More than 2 billion people consume diets that are less diverse than 30 years ago, leading to deficiencies in micronutrients, especially iron (Fe), zinc (Zn), selenium (Se), iodine (I), and also vitamin A. A strategy that exploits genetic variability to breed staple crops with enhanced ability to fortify themselves with micronutrients (genetic biofortification) offers a sustainable, cost-effective alternative to conventional supplementation and fortification programs. This is more likely to reach those most in need, has the added advantages of requiring no change in current consumer behaviour to be effective, and is transportable to a range of countries. Research by our group, along with studies elsewhere, has demonstrated conclusively that substantial genotypic variation exists in nutrient (e.g. Fe, Zn) and nutrient promotor (e.g. inulin) concentrations in wheat and other staple foods. A rapid screening technique has been developed for lutein content of wheat and triticale, and also for pro-vitamin A carotenoids in bread wheat. This will allow cost-effective screening of a wider range of genotypes that may reveal greater genotypic variation in these traits. Moreover, deeper understanding of genetic control mechanisms and development of molecular markers will facilitate breeding programs. We suggest that a combined strategy utilising plant breeding for higher micronutrient density; maximising the effects of nutritional promoters (e.g. inulin, vitamin C) by promoting favourable dietary combinations, as well as by plant breeding; and agronomic biofortification (e.g. adding iodide or iodate as fertiliser; applying selenate to cereal crops by spraying or adding to fertiliser) is likely to be the most effective way to improve the nutrition of populations. Furthermore, the importance of detecting and exploiting beneficial interactions is illustrated by our discovery that in Fe-deficient chickens, circulating Fe concentrations can be restored to normal levels by lutein supplementation. Further bioavailability/bioefficacy trials with animals and humans are needed, using varying dietary concentrations of Fe, Zn, carotenoids, inulin, Se and I to elucidate other important interactions in order to optimise delivery in biofortification programs.
Journal of Trace Elements in Medicine and Biology (2005) 18 (4) 319-324 [doi: 10.1016/j.jtemb.2005.02.005]