Vitamin A deficiency blinds up to 500,000 children each year and increases the risk of disease and death, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. In countries where maize is a staple food, such as Zambia, poor people eat up to a pound of it daily; maize is even used to make a porridge that is usually the first solid food an infant tastes.
Recent scientific breakthroughs are transforming this humble staple into a source of much-needed vitamin A in Africa. In 2010, a team of agricultural scientists led by Jianbing Yan of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) discovered rare variations of a maize gene that could lead to an 18-fold increase in beta-carotene content of maize in the lab. The team also identified a molecular marker – essentially a genetic signpost – that makes the most favorable form of this gene easier to find and then breed into any maize variety.
But just how much of this beta-carotene is converted by the body into vitamin A when eaten? Also in 2010, a team of scientists led by Wendy White, of Iowa State University, reported that the beta-carotene from orange maize was converted into vitamin A almost twice as efficiently as previously assumed, more efficiently even than the beta-carotene from vegetables, including carrots.
Under the best scenario, these gene variations could increase concentration of beta-carotene from roughly zero to more than 15 parts per million. Coupled with the findings on the conversion rates, this new maize could provide more vitamin A than previously thought possible – up to half of the daily requirement of children from two to six years old and of women of childbearing age.
HarvestPlus will next conduct an efficacy feeding trial in Zambia in partnership with the US-based Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and national partners, the National Food and Nutrition Commission and the Tropical Disease Research Centre (TDRC). This study will evaluate the impact of the new maize on the vitamin A status of vitamin A-deficient children by feeding them traditional food made from vitamin A-rich maize, instead of the customary white maize.
One effect of the beta-carotene is to turn the maize from white to a rich yellow or orange color. Will Africans accept an orange maize variety or will they prefer to continue eating the white maize that was popularized during colonial times? HarvestPlus economists assessed consumers’ willingness to buy the orange, vitamin A-rich maize. Consumers were given samples of orange maize flour to try at home or asked to taste local foods made from it. The study found that the orange color was not a hindrance to consumer acceptance and that consumers who received additional nutrition information were also more likely to accept this new maize.
Propelled by these research breakthroughs across disciplines, several conventionally bred varieties of vitamin A-rich maize are being evaluated by the Zambia’s Seed Control and Certification Institute under the National Performance Trial before official release to farmers, which is expected in 2012. HarvestPlus will work with several private- and public-sector partners to ensure that about 80,000 households are growing and consuming vitamin A-rich maize by 2014, and that the first spoonful of maize an infant tastes will indeed be orange.