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10-Year Head Start Helps ARS Play Vital Role in Nutrition Program

By Luis Pons
October 31, 2003

Agricultural Research Service expertise in an emerging technique for naturally fortifying food crops will be a central part of a program launched this month to tackle malnutrition in developing countries.

The program, HarvestPlus, will emphasize the innovative method called biofortification, which makes staple foods inherently more nutritious. Researchers will identify and develop crops with increased levels of key nutrients and make these crop varieties widely available throughout entire regions.

HarvestPlus is managed by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a Washington, D.C.-based consortium of donors devoted to agricultural advancements in the developing world.

Through the program, ARS and CGIAR will develop varieties of six major staple foods--rice, maize, wheat, beans, sweet potato and cassava--containing increased levels of nutrients such as iron, zinc and pro-vitamin A carotenoids.

ARS' role in HarvestPlus will, in many ways, be a continuation of work that was started a decade ago and will focus on ascertaining the content and bioavailability of micronutrients in the staple food crops. It will involve lab studies, animal nutrition and human trials, as well as molecular biology.

Studies will be conducted at ARS' Plant, Soil and Nutrition Laboratory in Ithaca, N.Y., by plant physiologist Ross Welch and human nutritionist Ray Glahn. They will implement an in vitro laboratory model developed by Glahn that couples simulated food digestion with a human intestinal cell line called Caco-2.

Welch will coordinate ARS activities in the HarvestPlus program. ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's primary scientific research agency.

Findings will be verified in research at ARS' Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center in Grand Forks, N.D., led by center director Gerald F. Combs, Jr. Further enhancement of micronutrients in staples through molecular techniques will be coordinated by plant physiologist Michael Grusak at the ARS Children's Human Nutrition Research Center in Houston, Texas.

CGIAR will focus mainly on the breeding and distribution of the fortified crop varieties, targeting resource-poor people in the developing world.