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A global research initiative to develop crops with increased levels of vitamins and minerals that are essential for human health has received a boost with a US$25 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The grant, announced today, will support HarvestPlus, a public-private initiative led by the Colombia-based International Center for Tropical Agricultural Research (CIAT) and the US-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IRFRI).

The initiative aims to develop micronutrient-rich or 'biofortified' varieties of six staple crops – rice, wheat, maize, cassava, sweetpotato and beans – in a bid to end millions of cases of illness and death in the developing world caused by a lack of micronutrients such as iron, zinc and vitamin A.

"Adding healthier food to the agricultural research agenda is an idea whose time has come," says Joachim von Braun, director general of IFPRI. "Together with conventional strategies for improving nutrition, such as fortification, supplementation, and diversification of food in diets, this approach holds enormous potential."

The United Nations estimates that nearly one third of the world's population suffers from deficiencies in micronutrients, and malnutrition contributes to more than half of child deaths in the developing world. Even mild levels of micronutrient malnutrition can damage cognitive and physical development, reduce disease resistance in children and increase the likelihood of mothers dying in childbirth.

According to Howarth Bouis, director of HarvestPlus, biofortified crops have great potential in targeting those most affected by malnutrition – namely the rural poor – who are also the most difficult to reach with traditional nutrition programmes. "Biofortified crops have the potential to transform the health of these communities by allowing them to grow crops that are naturally fortified with essential micronutrients," he says.

The US$46 million initiative, which is also funded by the World Bank and the US Agency for International Development (USAID), will focus most of its research during an initial four-year period on conventional plant breeding. But some funds will also be allocated to exploratory research in developing biofortified genetically modified crops.

Ian Johnson, World Bank vice president on sustainable development and chair of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, says that the initiative shows how agriculture can be "a vehicle for public health gains in a very low cost and easy way to deliver". He adds that it is also an example of how "the application of science and technology will make the difference [to the lives of the poor] in the next 20 to 30 years".