HIDDEN THREAT TO HEALTH
Falling levels of essential nutrients in diets around the world demand urgent action, from soil-crop-human interactions in food chains to shifts in socio-economic-cultural policies.
One of the most ambitious programmes to provide lasting improvements in nutrition in sub-Saharan Africa begins today when a diverse multinational team of experts from agriculture to ethics start looking for ways to end dietary deficiencies in essential micronutrients.
Rothamsted Research is contributing soil and crop expertise to the programme, known as GeoNutrition, which has received a grant of £4.4 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to cover 43 months’ work in Ethiopia and Malawi, principally.
“We will be able to gain a better understanding of the multiple factors that influence the transfer of nutrients from soil to crops to diets,” says Steve McGrath, a specialist in the bioavailability of nutrients at Rothamsted.
The programme is focusing on deficiencies in selenium and zinc, which impair growth, inhibit cognitive development and suppress the immune system. It aims to map cropland, test the efficacy of micronutrient-enriched fertilisers, assess public health policies and strengthen training networks.
“We will allow appropriate interventions to be taken that respond to the specific local conditions that underlie micronutrient deficiencies,” adds McGrath.
Rothamsted will be drawing on its work for the Africa Soil Information Service (AfSIS) and on another project, also known as GeoNutrition, which it is piloting in Ethiopia and Malawi with the support of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.
“There are implications for the UK,” notes McGrath. Food basket analyses and blood plasma measurements in the UK indicate dietary deficiencies in selenium, he says: “Any interventions that work for other areas can also be considered for the UK.”
The Gates Foundation programme brings together teams in Ethiopia, Malawi, Kenya and the UK.
In Ethiopia, there are Addis Ababa University, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) and the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT); in Malawi, Lilongwe University of Agriculture & Natural Resources (LUANAR); in Kenya, CIMMYT again and the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF); and, in the UK, Rothamsted, the British Geological Survey (BGS), the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and the University of Nottingham, which is leading the programme.
“Micronutrient-containing fertilisers are routinely used in Finland to improve the nutritional quality of food crops,” says Martin Broadley, Professor of Plant Nutrition in the School of Biosciences at Nottingham. “Our team is exploring if biofortification can be effective for improving human health at a national scale in Ethiopia and Malawi including creating new, geographically-informed baselines.”
“GeoNutrition takes a geographical approach to nutrition,” says Edward Joy, an LSHTM expert in nutrition and sustainability. “This exciting approach lets us look at the movement of micronutrients through agriculture and food systems, and how a variety of physical and social factors end up influencing the nutritional status of people.”
“Zinc and selenium deficiencies are endemic in many communities in Ethiopia and Malawi, affecting more than half the population,” says Dawd Gashu, an expert in food science and nutrition at Addis Ababa, which leads research in Ethiopia. “Thanks to this project, we can now work with volunteers from Ethiopian and Malawian villages to test how nutrient-enriched crops can improve the diets and health of our children and future generations.”
“Soils in southern and eastern Africa are many thousands of years older than most soils in Europe and North America. They are highly-weathered and can lack sufficient micronutrients to keep our crops, livestock and people healthy,” says Patson Nalivata, an expert in crop and soil science at LUANAR, which leads research in Malawi.
“We can improve our soils by incorporating organic matter and by applying balanced fertilizers to include micronutrients such as zinc,” notes Nalivata. “Whilst such solutions are conceptually simple, the ‘trade-offs’ in terms of investment priorities for farmers can be complex. Experts in agriculture and nutrition need to work together to best advise policy makers, extension services, and farmers.”
“Values determine the demand, supply and implementation of evidence into policy,” says Joseph Mfutso-Bengo, an international expert in bioethics and Director of the Center of Bioethics for Eastern and Southern Africa, College of Medicine, University of Malawi. He adds: “Valuing evidence needs people with values that value evidence.”
University of Nottingham contact:
Martin Broadley, Professor of Plant Nutrition
School of Biosciences
+44 (0)115 951 6382
About the University of Nottingham
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About Rothamsted Research
Rothamsted Research is the longest-running agricultural research institute in the world. We work from gene to field with a proud history of ground-breaking discoveries, from crop treatment to crop protection, from statistical interpretation to soils management. Our founders, in 1843, were the pioneers of modern agriculture, and we are known for our imaginative science and our collaborative influence on fresh thinking and farming practices.
Through independent science and innovation, we make significant contributions to improving agri-food systems in the UK and internationally. In terms of the institute’s economic contribution, the cumulative impact of our work in the UK was calculated to exceed £3000 million a year in 20151. Our strength lies in our systems approach, which combines science and strategic research, interdisciplinary teams and partnerships.
Rothamsted is also home to three unique resources. These National Capabilities are open to researchers from all over the world: The Long-Term Experiments, Rothamsted Insect Survey and the North Wyke Farm Platform.
We are strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), with additional support from other national and international funding streams, and from industry. We are also supported by the Lawes Agricultural Trust (LAT).
For more information, visit https://www.rothamsted.ac.uk/; Twitter @Rothamsted
1Rothamsted Research and the Value of Excellence: A synthesis of the available evidence, by Séan Rickard (Oct 2015)
The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.
BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.
Funded by government, BBSRC invested £469 million in world-class bioscience in 2016-17. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.
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The Lawes Agricultural Trust, established in 1889 by Sir John Bennet Lawes, supports Rothamsted Research’s national and international agricultural science through the provision of land, facilities and funding. LAT, a charitable trust, owns the estates at Harpenden and Broom's Barn, including many of the buildings used by Rothamsted Research. LAT provides an annual research grant to the Director, accommodation for nearly 200 people, and support for fellowships for young scientists from developing countries. LAT also makes capital grants to help modernise facilities at Rothamsted, or invests in new buildings.