ST. LOUIS — Missouri researchers have launched a new effort in their fight against worldwide hunger: bringing together a doctor who has long treated the malnourished with plant scientists working to improve the nutritional content of food.
The group hopes to create a bridge from greenhouses and labs in Missouri to health centers and farms in regions where people die from malnourishment.
Three internationally known organizations based in St. Louis — the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, the Washington University School of Medicine and St. Louis Children's Hospital — have formed the Global Harvest Alliance. The partnership's aim is to create inexpensive, nutritionally complete food to help the world's hungry and undernourished.
Alliance researchers will look broadly at the best approaches to fight malnutrition and focus on a few of them. They'll seek to improve enriched foods already used to treat malnourishment.
In addition, the alliance aims to help testing and distribution of crops genetically modified to boost nutritional content. They hope to provide the crops cheaply to farmers to produce more nutritious foods.
"This is not a magic bullet. It's a part of the puzzle to helping people be healthier and have a better life," said Roger Beachy, president of the nonprofit Danforth center, where plant research is aimed at improving health and the environment.
Dr. Mark Manary, a pediatrician who will serve as the alliance's director, said malnourished children in Africa used to be hospitalized and given fortified milk-based treatments.
Manary, who has treated malnutrition in Africa for years, has provided an enriched peanut-butter mixture to malnourished children in the sub-Saharan country of Malawi that has led to high recovery rates.
These days, that mixture of peanuts, powdered milk, vegetable oil, sugar, vitamins and minerals is given to parents to feed their malnourished children at home. The new alliance will work to improve such home-based approaches in hopes of distributing them more widely as well as lowering costs.
At the same time, the alliance will seek more sustainable solutions. "Prevention is always better than a cure," Manary said.
Since 1999, the Danforth center has spent about $20 million trying to improve the nutritional content of cassava, a staple crop in Africa harvested for its starchy roots. The food may be best known in the United States as the basis for tapioca. Much of the funding for cassava improvements has come from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Monsanto Fund and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Researchers have added DNA at the cellular level to enable cassava, naturally low in protein and beta carotene, to produce high levels of those nutrients. Scientists are testing some of the genetically modified cassava plants at greenhouses in Missouri and fields in Puerto Rico.
Beachy said many poor families largely live off one type of food, like cassava or plantains, so increasing the nutritional value of such food would help address malnutrition.
Larry Beach, a USAID scientist who helps improve crops in developing countries using biotechnology, knows those working on the alliance, but is not directly involved in it.
He acknowledged suspicions in parts of the world about biotechnology use and outside scientists proposing solutions to malnourishment. "There's been skepticism about providing more nutrition through food because that's not the way it's been done in the past," he said.
But the Global Harvest Alliance will bring together scientists with a track record of helping the hungry and allow them to research specific needs and crops.
"One of the big problems in helping to make improvements in nutrition is the integration of what needs to be done," Beach said.