In 2016, Dr Howarth Bouis won the World Food Prize, known colloquially as the “Nobel Prize for Agriculture and Nutrition”, for his pioneering work to address the global issue of mineral and vitamin deficiencies in humans through the “biofortification” of staple crops.
At least one third of the world’s population suffers from mineral and vitamin deficiencies, and biofortification is the process of increasing the bioavailable concentrations of essential minerals and vitamins in edible crops through agronomic management or genetic selection.
On 5th July 2018 I searched for the term “biofortif*” in the Web of Knowledge Core Collection and found 1,952 records. Authors from the USA contributed more than a quarter of these publications, whilst authors from India, China and the United Kingdom contributed to 13%, 11% and 8%, respectively.
It seems that the term “biofortification” is a relatively recent introduction to the academic literature and the earliest relevant papers I found using it were published in 2002 in a Special Issue of Journal of Nutrition. They were short articles by Howarth Bouis on “Plant breeding: A new tool for fighting micronutrient malnutrition” (Bouis 2002), Ross Welch of the United States Department of Agriculture on “Breeding strategies for biofortified staple plant foods to reduce micronutrient malnutrition globally”, and Janet King also of the USDA on “Evaluating the impact of plant biofortification on human nutrition”. The term itself is credited to Steve Beebe, a researcher at The International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), who apparently used it at a meeting convened in 2001.
Nevertheless, successful projects to biofortify edible crops to improve the nutrition of animals and humans had been completed long before this date, including, for example, the development of Golden Rice, which synthesises beta-carotene (a precursor of vitamin A) in its seed (Ye et al. 2000), and the production of mineral fertilisers containing selenium or zinc that improved the selenium nutrition of Finns (Hartikainen, 2005) and the zinc nutrition of Anatolians (Cakmak, 2004). Indeed, the very successful Harvest Plus project, which has developed many varieties of staple crops with greater mineral and vitamin densities, has its roots in the work of Howarth Bouis, Ross Welch and Robin Graham (University of Adelaide) in the early 1990s.
The use of the term “biofortification” has increased exponentially since 2002 (Figure 1). Most papers using the term appear in the fields of agriculture (33%), plant sciences (28%), food science technology (19%), and dietetics (15%). The topic has had a greater than average number of Highly Cited papers in the last decade, as might be expected of a new and rapidly-growing “hot” topic. Over two thirds of the papers on biofortification mention minerals, with the most studied elements being zinc, iron, selenium, calcium, iodine and copper, and over a quarter mention vitamins, with the emphasis on vitamin A, folate and vitamin C (Figure 2). Only 5% mention amino acids.
The botanical subjects of papers on biofortification include a variety of crops, particularly the cereals (wheat, rice, maize, barley) and other staples, and (of course) arabidopsis, on which many molecular studies have been performed. It is hoped that the translation of knowledge from fundamental and applied research into agricultural practice will improved the health and livelihoods of both individuals and nations in the future (Bouis and Saltzman, 2017).