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2000s Archive

Politics of the Plate: Mission Man

Originally Published November 2007
Howarth Bouis has found a way to alleviate childhood malnutrition in the developing world. So why haven't you heard of him?

Rougui sow moans softly from the bare foam mattress on the floor. “She has a fever,” says her mom, 23-year-old Aissata Sy. “She always has a fever.”

Taking refuge from the midday heat in the space she calls home—a single room in a dusty slum on the outskirts of Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, in West Africa—Sy tells the story of a child who has been listless all her life, with a nose that runs incessantly and diarrhea that never really goes away. And though the bits of orange string threaded through her little earlobes suggest a happy, gold-hooped adolescence ahead for Rougui, the 18-month-old is no heavier than a rag doll and has yet to utter a single word. Sy admits she can’t afford to feed her daughter properly. She offers rice when she can, she says, but, given the trouble her husband has finding work, fish and vegetables are mostly out of the question. Asked how she intends to nourish her next child, the sibling-to-be now pressing against her pretty eyelet blouse, the young mother just looks away. “I am very tired of thinking about that,” she says.

All across the developing world, in low-slung cement-block hovels like this one, and in tin shanties, cardboard lean-tos, and makeshift homes of mud and thatch, frustrated mothers tell similar stories—of sluggish infants and slow-moving preschoolers, of children plagued with vague maladies of every sort. Less overtly heartrending, perhaps, than the all too familiar toddlers with bloated stomachs and bony limbs, these kids also represent the face of malnutrition. And the so-called “hidden hunger” from which they suffer—caused by micronutrient deficiences and the result not so much of a lack of food as of the right sorts of food—may be the most pernicious kind of all.

A third of all African under-fives suffer from stunted growth caused primarily by micronutrient malnutrition. Hundreds of thousands of preschoolers go blind annually thanks to a deficiency of vitamin A (a condition that also increases the risk of death from measles and diarrhea by an astonishing 24 percent); zinc deficiency leaves hundreds of millions vulnerable to infections and chronic illness; and iron deficiency contributes to some 840,000 deaths during childbirth every year. Because they have trouble concentrating, micronutrient-deprived children tend to drop out of school early, and with IQs as much as 15 points below those of their peers, they languish in adulthood as well. All of which makes you wonder why, amid all the talk these days about Africa’s struggle to develop, no one seems to be paying attention to the prospect of entire generations crippled mentally and physically—not just temporarily but for life.

Well, almost no one.

Working out of a spartan office off K Street, in Washington, D.C., a soft-spoken 57-year-old named Howarth Bouis is well into his third decade of obsessing over precisely this issue. Having traveled the globe repeatedly as an agricultural economist with the D.C.-based International Food Policy Research Institute, or IFPRI, Bouis (who goes by “Howdy”) has met more than his share of Rougui Sows over the years. And he’s asked himself which is the bigger scandal: The millions of children that malnutrition kills every year, or the millions it leaves behind?

The obvious solution to hidden hunger is a balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, meat, and fish, but Bouis realized early on that for the poorest of the poor, such a fix isn’t an option. Even if they could get access to a variety of foods, they wouldn’t have the means to pay for them. Over the decades, efforts have been made to provide nutrients by distributing vitamin pills and by fortifying food as it’s processed. Though these initiatives have saved millions of lives, they have generally failed to reach the rural population that comprises 70 percent of the world’s poor. “That’s all fine in the United States,” says Bonnie McClafferty, communications coordinator of HarvestPlus, the organization Bouis founded to combat chronic hunger. “But try getting that stuff out to villages where no one’s using the market system.”

There’s also the issue of cost. The international community spends roughly $500 million every year on vitamin A capsules alone but does little to treat the underlying problem. Which is why Bouis figured that if you could somehow fortify the staple crops, if you could mix the nutrition right into the foods that poor folks actually eat—rice, beans, maize, tubers—you could not only reach millions more people but avoid the never-ending outlays of cash as well.

Try explaining that, though, to the development community as constituted in the early 1990s. “We’ve got enough headaches as it is,” the breeders at the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a partnership that holds the world’s plant germplasm in trust, told Bouis—what with trying to develop crops that were resistant to pests, disease, and drought. Also, they said, everyone knows that if you start breeding for increased nutrients, your yields are going to go down and nobody’s going to want your crops anyway.

But Bouis was determined. He spent the next decade, in fact, hopscotching across the continents trying to find someone to share his vision. The little support he was able to rustle up enabled him to make progress on an initiative to breed iron into rice, but even that effort proved fraught at every turn. Not only did the lanky Stanford Ph.D. lose his star breeder in a car accident, but two consecutive typhoons wiped out his team’s entire fortified rice crop, setting the project back a full 18 months. It wasn’t until 2002, when the CGIAR selected Bouis’s “biofortification” concept (as he’d taken to calling it) for its new “Challenge Programs” that the initiative finally got any momentum. “Meanwhile,” says McClafferty, “he was just clunking along on his own. I mean, for the longest time, Howdy was working on like $30,000 a year to get this idea off the ground.”

In January 2003, Bouis approached the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for a second time. (He’d tried to bring them on board two years earlier but had been turned down.) Eight months later, stepping off the elevator in his office building, he was met by a colleague wielding a phone. “Congratulations,” said the Gates representative at the other end. “You’ve just been awarded twenty-five million dollars.”

“Then there was just a big sea change in the way we were perceived,” Bouis says with a laugh. “Before, it was kind of ‘Oh, what about this? What about that?’ And now, suddenly, it was ‘Oh, this is a no-brainer. Why’d it take so long to get funding?’”

In addition to enabling him to take on more breeders and nutritionists, the Gates money allowed Bouis to begin getting his supercrops out to the folks they were meant for. A young Kenyan mother named Rose Otamuna explains how she was approached a few years back by a field worker from a HarvestPlus-affiliated organization who was bearing a handful of sweet-potato varieties, all of which, unlike the white-fleshed roots grown in her native region for generations, were bright orange inside—and packed solid with vitamin A. In a country where 70 percent of preschoolers are deficient in that vitamin, she’ll tell you, this was no cosmetic trifle.

Neither, says Sammy Agili, a Nairobi-based breeder who works with HarvestPlus, was getting those particular tubers into that particular woman’s hands merely a matter of transferring vines. Some 300 miles away, at the Kakamega branch of the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, the scores of tiny white signs perched at regular intervals in the dirt tell a far more complicated story. It is here, under an unforgiving sun and amid fields hemmed in by sticks and wire, that Agili has looked at thousands of varieties of the tuber and, together with his colleagues, monitored their every attribute. These test plants in turn had been developed thousands of miles away in Peru, at the International Potato Center, where HarvestPlus-affiliated scientists sifted through the germ-plasm of many more thousands of varieties to find those that were high in beta-carotene and then breed them into the high-yielders. Following clinical trials to determine the plants’ efficacy in improving blood stores of vitamin A (which beta-carotene becomes once inside the body), the vines were sent to fields like this one, where they were adapted to the particular conditions of the microclimate. “You can’t just throw these things out there,” says McClafferty. “You have to disseminate in a very systematic, scientifically observable way.” For example, she says, “the Rwandans are chomping at the bit” to get their hands on the high-iron beans that are now in the works, but HarvestPlus can’t release them until the clinical studies have been completed. And though breeders have made great progress in developing high-zinc pearl millet in India, it will probably be eight years before the crop is ready to be introduced to the desertlike conditions of places like Mauritania.

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