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Application of nuclear techniques to improve and evaluate nutritional & healthrelated benefits of underutilised crops (ESPACE event)

Application of nuclear techniques to improve and evaluate nutritional & health related benefits of underutilised crops (ESPACE event)

A side event titled ‘An innovative cross-disciplinary approach to improving and evaluating the nutritional benefits of underutilized crops’ took place on 29 September 2022 on the occasion of the 66th General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) held at the headquarters, Vienna, Austria from 26-30 September 2022. Opened by the Director, Division of Human Health, IAEA, Ms May Abdul-Wahab, the event highlighted the importance of multi-disciplinary collaboration in formulating climate-smart food-based solutions to address food and nutrition insecurity. Focusing on the use of enhanced underutilised crops to address the double burden of malnutrition in low-and middle-income countries. Attended by delegates from various countries, the side event consisted of four presentations delivered by IAEA staff and two delegates from Sierra Leone and Botswana. IAEA staff presentation showcased the potential benefit of intra-IAEA cross-divisional collaboration, especially between the Joint FAO/IAEA Centre of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture and the Human Health Division in addressing food and nutrition insecurity in a holistic manner; the focus was on how mutation breeding can be used to enhance nutrient density of underutilised crops such as sorghum, millet. Further, the potential utilisation of stable isotope techniques to evaluate the nutritional value of such enhanced crops was discussed. The IAEA is planning a coordinated research project (CRP) combining the plant breeding and nutrition themes to develop and evaluate the nutritional benefits of underutilised crops.

Potential of underutilized crops for food security and nutrition in

The presentation from Sierra Leone showcased how mutation breeding has been leveraged to improve cassava traits for food security. The presentation from Botswana, which I delivered “Potential of underutilized crops for food security and nutrition in Botswana”, highlighted IAEA’s support to use stable isotope techniques to measure iron absorption from a supplementary food product, Tsabana, made of sorghum, soybean and a blend of minerals and vitamins. Tsabana is distributed to children below the age 3 years as part of government effort to tackle malnutrition, particularly, stunting and iron deficiency aneamia

The term underutilised crops is applied to a wide range of very different crops which are perceived as being used to a relatively small degree of their potential. These crops are usually resilient and adapted to the needs of farmers in marginal agricultural environments. In addition, they are also seen as offering economic advantages due to their uniqueness, suitability to environments in which they are grown and low input requirements for their production. For example, sorghum is our staple food in Botswana but has not been fully exploited. It is normally eaten as a porridge, but its utilisation could be expanded to produce other products such as composite flours for making bread and biscuits. As mentioned above sorghum is already a major component of Tsabana

The development of this product is an indication that enhancing the nutritional content of underutilized crops such as sorghum and millet has great potential as a sustainable solution to improve nutrition security. Currently Botswana through the National Agricultural Research & Development Institute NARDI) received support from the IAEA to develop capacity using stable isotope techniques to evaluate this programme focusing on iron status of children. The work involves applying iron isotopes to assess iron absorption from the fortified supplementary food. It is anticipated that this study will generate information on iron bioavailability from current supplementary food and because we will be investigating the bioavailability of different iron fortificants results will potentially inform selection of most bioavailable iron form for fortification. The information will be shared with the Ministry of Health who are the custodians of this programme.

The proposed coordinated research project on underutilised crops would be of great benefit to Botswana where capacity to evaluate iron nutrition using stable isotopes has already been developed. This project aimed at supporting member States in evaluating the health and nutritional outcomes associated with the consumption of nutrient rich underutilised crops. It is expected that the project will generate a database of the nutritional and anti-nutrient composition of underutilised crops and new evidence and understanding of nutritional efficacy of foods prepared from underutilised crops for good market value thus enhancing agricultural production and consequently food and nutrition security.