries, including Republic of Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Cameroon, and Ghana.

“Demand for the varieties is up and we have engaged farmers for multiplication,” Pfeiffer explained.

“Our strategy is to get planting materials available to farmers so they can consume these nutritious varieties and improve their health,” he added.

Vitamin A deficiency affects about 20 per cent of pregnant women and 30 per cent of children under five years in Nigeria. Elsewhere in Africa the statistics are no better. A lack of or a deficiency of vitamin A lowers immunity and impairs vision. This can lead to blindness and even death.

Ilona, who is Country Manager, HarvestPlus Nigeria, estimated that about two billion people suffer from hidden hunger in which vitamin A is an integral part.

He said that HarvestPlus and its partners were working on several staples to address hidden hunger, adding that in general the organisation had worked with partners to release bio-fortified crops in 27 countries including those in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

John Uruakpa, a Director with the Federal Ministry of Health (Micronutrient Deficiency Control), said, “We are glad that HarvestPlus is complementing our efforts to address vitamin A deficiency.”

He was optimistic that the adoption and consumption of the yellow cassava varieties would give a further push to ongoing efforts to address vitamin A deficiency. Current efforts besides bio-fortification include the fortification of commodities such as flour and sugar, promotion of dietary diversity, and the use of supplements (drugs).

Partners, including farmers who attended this year’s Crop Meeting, pledged their support to ongoing efforts to help mitigate vitamin A deficiency.

Dr Alfred Dixon, Project Leader, Cassava Weed Management Project at IITA, said the Institute would continue to collaborate with HarvestPlus, especially in the area of breeding, to ensure that improved varieties were made available to farmers.

He also pledged IITA’s commitment to work with HarvestPlus in the area of weed science to address the menace of weeds in cassava farms.

Dixon’s commitment was re-echoed by J.C. Okonkwo, Executive Director of NRCRI.

Okonkwo expressed NRCRI’s support for bio-fortification, stressing that it was one of the most economically viable options for reaching the poor and addressing vitamin A deficiency.

He commended the HarvestPlus team in Nigeria under the leadership of Paul Ilona for the support given to NRCRI over the years.

In 2015, HarvestPlus activities will be more private sector driven with more commercial farmers coming on board. The distribution of free cassava stems would continue through the farmer-to-farmer scheme, spreading into spillover states where the dissemination of vitamin A cassava is yet to commence.

“Targeting commercial farmers brings sustainability for the vitamin A project in Nigeria,” Ilona said. “To ensure that vitamin A cassava products become a household item in Nigeria, marketing activities to create demand and promote supply are critical activities for next year.”

HarvestPlus in conjunction with its 16 partners aims at  establishing 3000 sales outlets in Nigeria for vitamin A cassava stems, fufu, gari flakes, cassava tubers, and packaged products targeting children and adults.

Source : Independent

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