“The sad and rather shocking fact is that over two billion people in the world are suffering from this type of malnutrition that is called hidden hunger,” which can result in blindness, stunted physical and mental development, physical weakness from anemia and diarrheal diseases from insufficient micronutrient intake, explained Beverley Postma, CEO of HarvestPlus, a joint venture created by International Food Policy Research Institute and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture that is answering governments’ call for help in improving public health through nutrition.
“On an economic level, the economists recently estimated this form of malnutrition is now costing the global economy as much as $3.5 trillion per year and it is accounting for an average loss of GDP to each country of about 14% every year. And that is just an average. In some countries, it is much, much higher than that so this is a really serious problem,” she added.
Despite these significant negative impacts, Postma says hidden hunger remains relatively unknown because it doesn’t generate the same startling images as starvation and famine, but “global agencies around the world are very aware of this problem and they are trying to mobilize the global community to do something about it, and that is why we stepped onto this stage.”
Postma explained, HarvestPlus has found a unique solution to the problem of hidden hunger which is not only saving lives, but creating business opportunities for farmers, suppliers and manufacturers up and down the global supply chain as well as generating increased consumer awareness about the dangers and extent of hidden hunger.
HarvestPlus was created based on the idea that “maybe the world was addressing hidden hunger in the wrong way. Rather than giving people supplements and fortification at the end of the food chain, why can’t we grow some of these vitamins and minerals into the crops people are relying on in rural communities and developing countries?” Postma explained.
HarvestPlus does this by breeding – not through genetic modification – staple crops with higher levels of vitamin A, zinc and iron and then selling these biofortified seeds to farmers at the same price as the other non-fortified seeds they were purchasing before, she said.
Even though the seeds are created through old-fashioned techniques, they offer modern benefits, including hybrids designed to thrive in different climates, combat different bests and still yield higher products, Postma said. She added that HarvestPlus also sells open pollenating varieties so that farmers can save and resow the same seeds year after year if they wish.
“At HarvestPlus, our rule is very, very simple: We just want to make it as easy as possible for the poorest farmers to make the switch to biofortified crops,” she said.
In addition to creating and selling bioforitifed seeds, HarvestPlus works with farmers to create a market demand and find buyers who will use their crops to make products that consumers who need the added nutrition will buy.
For example, she said, “We do a whole range of marketing incentives. We hold field days where we give away tiny packets of sample seeds so farmers can give them a try. We incentivize the seed companies by helping them with their marketing so that they can emphasize and prioritize the biofortified varieties rather than the un-nutritious versions and we really just work with the market to try and stimulate a market price for the farmer.”
On the manufacturing side, Postma positions the crops as the next organic and as a way for companies to tap into the better-for-you food movement.
“We know that biofortification is at a critical tipping point [and] is poised to become the next major movement in the food industry and it has already been compared to the likes of the organic movement, which now after 20 or 30 years is a $14 billion industry,” Postma said.
She added biofortified crops allow manufacturers to make nutrient content claims and to say something is “naturally nutritious,” which “is appealing to consumers that really want a natural method of production.”
The other big benefit for manufacturers is the ability to make global sustainability goals, which consumers increasingly consider when they purchase foods and beverages, she said.
“We know that younger consumers are really looking to spend their dollars on companies that are investing not just in profit, but in also sharing that value across the global spectrum,” she said.
Location, location, location
The marketing strategies that will produce the best results for farmers and manufacturers alike, will depend heavily on where the crops and products are grown and sold, Postma said.
For example, she noted, in Latin America the most successful marketing approach for HarvestPlus and its partners has been to provide a “food basket” solution.
She explained that in Latin America, communities do not just eat one crop, but rather have a varied diet, and as such the company needed to introduce a variety of options and work with manufacturers to create a wider variety of foods, such as zinc rice noodles, vitamin A cassava and sweet potato flour, natilla made from biofortified crops and other local and traditional foods.
The company also seizes opportunities as they arise, and as such needs manufacturer partners that also are ready to move quickly.
For example, in Haiti when the crops were wiped out by storms, HarvestPlus was able to quickly mobilize a biofortified seed so that farmers could replant and not lose that entire season of food production, she said. But, she added, the company could not have done it without public and private partnerships.
Building partnerships & raising funds
As illustrated, Postma emphasized that these types of partnerships play a key role in HarvestPlus’ ability to reach its ambitious goal of providing seeds to 100 million farmers by 2020 and biofortified food to 1 billion people by 2030. She explained that HarvestPlus has valuable relationships with various government and private entities, but she added one particular potential partnership could greatly excel the company’s progress.
“We entered a competition run by the Macarthur Foundation called the 100&Change,” which has a prize of $100 million for an idea that will transform the world, Postma said. “Out of 1,904 entries were shortlisted first to the final eight and then we found out a month ago we made it to the final four and December we will travel to Chicago to join our fellow finalists to pitch to a board … and 200 members of the audience.”
An infusion of $100 million certainly would go a long way, but either way, Postma says HarvestPlus will move forward and hopes that other manufacturers and brands will come along, too.