26) Biofortifying groundnut to combat Vitamin A deficiency (3 January 2005))

The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) has launched research to enhance the production of ß-carotenes in groundnut. ICRISAT's research will help combat Vitamin A deficiency among resource poor consumers in the semi-arid tropics.

This research is part of the Global Challenge Program of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) aimed at the biofortification of crops to combat malnutrition due to the deficiency of nutrients such as iron, zinc and vitamin A in food crops. The CGIAR had recently launched the Global Challenge Program on Biofortification. ICRISAT is one of the 15 international agricultural research institutes that are part of the CGIAR. (For more information see www.harvestplus.org).

At ICRISAT, tissue culture and transformation methods have been optimized to obtain high frequency (80­–90%) shoot regeneration from cotyledon and leaf explants of groundnut. The technology is now being used to produce N new transgenic groundnuts with higher levels of ß-carotenes. ICRISAT scientists hope that such groundnuts will form an important genetic base for incorporating resistance to other biotic and abiotic constraints to the productivity of this important crop of the semi-arid tropics.

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), despite the improvements in the agricultural production over the past decades, one-third of the world's population is affected by vitamin A, iron, and zinc deficiencies in their diets. Vitamin A is an essential micronutrient for the normal functioning of the visual system, growth and development, maintenance of epithelial cellular integrity, immune function, and reproduction.

Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) can lead to night blindness and total blindness in children. About 350,000 children become partly or totally blind each year because of VAD and about 60% of them die within a few months after going blind. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that the elimination of VAD could reduce childhood mortality by 25%.

While vitamin A is only present in animal products, its predecessor ß-carotene or provitamin A is found in several plant species. However, these are not taken up easily from digested food, because they are fat-soluble and their bioavailability depends on the presence of fat or oil in the same meal, failing which they are excreted undigested. Oral delivery of vitamin A is problematic, mainly because of the lack of infrastructure thus necessitating urgent need of alternatives.

Billions of people in the developing countries suffer from a form of hunger known as micronutrient malnutrition or the “Hidden Hunger”. Micronutrient malnutrition is caused by poor quality diets, characterized by high intakes of staple, but low consumption of animal and fish products, fruits, legumes, and vegetables (which are rich sources of bioavailable minerals and vitamins).

The “Hidden Hunger” seems to have become more conspicuous in many countries since the introduction of Green Revolution cropping systems. Today, it affects the health, productivity, and well being of over half of the global community, with impact primarily on women, infants, and children from low-income families. Also, it impairs the national development efforts, reducing labor productivity, lowering educational attainments in children, reducing school enrolments and attendance, lowering educational morbidity rates, and increasing health-care costs.

Groundnut being oil-rich and rich in zinc and iron, but deficient in ß-carotenes, offers attractive options to enhance its content by utilizing recombinant technologies as shown recently for rice (Golden Rice). Moreover, enrichment of ß-carotenes in the diet can facilitate the uptake of other important minerals like iron.

For further information, contact Dr K K Sharma at k(dot)Sharma(at)cgiar(dot)org.

by ICRISAT. All rights reserved.