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Boosting iron production in plants and diets      

Use of biofortified high iron pearl millet can reduce significance iron deficiencies and improve nutrition and cognitive performance, a recently published study in the Journal of Nutrition observes.

Researchers say poor diets lacking in iron reduce brain development and capacity- hampering individuals’ potential and societies. This is especially common in poor third world nations such as Kenya, where iron deficiency also leads to anaemia in children and women.

Societies that are vegetarian are particularly at risk of iron deficiencies, especially if green vegetables are lacking, observes the study published in the journal by Oxford University. 

“If we can improve adolescents’ performance in school by improving their iron status, we may also have longer term impacts in terms of their ability to secure a good job, or be admitted to a college program,” says Dr Samuel Scott, Associate Research Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, lead author of the publication — A Randomised Trial of Iron-Biofortified Pearl Millet in School Children in India.

It is estimated that iron deficiency affects over two billion people globally, resulting in impaired cognitive and physical development in children. To curb iron deficiencies, researchers at the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) have released new high-iron bean varieties to cater for the high deficiency across the developing world.

The new beans contain as much as 60 per cent more iron than normal beans.  “Iron deficiency is a major  public health concern in the world in terms of the number of people affected,” said Steve Beebe, leader of CIAT’s bean research project.

High-zinc maize and high-zinc rice are scheduled to be released soon followed by Vitamin A-rich cassava variety. “By developing a range of biofortified crops, we’re trying to establish  a ‘food basket’ approach,” said Wolfgang Pfeiffer, global director of product development and commercialisation at HarvestPlus, a partner organisations in the bean project.

To develop the bean varieties, some 1,000 bean varieties in the CIAT genebank were screened by plant breeders for high iron content. They were then crossbred with other varieties to ensure adaptability to local conditions and  cultures.

Researchers at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) and local universities have in recent years developed high yielding beans varieties that are well adapted to local conditions and effects of land pressure. They include the climbing bean variety MAC 64- developed by Karlo.  It is high yielding, producing over four times more than local varieties. These beans adapt well to a variety of climatic conditions, land pressure, diseases and pests.

Egerton University has also developed new bean varieties ready for release to farmers — Ciankui, Chelang and Lyamungu-85  yield three times more than other varieties.

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