Most people know that the world is still facing a global hunger problem, with 20 million people on the brink of famine today. But perhaps they aren’t as aware of another global epidemic: hidden hunger.
Hidden hunger affects roughly 2 billion people around the world and can result in serious health problems like stunting, diarrhoeal disease, auto-immune deficiency, blindness, and early child mortality.
“One of the biggest global problems in our time is malnutrition, particularly hidden hunger, which is a type of malnutrition where people are getting enough to eat, but not enough nutrition for good health, life, or growth,” Bev Postma, CEO of non-profit organization HarvestPlus, tells AgFunderNews. “Billions of people still rely on starch-based staple crops for their only meal of the day. They are getting enough, but just eating plates of rice, sweet potatoes, or beans.”
The role agriculture technology can play in the fight against global hunger is nothing new; most agtech startups say they are on a mission to feed 9 billion people in 2050 by increasing agricultural yields, reducing water consumption, improving produce shelf-life, and so on.
Non-governmental organizations also see the value in new technology on the farm and in the supply chain. The United Nations World Food Program recently launched an accelerator aimed at backing technologies that can help the world achieve a zero hunger paradigm. There are countless NGOs and other organizations whose sole focus is bringing agtech solutions to farmers in developing countries facing tough climates, infertile soil, and a lack of resources.
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And while technology certainly has its place in the toolbox, Postma and HarvestPlus are taking a slightly different approach to help reduce hidden hunger in these regions of the world by producing crops with high nutritional value.
“We don’t use any fancy technology. We use good old fashioned plant breeding,” explains Postma. “The scientists mined old seed banks around the world and discovered old varieties of rice, wheat, maize, and other staple crops that were once very high in micronutrients like vitamin A, zinc, and iron.”
After years of cross-breeding these old varieties with new varieties that have high yields, drought tolerance, and pest resistance, HarvestPlus has added 100 varieties of 12 major staple crops to its arsenal of hidden hunger-fighting plant breeds. Today, 30 countries have access to these seeds, which cover bananas, plantains, beans, cassava, cowpea, Irish potato, lentil, maize, pearl millet, pumpkin, rice, sorghum, sweet potato, squash, and wheat. The non-profit is overseeing trials in 40 additional countries.
The decision to rely on traditional plant breeding instead of genetic modification is not a reflection of HarvestPlus’ views on agriculture biotechnology. Rather, it was based on the tumultuous regulatory climate surrounding genetically modified crops particularly in developing nations where the technology is still considered controversial.
“We are a scientific organization; nearly all of our 160-person staff are scientists. It’s not that we are opposed to GM, it’s just that we don’t have a regulatory environment that would make that a valid option,” explains Postma. “We just want to get the job done and we can do that job with conventional breeding.”
“There are 15 agricultural research centers around the world that are funded by the public sector and big philanthropic groups like the Gates Foundation. These centers exist to work at the cutting edge of agriculture research on things for the public good, like climate-smart crops,” says Postma. “Most every country also has a government controlled research program. We take the germplasm from the global research centers and give it to the national research center and then we work with the centers to develop things like trials and demo days so farmers can see the plants and learn about their benefits.”
If those regulatory hurdles relaxed in the future, Postma and HarvestPlus would be ready to take the lead from the countries they target and could respond with GM technologies very quickly, she adds.
Although HarvestPlus has tapped a well-established and relatively straightforward technology to attack hidden hunger, the endeavor is not without its capital needs. So far, investment has come from three main philanthropic sources: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, USAID, and the UK government. They’ve also received some support from the EU. Over the last 10 years, HarvestPlus has raised $300 million to fund the discovery phase of its product development as well as the testing phase.
With the discovery phase and testing phase of its innovation completed, HarvestPlus has turned its focus to taking this technology to market. The organization targets rural smallholder farmers in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.
According to Postma, the non-profit needs to get these seeds in the hands of 1 billion farmers by 2030 in order for the technology to make an impact on hidden hunger.
“Going to scale requires diversifying our investor base. We are very open to public-private partnership and private investment,” she explains. HarvestPlus was recently announced as one of eight semi-finalists for the MacArthur Foundation’s 100&Change competition, a global competition for a single $100 million grant. The proposals address challenges ranging from eliminating needless blindness to educating children displaced by conflict, in places from Nigeria to Nepal to the United States.
The final piece of the distribution puzzle falls on developing world extension programs where NGOs work to educate smallholder farmers about the appropriate way to plant, grow, and harvest the seed varieties. Overall, Postma counts roughly 200 NGO partners working on the delivery side of the endeavor.
“We are like a catalyst pushing through all these centers. We provide investment to make sure these varieties are the priority for these developing countries.”
HarvestPlus is being recognized at the upcoming LAUNCH Food Forum, a global open innovation program for innovators and entrepreneurs with big ideas for improving health outcomes by enabling people to make healthy food choices. It was founded by NASA, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. Department of State and NIKE, Inc., who joined together to identify, showcase and support innovative approaches to sustainability challenges
Aside from applications in the developing world, Postma sees HarvestPlus’ technologies to address global problems that affect everyone such as climate change. The world is just waking up to the concept of delivering nutrition through agriculture as opposed to waiting until the factory to add vitamin fortifications.
She’s also quite excited about the idea of rediscovering ancient technologies and applying them to solve modern problems, especially as a non-profit organization.
“I think the big thing is the scale of this. The big thing is that it is very rare for public sector innovations to make it all the way to scale and I think we have a real chance of being one of those amazing technologies that are funded for the public good, that can really go to scale in a way that touches everyone’s lives for the better. Not just those who are suffering from hidden hunger.”