What could life sciences
and technologies do to improve the health and nutrition
of the poor, thus fostering social and economic development,
without comprising food safety and the environment?
Enhancing nutritional quality and developing wider uses
Two related research projects have developed methods
to improve the nutritional value of grain sorghum and to
increase its use as a source of protein. Sorghum grains
are indigestible, but malting and fermenting processes used
in the first project improve protein availability, resulting
in sorghum products which can be incorporated into bread
and weaning foods. The second project is enhancing the nutritional
value of grain sorghum by introducing two genes from maize
and barley to stimulate the production of key protein components.
Sorghum is adapted to semi-arid conditions. However, while
it is widely available, it is indigestible, and thus offers
limited nutritional benefit. The first project, which ran
from 1996-99 under the European Commission’s INCO
programme, developed the processes of sorghum malting and
fermenting, which makes the grain protein available for
The aim of the second project, running for three years
from October 2000, is to produce grain sorghum with better
nutritional value, contributing significantly to the diet
of people and livestock for whom sorghum is a major protein
genetics: Giving rice an added edge
A deficiency is the leading cause of blindness in children
in developing countries and contributes to high mortality
rates from illnesses such as measles, infectious disease
and diarrhoea. While this can easily be tackled through
better nutrition, many countries lack the infrastructure
or finance to do so with food supplements – an expensive
and short-term solution.
A European Commission FAIR project, ‘Carotene Plus’,
aimed to tackle the problem of vitamin A deficiency (VAD)
by developing a genetically modified variety of rice able
to produce beta-carotene.
Rice is the staple diet in many countries with a vitamin
A problem. Ironically, grains often lose much nutritional
value through milling, a process that prevents them becoming
rancid in storage.
Through genetic and plant biotechnology developments in
Europe, an opportunity arose to develop a rice variety containing
high quantities of beta-carotene. This would allow people
to absorb enough beta-carotene to synthesise the vitamin
A that they lack.
Safety: Breaking down natural toxins in fermented foods
sub-Saharan Africa, maize and sorghum are the main staple
food and feed crops and are often consumed in the fermented
state, particularly in West Africa. In common with peanuts
and cottonseed, maize and sorghum have been shown to contain
a number of highly toxic substances including aflatoxins,
formed by the fungi growing on crops in conditions of high
temperature and humidity.
A European Commission-funded project, linking research
organisations from Europe with institutes in Africa, is
developing a biological method to break down the aflatoxins,
using the enzymes of bacteria. The project aims to develop
the technique for use in food products on an industrial
Aflatoxins are among the five most toxic contaminants of
food and feedstuffs. They are classified by the International
Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as liver carcinogens,
causing particular damage if the hepatitis B virus is present.
One of the most toxic (AFB1) is the subject of this project.
Research partners come from institutes in Denmark, Germany,
South Africa, Ghana, and Nigeria.
safety: Controlling the occurrence of mycotoxins in Latin
Mycotoxin contamination of food and animal feed
is among the highest priority issues for human and animal
safety. Mycotoxins have been defined as a “fungal
metabolites” which, when ingested, inhaled or absorbed
through skin, cause lowered performance, sickness or even
death in humans or animals. Thresholds for these substances
in traded commodities are becoming more and more restricted,
to the point of turning into a potential barrier to the
export of some agricultural products by developing countries.
A European expert cluster on fungal toxins is working with
South American partners to improve the competitiveness of
domestically and internationally traded cereals by controlling
the occurrence of mycotoxins in maize and wheat products
used as human food and animal feed.
The ‘Mycotox’ project, funded by the European
Commission’s INCO programme, focuses on developing
means and ways to minimise fungal infection and growth and
improve detection and control at key stages in production
and processing. The work relates to wheat and maize commodities
produced in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay.