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Food and Human Health

A balanced and nutritious diet is essential for healthy growth and development especially during pregnancy and early childhood. However, 870 million people or one in eight go hungry every night due to lack of macronutrients, i.e. they do not consume enough to cover their minimum dietary energy requirements (MDG 2013 Report). In addition, two billion people are thought to suffer from a lack of micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals, often referred to as ‘hidden hunger’. A number of the world’s staple food crops such as rice or wheat are poor sources of essential nutrients such as vitamins A, C, and E, iron, and zinc. As a result, ‘hidden hunger’ accounts for 7% of the global disease burden (Muthayya et al 2013), including 250,000-500,000 vitamin A-deficient children becoming blind every year and half of these dying within 12 months of losing their sight (WHO). In contrast, an estimated 7% of children under the age of five are now overweight (MDG 2013 report). Increasing levels of over consumption are triggering a new public health epidemic causing more people to suffer from chronic conditions such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Plant and crop sciences can help to provide a balanced and nutritionally adequate diet via a variety of approaches including increasing crop biodiversity not just in terms of crops produced and consumed but also in the diversity within one type of crop. Another possible approach is biofortification where missing nutrients are bred or engineered into staple crops. For example, vitamin A enriched ‘Golden Rice’ has been developed that contains an increased level of beta carotene, the precursor to vitamin A. Staple crops can also be utilised to produced beneficial nutrients, such as anti-oxidants, and healthier types of oils and starches. Plants also provide us with essential sources of drugs and medicines, including aspirin, taxol and digitoxin. Over 80% of the world population rely on traditional medicines, the vast majority of which are plant based. Despite this reliance less than 20% of the described plant species have been investigated for the presence of bioactive compounds (Cragg et al 1999). As plant biologists we need to help preserve and protect the diversity of plant life in the world and facilitate the discovery and sustainable development of new and existing bioactive compounds.

Plants are not only the solutions to health problems but in some cases can be the cause of health issues. Certain foods derived from plants can result in allergenic reactions, such as gluten-intolerance. Bacterial and fungal contamination of food before and after it is harvested can lead to massive losses and potential health risks. Plant biologists can help to alleviate these problems via the development of crops that lack allergens and have a longer shelf life.

To help to make an impact in this sphere, the GPC will initially focus on dealing with malnutrition via its Nutritional Security Initiative.

References

Cragg et al. (1999)
International collaboration in drug discovery and development.
Pure Appl. Chem. 71 (9) 1619

Millennium Development Goals Report 2013

Muthayya et al. (2013)
The Global Hidden Hunger Indices and Maps: An Advocacy Tool for Action.
PLoS ONE 8(6): e67860