"We view this study as a 'proof of concept,'" said Zeigler. "We now know that, if plants are bred with higher levels of iron and other micronutrients, they will improve the nutritional status of people who consume them. This has dramatic implications."
Through a process known as "biofortification," plant breeders are developing staple foods with higher levels of essential micronutrients. This study demonstrates that iron-biofortified rice can raise levels of stored iron in the body and can significantly contribute to reducing micronutrient malnutrition.
"In the past, we relied on supplements and fortification to overcome vitamin and mineral deficiencies," said Howarth Bouis, director of HarvestPlus. "Now we know that biofortification also works, giving us an additional tool in this crucial battle."
The United Nations and other donors spend millions of dollars a year on iron supplements and other strategies to ease the enormous damage wreaked by iron deficiency and related conditions. Iron deficiency can affect a child's physical and mental development, and each year causes more than 60,000 maternal deaths during pregnancy and childbirth. Recent statistics from the Micronutrients Initiative of Canada and the United Nations Children's Fund indicate that more than half of the developing world's children between 6 months and 2 years of age are iron-deficient during the critical period of their growth when brain development occurs. Many of the worst affected are found among Asia's poorest, but iron deficiency is also widespread in Africa, affecting more than 80 percent of young children in some countries.