Researchers at Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa) are in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Africa, for the purpose of teaching local researchers to measure the amount of carotenoids in biofortified foods such as the yellow cassava and sweet potatoes.
Carotenoids are natural pigments that give most fruits and vegetables their characteristic colors. The course in the Congo will last until August 22.
“The purpose is to share this expertise with the Congo and countries working with yellow cassava and sweet potatoes who are unable to quantify the amount of carotenoids accurately. The existing screening method is using color charts. Now, we are going to take it to the next level in terms of chemical accuracy,” researcher José Luiz Viana said. He is part of the BioFort Network, a project run by Embrapa Food Technology in Rio de Janeiro.
Biofortification consists of enriching food through conventional breeding. The BioFort Network uses biofortification to select and increase micronutrient content in rice, beans, sweet potato, cassava, corn, cowpea beans, squash, and wheat, in order to generate new crops with higher levels of pro-vitamin A, iron, and zinc.
This helps overcome micronutrient deficiencies – the so-called “hidden hunger” – which cause anemia, night blindness, and other disorders.
Embrapa has already taught Congolese researchers to take measurements by using color strips. Now, relying on advanced laboratory facilities, researchers José Luiz Viana and Izabela Castro will provide on-site training on chemical testing to make genetic selection more accurate. “We’ll be helping our partners enhance their technical skills,” Viana said.
One Step at a Time
Similar training has been provided in Nigeria, Uganda and Mozambique. Since the Congo is a French-speaking country, the course materials had to be translated into French.
The researcher said the next step is to enhance the technique so that, more than simply measuring the total carotenoid content, researchers will be able to measure each carotenoid separately by fractions, as currently happens with beta-carotene and alpha-carotene, for example.
He noted, however, that this has to be done in a later stage, because it involves high traveling costs and expensive training and specialized personnel.
The equipment for this new stage costs between US$ 70,000 and US$ 80,000, so project members will turn to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for funding – alongside other institutions, the foundation provides financial support for biofortification projects in Africa.
According to recent data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 48% of children aged five or below worldwide have anemia due to iron deficiency, and 30% have deficiencies in vitamin A.
In January this year, FAO Director-General, Brazilian José Graziano, said that agriculture is the “driver of growth” for ending hunger in Africa. The continent celebrates 2014 as the Year of Agriculture and Food Security, along with the UN International Year of Family Farming.