A collaboration between US scientists and a Nigerian agriculture agency is seeking to develop crops with higher iron levels in a bid to cut iron deficiency in western Africa.
The team claims that the nutritional status of food consumed is more important than quantity. They believe that a plant-enhancing process called 'biofortification' could improve the health of the population.
Iron deficiency anaemia can retard mental development and impair physical growth in children, lower disease resistance and complicate pregnancies. More than half of Nigeria's children and women of childbearing age suffer from anaemia, the major cause of which is lack of iron in the diet that is available for absorption.
Human physiologist Raymond Glahn of the US Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and researchers at the International Institute of Tropical Technology (IITA) headquartered in Ibadan, Nigeria, will use traditional breeding techniques to make iron in staple food crops more absorption-available. This will increase the nutritional quality of maize varieties already bred, grown and consumed in western Africa, according to the ARS.
ITTA scientists chose 69 varieties known for high grain yield and disease resistance, and they grew them in three regions of Nigeria that have different climates and elevations. After harvest, the maize was sent to Ithaca, where Glahn tested it using an 'artificial gut' which makes it possible to readily assess the bioavailability of iron in grains and other foodstuffs.
The model mimics human digestion to the point where nutrients are actually absorbed by a line of human intestinal cells.
"Improving maize or any other crop as a source of iron involves improving the iron content while maintaining iron bioavailability, improving that bioavailability, or better yet, both," said Glahn. Results indicate that the selected varieties show promise, but much more work remains.
"A much greater increase in iron bioavailability needs to be developed in these lines to ensure nutritional impact. We also need to monitor the stability of the genetic differences over consecutive growing seasons and across regions," said Glahn.
Next scientists will carry out artificial gut screening trials coupled with animal and human trials to verify the success of the breeding programme.
Glahn added: "Biofortification is a more sustainable approach and can be done and maintained for a fraction of the cost of other fortification programmes."Similar testing has begun with wheat and rice from other parts of the world and other vegetable and staple crops are likely to also feature in the research.