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Having battled hunger and after successfully bringing Brazil in the bracket of a low-hunger index, the Latin American giant has set its eyes on enhancing the nutritional value in Brazilian diets.
Brazil is conducting a pilot programme in over 15 cities to provide nutritionally enhanced natural food to its public school children. It is an addition to two other ongoing programmes for low-income people: the school meal programme and the programme for familiar agriculture.
The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) had stated in one of its earlier reports that “The high prevalence of child under-nutrition is a major contributor to persistent hunger”. With this new programme, Brazil is seeking to mitigate that.
Brazil has long abandoned the idea of food distribution programmes. They have proved inefficient and demanded too complex logistics and production systems. Food distribution has also proved to be corruption-prone. India’s Parliament, for instance, is debating a bill creating a new and ambitious programme to provide highly subsidised food to its poor.
India’s agriculture has successfully grown through innovation and heavy farm subsidies over the years. It usually provides the country with plenty supply of grain, but it fails to reach the poor. The National Food Security Bill about to be approved will cost $22 billion a year, and aims to sell subsidised wheat and rice to over 800 million people. Critics, however, question its implementation by the notoriously corrupt public distribution system, and the programme’s high cost.
The Brazilian school meal programme instead of relying on any distribution system, transfers money to schools for them to buy the products and cook the students’ mandatory daily meal servings on site. Trained cooks are part of the schools’ permanent staff. Now, the goal is for school meals to use natural biofortified food bought from nearby small family producers. A booklet with 53 recipes has been distributed to the school’s cooks to show them how to make diversified diets using biofortified food, and teaching better standards for food processing, hygiene, and storage.The programme is financed jointly by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Bank, Embrapa and Federal Government funds.
Contrary to perception, biofortified crops are not genetically modified. Biofortification is an advanced form of conventional plant-breeding methods to enhance the concentration of desirable micronutrients in food crops, through careful seed selection and cross-breeding among plants that have acquired the envisaged properties.
Embrapa, the Brazilian government-owned agricultural research and development company combines laboratory and agricultural methods to produce eight different kinds of seeds to be distributed to small family farms near to the schools.
The programme aims at increasing farmers’ income, while giving easy – and inexpensive – access to enriched foodstuffs to public schools. The biofortified diet is based on zinc and iron-enriched rice, two types of iron and zinc enriched beans, zinc-enriched wheat, provitamin A-enriched corn, sweet potatoes, cassava and squash.
Differences among regular and biofortified crops are impressive. Ordinary rice has on average 12 mg of zinc and 2 mg of iron per kg, while a kg of biofortified rice averages 18 mg of zinc and 4 mg of iron. A kilo of ordinary corn has 4.5 mg of provitamin A, but a kilo of biofortified corn has 9 mg of provitamin A.
The BioFort programme is associated with HarvestPlus and AgroSalud research programmes that operate in Latin America, Africa and Asia.
Diet variety using biofortified foods on school meals is a singularity of the Brazilian experiment, now on pilot field testing after ten ears of research and development. Other countries are working with one product only. In India, they are growing enriched rice. Some other Latin American countries have chosen to grow with enriched corn or enriched whole wheat.Another distinctive point is the connection between local small producers needing an extra income, and the area’s public schools. In some unique and laudable cases, rural schools are growing their own biofortified crops and this has become part of their teaching agenda.
Field tests in Brazil will be conducted to 2015, when the programme managers intend to disseminate it mainly to public schools of the country’s poorer areas of the Northeast and North. Marilia Nucci, the programme coordinator told me they want “to play it safe”. “We want to see concrete results before starting to disseminate the programme. We will conduct studies of nutritional impact over the next two years, comparing children getting non-biofortified diets and children getting our biofortified diets.”
The study will be conducted on three public preschool establishments. Embrapa will fully provide both diets for comparison of nutritional results on children. Another impact study will access the programme’s socioeconomic effects on the income of farmers already planting biofortified seeds and selling their produce to public schools.
The programme’s major bottleneck today is the capacity for seed production to meet the demand. Marilia Nucci explained that Embrapa is addressing this problem partnering with seed producers, transferring technology and training to reach the required scale of production in the near future.
Food security is a major global challenge in the 21st Century. Global population will still grow to 2050. Poverty continues to be an issue in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, as well as malnutrition. Climate change will increase the stress over productive land and reduce fertile land. Many different programmes and approaches have been used to deal with food security and hunger. The “BioFort” programme combines enhanced food and income generation as a means to meet poor children’s nutritional needs. Embrapa has been transferring its technology and expertise to other Latin American and African countries.
This Brazilian programme may well be an ambitious and innovative answer to food security and providing adequate diet of micronutrients to children of low-income families.
Sergio Abranches, writer, and journalist, has a daily op-ed commentary on the Brazilian all-news radio network CBN on Ecopolitics, and has contributed to National Geographics’s The Great Energy Challenge blog. His two recent books published in Portuguese are Copenhague Antes e Depois, an account of COP15, The Climate Summit in Copenhagen and its aftermath, and the novel O Pelo Negro do Medo.