Aid for Poverty—and Pudding

New technology for curbing nutrient deficiency is being cruelly held up.

Not for nothing is micronutrient malnutrition known as the “hidden hunger.”

At my school dining hall in 1970s Scotland, tapioca was sometimes served as pudding. It has since fallen out of favor as a culinary treat, and I can’t say I’m surprised.

This, along with a recent (and vastly more enjoyable) brush with bubble tea in New York City, are my sole encounters with cassava: tapioca and the bubbles in bubble tea are made from cassava root flour. But for the hundreds of millions of people in tropical and subtropical Africa, it is the staple food. For many good reasons. Cassava grows well on a variety of soils, requiring little fertilization or water. The harvest window is wide and the yield is steady over many years. Only sugarcane provides more food energy per hectare. And,...

Cassava can be consumed by the growers or sold as a cash crop in urban centers, bringing much-needed income to the countryside. And since it isn’t traded internationally, the price isn’t prone to wild fluctuations. Not surprisingly, production is booming in many African countries, tripling in the last 20 years.

It is no coincidence, however, that the same population that takes one-third of its daily calories from cassava is also most prone to micronutrient malnutrition. Cassava root has only trace amounts of iron, zinc, and Vitamins A and E. To make matters worse, it is rich in cyanide, which is not always fully removed in processing; a cyanide breakdown product, thiocyanate, interferes with iodine processing in the very group of people most likely to be iodine deficient.

The brutal impact of micronutrient malnutrition has been properly recognized only in the past decade. Not for nothing is it known as the “hidden hunger.” Iron deficiency affects half of the young children in the developing world and accounts for one-fifth of early neonatal death and one-tenth of maternal deaths. Lack of Vitamin A compromises the immune system, contributing to the early deaths of a million young children per year. And up to 20 million mentally impaired babies are born every year to iodine-deficient mothers. In the poorest countries of the world, the economic burden of vitamin and mineral deficiencies is equal to 2% of the GDP.

Now, imagine that scientists could develop cassava varieties that provide the necessary micronutrients. Surely such a remarkable breakthrough would be wholeheartedly embraced by governments in the developing world, advocated by international aid agencies, and supported by the governments of Western Europe.

Well, it probably would be if the wonder crops, or “superfoods,” as Bob Grant terms them in his feature "Where's the Super Food?", weren’t “genetically modified organisms.” As Grant reports, Vitamin A–rich cassava is among a range of biofortified crops ready to satisfy the hidden hunger. Each costs $20–30 million over 10 years to develop, around 2% of the cost of industrial supplementation of basic foodstuffs with micronutrients.

Yet progress toward regulatory approval of enhanced cassava and other “superfoods” is painfully slow. African governments, many of which outright rejected GM maize as food aid in the past, remain leery of transgenic crops, for a complex mixture of reasons. These include chronic neglect of agricultural science, both by national governments and international donor agencies. Sadly, the reasons also include the postcolonial posturing by the citizens and governments of Europe, consisting of the promotion of European-style precautionary regulations and of low-yield organic farming, backed by the threat of bans on GM food exports. I highly recommend Robert Paarlberg’s book “Starved for Science” for a detailed analysis.

Grant’s feature illustrates the promise of transgenic crops for Africa. They could go a long way to eradicating micronutrient malnutrition over the next quarter century, so long as the well-meaning but cruelly flawed thinking that is delaying their deployment is righted. Africa is not Europe.

I look forward to the day that we’re importing GM cassava from food-sufficient Africa. In fact, I already have a new tapioca pudding recipe picked out.

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