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Maize bred to fight vitamin A blindness

4th September 2012

Agricultural officials in Nigeria have authorised the use of two fortified maize hybrids to be grown by farmers in a bid to combat vitamin A deficiency in the population.


The hybrids are rich in vitamin A, and have also been bred for maximum corn maize yield and resistance against the main diseases that plague crops in the agricultural lowlands.

Developed by the country's International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), the maize hybrids will target vitamin A deficiency, which can lead to blindness, particularly in pregnant women and young children.

The hybrids, known as "lfe maizehyb" 3 and 4, have levels of beta-carotene, which is converted to vitamin A after digestion, that are 75% higher than the commercial maize strains currently being grown in Nigeria.

According to leading maize breeder Abebe Menkir, the maize cultivars commonly grown by Nigerian farmers contain very low levels of beta-carotene, or pro-vitamin A.

Menkir, who produced the two hybrids using traditional breeding techniques, said they had a high yield potential, as well as a number desirable agronomic traits suited to cultivation on Nigeria's lowland savannas.

Now, his organisation is working with private-sector partners to manufacturer high quality seed that can be sown by local farmers on their smallholdings.

According to nutritionist Rose Gidado, who coordinates the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa (OFAB), the new hybrids will provide vitamin A to groups in Nigeria who have been identified as particularly vulnerable to vitamin A deficiency.

She said pregnant women, lactating mothers and children under the age of five were particularly at risk.

Between one-quarter and half a million children in poorer countries go blind every year because of insufficient dietary vitamin A, according to the Geneva-based World Heath Organisation (WHO).

Half of those who go blind die within a year, and Nigeria has one of the highest incidences of the problem in the world, according to WHO data.

The new maize varieties are likely to boost efforts to improve vitamin A sufficiency in the general population, according to Bamidele Solomon, director-general of the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA).

He said the Nigerian government had already issued a directive calling for all food and flour to be fortified with Vitamin A by the flour producers.

He said that providing fortified foods would be even easier once the vitamin A was bred into the grain harvest itself, and the need for supplements at a later stage in the production process would be eliminated.

Meanwhile, in Uganda, a group called HarvestPlus has developed a variety of sweet potato that is rich in vitamin A, in a bid to target malnutrition in women and children.

The group, which is part of the global agricultural research partnership CGIAR, created the orange-fleshed potato by cross-breeding white and yellow sweet potato varieties, to produce a variety that has a higher yield, resists drought and is rich in beta-carotene, according to recent research published in the Journal of Nutrition.

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