New Zinc Enriched Maize Set to Improve Nutrition in Colombia

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The first zinc-enriched maize variety developed for South America was released in Colombia on February 23 in an effort to combat malnutrition in the country.

Developed using traditional breeding techniques, this biofortified maize variety has naturally higher concentrations of zinc, an essential mineral that plays an important role in human development. It is estimated that in some regions of Colombia up to 50 percent of the population is zinc deficient, a condition that can lead to respiratory infections, diarrheal disease and a general weakening of the immune system.

The new variety, known as BIO-MZN01, was developed by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) with the support of HarvestPlus, the CGIAR Research Program on Maize (MAIZE) and the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH). The official launch of BIO-MZN01 will be held at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Palmira, Colombia.

“The support that CIMMYT and CIAT have received from HarvestPlus has been fundamental in allowing our researchers to develop crops with enhanced vitamin and mineral content,” says Martin Kropff, CIMMYT director general. “This product shows the value of conserving, studying and utilizing the biodiversity of staple crops such as maize. These genetic resources are the base of our breeding work, and allow us to develop the improved seeds that will help us to fight malnutrition and the challenges of climate change.”

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 6.6 percent of the population of Latin America, or 42 million people, suffer from malnutrition. Biofortified crop varieties such as maize with enriched zinc content seek to reduce this malnutrition burden by making micronutrients more bioavailable, or readily able to be used by the human body. CIMMYT has developed several other forms of biofortified crops in the past, including provitamin A maize, quality protein maize (QPM) and zinc-enriched wheat.

Zinc is an essential micronutrient that plays a crucial role in pre-natal and post-natal development, including bone, brain and nervous system development, and is key to maintaining a healthy immune system, however, it is not produced by the human body. In Colombia, zinc deficiency affects around 22 percent of the population.

BIO-MZN01 contains 36 percent more zinc on average than other maize varieties, meaning that arepas (a maize-based Colombian staple food) made of this new variety offer consumers five times more zinc than those made with traditional varieties. Additionally, BIO-MZN01 can yield up to 6 to 8 tons per hectare(t/ha), nearly double the national average in Colombia of 3.7 t/ha and is resistant to several maize diseases that are common in the region, including rust, turcicum leaf blight, and gray leaf spot. It can be grown between 0 and 1400 meters above sea level during both cropping seasons in the country.

“This is incredible news for the food and nutritional security of all Colombians. It is also an excellent opportunity to share the positive results that can be achieved by teamwork and partnerships such as the work we are doing with HarvestPlus, CIAT, seed companies such as Maxi Semillas S.A.S and of course, with farmers,” says Luis Narro, maize breeder at CIMMYT Colombia.

For Marilia Nutti, the regional director for Latin America and the Carribean at HarvestPlus, the release of this new biofortified variety is the result of “a joint effort we began in 2012, that was only made possible by the trail blazed by the research of several CIMMYT scientists long ago. Together, we have worked to turn maize, a staple food in the region, into a tool capable of reducing zinc deficiency in countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and several regions of Colombia.”

These goals are well on their way to becoming reality, as the CIMMYT-HarvestPlus partnership released a zinc-enriched maize variety in Honduras in 2017, and will release others in Guatemala and Nicaragua later this year.

The scientific work conducted at CIMMYT, HarvestPlus and CIAT reaches the hands of farmers through local seed companies such as Maxi Semillas S.A.S., a partner of CIMMYT Colombia for the past 40 years that will be commercializing the new variety. Miguel Lengua, director general of Maxi Semillas S.A.S., considers this new biofortified variety “a seed that will be a useful tool to fight malnutrition due to its increased micronutrient content, including zinc. CIMMYT’s work has given us new varieties that will contribute to better nutrition in Colombia, Latin America and the world.”

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