Given the ambitious goal of the MacArthur Foundation’s $100 million grant competition — to find and fund a feasible, long-lasting solution to a major global problem — Harvest Plus’s place among the eight semifinalists should come as no surprise. As Beverley Postma, the charity’s chief executive officer, explains in this Business of Giving interview, HarvestPlus tackles "hidden hunger," a particular kind of malnutrition that affects 2 billion people worldwide.
"That’s when people are getting enough food on their plates ... but they’re just not getting enough micronutrients — the vitamins and minerals," she says. Especially crucial is a lack of vitamin A, iron, and zinc that causes major problems in children’s health and development and reduces overall productivity in many nations.
Using advanced, research-backed "biofortification" techniques, HarvestPlus crosses high-yield varieties of maize, sweet potatoes, and other staples with older varieties high in those key nutrients. Nutritionists work with villagers in Africa, Asia, and Latin America to efficiently adapt new crops to local preferences, farming practices, climate, and soil.
The results are dramatic: Reductions in killer conditions like night blindness (caused by a vitamin A deficiency) are observable within a month of dietary changes. But the work is painstaking: It can take six years to develop and grow to maturity a new, high-nutrition crop. With $100 million from MacArthur, Ms. Postma says, HarvestPlus could extend what it’s learned to 100 million more families over the next six years, a pretty cost-effective start to eliminating hidden hunger.
Listen to the full interview on the player below and/or scroll down to read a transcript provided by the Business of Giving.
Denver: And it’s indeed a pleasure for me to welcome to the show the Chief Executive Officer of one of the eight semi-finalists of the MacArthur Foundation’s 100&Change competition. She is Beverley Postma, the CEO of HarvestPlus. Good evening, Bev, and congratulations on being named one of the elite eight!
Beverley: Good evening, Denver! It’s great to be here.
Denver: Tell us about HarvestPlus and the mission of the organization.
Beverley: Well, HarvestPlus is the most remarkable program. I had the honor of joining it just six months ago as CEO, and it’s just the most wonderful, simple idea that is going to save hundreds of millions of lives in Africa, in Asia, and in Latin America. It really is a super program that starts with science; it mixes in some nutrition and food; it applies some economics; and it comes out in the end with a very, very simple way of helping to solve malnutrition.
Denver: Part of that malnutrition you talked about, Bev, is something which is called “hidden hunger” — something that impacts about 2 billion people across the world. What is hidden hunger?
Beverley: Yes. This is something that shockingly today is still one of the world’s biggest problems. We’re reasonably familiar with images about malnutrition. Fortunately, we’re making good progress around the world in tackling both poverty and malnutrition. But one of the more hidden and more sinister types of malnutrition is still very prevalent. And that’s when people are getting enough food on their plates—they’re maybe getting a good meal or two meals a day of big, starchy food like rice or wheat, or maize/corn—but they’re just not getting enough micronutrients– the vitamins and minerals. And this is what we call “hidden hunger.”
Denver: So, when they’re not getting those necessary vitamins and nutrients, which ones are typically missing from their diet?
Beverley: Sadly, the big three. The World Health Organization has pointed to these major nutrients – Vitamin A, Iron, and Zinc. These three are the building blocks of health, and they are causing some major deficiencies and major problems around world. I’m sure you’ve heard of problems like stunting, where children are not developing their growth potential and their brain potential… which has a major impact on both the children’s health and the productivity of the country.
Denver: Right. Vitamin A also causes night blindness, correct?
Beverley: Absolutely! Yes! The Vitamin A is an incredible vitamin. It’s very important. Luckily, most of us here in America get enough of it. It’s because we have quite a diverse diet. We eat lots of orange and yellow things, which is a natural source of Vitamin A. Sadly, people that are not getting Vitamin A have suffered from a whole range of problems, including night blindness– where children and adults cannot see very well after dark. When you’re trying to do your homework by candlelight in a hut, that’s a real problem.
Denver: Well, the way you’re trying to address this is through something called biofortification. What is that? And how does it differ, Bev, from genetic modification?
Beverley: That’s a very good question, and it’s a big word. I had to take a while to get used to saying “biofortification.”
Denver: Sounds like you’ve got it down though.
Beverley: Well, I’m learning. This is a big word for a very simple idea. Actually, it’s not genetically modified technology at all. This is when you take a plant from an old variety that was once very high in nutrients, like vitamins and minerals, and you cross it with a modern high-yielding variety. And what our researchers are doing, they’re basically experimenting with making multiple crosses. Every day, they’re trying and growing crops with different parentage, from an old variety, crossing it with a new variety, and just using traditional plant breeding conventional methods to grow a crop that at the end of the day has the best of both, so that we come back with high-yield and high-nutrients.
Denver: When you cross breed like this, and you’re not using some outside technology, how long does it take before it yields a crop?
Beverley: I think this is the thing we have to be clear. The use of genetic modification is really just an accelerator, and that’s why it’s so valuable. Now, we don’t use genetic modification, so our technology takes a bit longer. It can take up to six years to find the right variety because each time, you have to grow the whole crop, and it’s not until that crop has ripened and matured that the scientists are able to see whether it does have the right level of nutrients. And each year, they start back again. They have to start working within the planting season and the growing season, and it’s a very long and painstaking process. But it’s working, and we’re getting some great results.
Denver: And it’s even more painstaking I think because one of the challenges that you have to address is these crops have to be what a particular population wants, and that might even include the size and shape of the bean.
Beverley: Absolutely! You know your beans! What happens with every crop—first of all, our nutritionists will visit the villages in Africa, in Asia, and Latin America where people are relying on a certain staple in their diets. They will then check to see how they’re eating it, where they’re eating it, how they’re cooking it, and they will go and talk to our crop breeders to start looking for an alternative– a higher nutrient version of the one that they’re growing in that country. Now, that starts in one of the global research centers; many of them are here in the United States. And then once we have a variety that we think will do the trick, it then has to be moved to the country where it needs to grow, and be adapted. It has to adapt to the soil– the climate of that country– and that can take several years as well.
Denver: Is there a tipping point in a community where some of the crops are biofortified, and then the benefits just become so apparent to everyone that this whole thing just takes off?
Beverley: This is the wonderful thing about this: It takes many, many years to develop these crops, but the results are almost instant. Within a week of a child receiving an orange sweet potato rather than a white one, or an orange maize meal rather than a white maize meal, within a week, the mothers are reporting improvements in night blindness. And within a month, we’re seeing results in the reduction of diarrheal diseases, which are a major killer of children in Africa and Asia.
Denver: That’s fantastic! It would only seem natural, I think, to many of us that the agricultural policy of a nation would be intimately linked with the health ministry of that country, but that hasn’t always been the case, I guess, right?
Beverley: Well, we can’t just blame government for this. We’re not very good at doing this. History suggests, if you look back, that agriculture has always really been designed to grow more, grow faster, grow better — we have a big planet to feed; whereas the health benefits are usually addressed to healthcare and food at the other end of the spectrum. It’s only really been recently… in the last 10 years, and thanks to this technology, that governments and policy makers and the rest of us are starting to realize we can actually tackle some of our nutrition challenges through agriculture. And we need to have more conversations together. We can do it the short way, or we can do it the hard way, but the easy way is to actually get the plants to do the work.
Denver: What are some of the economics around these biofortified crops? And by that I mean, do they cost the farmers more, at least initially? And do they have to be subsidized in some way?
Beverley: No. You see this is one of the amazing things about this program. We’ve been very clear that these crops must not cost any more to grow and plant than their existing varieties. We want the farmers to just make a very easy switch. We’re not trying to change things too dramatically. And because of that, what we’re doing is we’re giving away the planting materials to the governments in these countries. We’re working with them to develop trials, demo days to try and encourage the farmers to take up these new healthier crops. And we’re incentivizing that by giving some farmers free samples of seeds… but on condition that when they harvest that crop, they give four neighbors the seeds. So there’s a natural progress of cascading these new seeds into the community.
Denver: Very smart. Speaking of farmers, we had Matt Forti of One Acre Fund on the show last month, and he was talking about how most of the farmers in Africa are women. So aside from the crops themselves that are going to make the entire community healthier, what are some of the benefits of this effort that accrue to the farmer and her family?
Beverley: Well, remember, it’s not just Africa where a lot of farmers are women. There are a lot of women farmers here in America as well… and around the world.
Beverley: But in Africa, it’s mainly very smallholder farms, and traditionally the woman is the farmer in these smallholder farm units. And what that means is that we’re able to encourage not just healthier production on the farm, but also healthier consumption in the family. So we’re very keen to measure and monitor not just who’s planting these new varieties, but who’s consuming them and benefiting from them. Women understand this so much. They see the health improvements in their children. They are our greatest champions for biofortification.
Denver: Well, speaking of measuring, HarvestPlus has an exceptional reputation around research and evidence – always looking to see what’s working, always seeing if they can make it work a little bit better. What does some of that research say?
Beverley: It’s remarkable. I am surrounded by 160 scientists, but we’re actually born from within two research institutes. This is the program that was supported by the International Food Policy Research Institute, which is headquartered here in Washington D.C., and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, which has its roots in Columbia. Everything we do starts with research.
We’ve done research on everything. We’ve done research on the crops… all of the crop breeding… to check the plants can actually do this. We’ve done research to show that farmers are willing to grow the crops. And we’ve done research to show that the nutrition stays in the crops year after year after it’s grown for the first time. Finally, and the best news ever, is that we now have research to show real impacts on health. We’ve managed to see 50% reduction in childhood diarrheal diseases in two or three key countries in Africa, and that gives us really the push and the drive that we need now to really take this to scale.
Denver: Well, talking about taking it to scale. Let’s turn our attention to the $100 million grant that will be awarded by the MacArthur Foundation to one of the eight semi-finalists. How will you use that $100 million if you should be so fortunate to be declared the winner? And what will it allow you to do, Bev, that otherwise, you would not be able to do?
Beverley: Denver, this is super exciting! At the program, we are entirely reliant on donors. This program is supported already by the Gates Foundations, by USAID, by the UK Aid division, and several others. We cannot go to scale. We cannot take this to reach one billion people without more investments. So when we found out that we’ve been shortlisted in the final eight for the MacArthur Foundation 100&Change competition, we were elated.
Denver: I bet!
Beverley: We have a lot of work to do, but this work will transform our activities in Africa. It will allow us to take the learnings from the five foundation countries that we’ve invested in and then cascade that into another 22 countries. We believe that with this money, we can reach 100 million families in Africa in the next six years, and that will have such a transformative effect on the health and the livelihoods of people in those countries.
Denver: That’s fantastic! You know, when you put an ambitious plan like this together, there are often certain aspects that you’re a little bit more concerned about than others. So aside from the financial resources, of course, what do you see as your biggest challenge with this project?
Beverley: Well, there are so many health problems and challenges in the world right now. We’re tackling climate change. We’re tackling other big nutrition challenges. We’re trying to, if you like, compete for a smaller and smaller set of funding to help these causes. So I think our biggest challenge is showing that this one is a revolutionary solution. This one can be far reaching. It can touch many, many lives and solve many, many problems, but it also needs to sit alongside other interventions.
You’ll be familiar with fortification, where we’re putting vitamins and minerals into things like flour and milk, and that’s another important aspect of the nutrition challenge. There’s also supplementation, where children and pregnant women in Africa and Asia receive supplements of things like Vitamin A and Iron. There will still be a need for some of that on-going. So I think the challenge is for us to be responsible, for us to work with the other members of what we call the micronutrients society so that we understand where we fit, how we can have the comparative advantage, and how we make the case to all work together to solve this big problem. So, I think that’s the challenge going forward, it’s just making sure we’re all in this together.
Denver: Well, let me close with this, Bev. You clearly have some formidable and worthy competition in the other semi-finalists. What case would you make as to why this project is the one that will have the greatest impact and benefit for humankind?
Beverley: First of all, we think all eight of the semi-finalists are worthy winners. We’re deeply honored to be one of this group. We believe that we deserve to win the $100 million just because of the sheer scale of the impact. Very few innovations truly go to scale. This is an idea that was born in the United States, but it has the capacity to reach a billion people… in so many countries in the world and have so much impact. Therefore, we believe that the award should go to biofortification because of its scale and scope.
Denver: Well, Bev Postma, the CEO of HarvestPlus, I want to thank you for being with us this evening. Tell us about your website and some of the things visitors will find there.
Beverley: You’ll find some amazing things. Our team, our videographers, I think, are some of the best in the world. You can visit harvestplus.org and visit our videos and our stories. You can learn about our crops; you can hear about all of the amazing women farmers that we’re working with. There’s something new every day.
You can also follow us on Twitter, on Facebook, and on a few other places. And stay in touch. Sign up for our newsletters. We’d love to hear from you, and we’re always looking for new ideas. So, please follow us, and keep your fingers crossed so we win the $100 million.
Denver: Best of luck to you and your colleagues at MacArthur Foundation’s 100&Change competition when the winner is declared this coming December. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show, Bev.
Beverley: Thank you, Denver!