Researchers team to battle childhood hunger

A team of plant and physician-scientists with a vision of eradicating malnutrition throughout the developing world has formed the Global Harvest Alliance (GHA), a humanitarian effort involving the School of Medicine, St. Louis Children’s Hospital and the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center.

The focus of the newly formed Alliance is to create low-cost, nutritionally complete foods to prevent and treat all forms of under-nutrition. These foods will incorporate crops that are protein and micronutrient rich and disease- and pest-resistant and that can be disseminated through smallholder farmers.

Courtesy Photo

Mark Manary with a child in Malawi.

Heading the team is Mark Manary, M.D., the Helene B. Roberson Professor of Pediatrics and a member of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. Manary has a successful track record with such innovation. His peanut butter-based, ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF) for the treatment of severe malnutrition has consistently resulted in 90 percent recovery rates in research and operational projects. The World Health Organization declared Manary’s RUTF the most effective method by which malnourished children should be restored to health.

Manary also explores the basic mechanisms by which malnutrition compromises human health, gaining new scientific insights to improve and refine his approach to combating malnutrition. Rather than merely treating malnutrition, Manary began collaborating with colleagues at the Danforth Plant Science Center in 2004 to create a formidable preventive strategy. The intent is to enhance crops so that they can thrive where malnutrition is rampant and provide a complete package of nutrients needed for health. With Manary’s RUTF efforts complemented by the Danforth Center’s cassava team, the full vision for the GHA began to take shape.

“Effective solutions to the crisis of childhood malnutrition must involve interventions spanning a diverse spectrum of disciplines including health care, agriculture and home economics,” Manary said. “People in the developing world derive most of their nutrients from plants; plants constitute 90 percent of the diet of many Africans. Therefore effective prevention strategies must include food crops that provide more complete nutrition.”

The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center has received funds from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to conduct research as part of BioCassava Plus, an international research initiative that strives to make cassava a more nutritionally rich and balanced staple plant crop. Farmer-preferred varieties are being collected, analyzed and genetically enhanced to improve their nutrient composition; concurrently, Manary is building a network of in-country nutritionists to add to the team of Danforth Center scientists already in place.

Led by GHA and other Danforth Center scientists, teams will field-test improved cassava varieties in Kenya and Nigeria during the next five years.

Through the efforts of the Danforth Center and its collaborators, it is anticipated that the improved varieties will be widely available in Africa within 10 years, improving survival rates and quality of life for millions of children and families that would otherwise suffer malnutrition.

The GHA also will explore improvements in additional staple crops, including sorghum and a protein-rich legume such as cowpea or peanuts.