A multivitamin for the world’s poor could be found in a cup of corn meal.
Scientists in Spain have engineered African lines of white corn to provide high levels of beta carotene, a key source of vitamin A, a nutrient critical to protecting eyesight.
The grain, which has an orange tint because of the beta-carotene, also contains significant levels of vitamin C and folate.
Less than a cup of the corn could provide the recommended daily intake of vitamin A, scientists reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Researchers said the achievement “opens the way for the development of nutritionally complete” grains.
The corn joins versions of rice and other crops that scientists are trying to breed to alleviate malnutrition in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Some 250 million preschool children are deficient in vitamin A, and as many as 500,000 kids go blind each year for lack of the nutrient, according to the World Health Organization.
The Rockefeller Foundation is pushing ahead with an effort to produce large amounts of a vitamin A-enriched rice, known as Golden Rice. At World Food Prize’s Borlaug Dialogue symposium last fall, the foundation’s president, Judith Rodin, said the rice could “save almost 3 million children’s lives, while nourishing as many as 300 million more.”
Like the corn, the rice came from genetic engineering, which involves adding genes to the plant from other species to give the crop new traits.
“We have so many millions of people around the world who have diets that are less than ideal,” said Greg Jaffe, a specialist in agricultural biotechnology with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group in Washington. “We should be using all the tools available to try to improve those diets.
Biotech seed companies such as Monsanto and Pioneer Hi-Bred are focusing their research on crop traits that will be in demand in developed nations, such as soybeans with oils that are better for the heart and corn that is drought tolerant.
Harvest Plus, a research organization funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to fortify crops for developing nations, is focusing instead on using conventional breeding techniques rather than genetic engineering.
The group is developing fortified varieties of several crops, including corn, beans, millet, wheat rice and cassava, through conventional crops.
But biotech crops have met resistance in many regions, including Africa, where the fortified versions are targeted.
The first vitamin A-enhanced corn variety is targeted for release in Zambia in 2011 and 2012. Other crops will be fortified with iron and zinc.
Conventional breeding may take longer than genetic engineering, but ultimately the new crop may be available sooner, said Yassir Islam, a spokesman for Harvest Plus, an outgrowth of a network of research centers, called the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.
So far in the greenhouse trials, yields of the biotech corn are equivalent to those in conventional varieties, one of the researchers, Paul Christou, wrote in an e-mail. The research has been funded through the Spanish government and a European Union program.
The scientists have been experimenting on white corn because that’s the favored type in their target areas of Africa. But they don’t believe hungry people will turn down the grain if it’s orange.
“Our intended target population is not well-fed people in industrialized countries, rather starving people in Africa, South America and Asia!” Christou wrote.
Philip Brasher is a reporter for The Des Moines Register. E-mail: email@example.com