Wetenschap - 28 juni 2001

Fighting malnutrition by producing better food

Fighting malnutrition by producing better food

A new Inref research programme offers eight PhD students a chance to examine how malnutrition in China and West Africa can be alleviated by more efficient use of natural resources.

While nutritionists may do research on diet and how micronutrients are absorbed in the human body, and agricultural scientists investigate how a farming system produces sufficient food, and how to develop crops with higher nutritional values, the two disciplines rarely cross boundaries. Food scientists are rarely involved in thinking about how to produce the crops that provide the essential components of a diet, and agronomists may not be aware that the nutrients in improved crops are not always absorbed in the human body. To develop useful technologies, cooperation is needed between both groups of scientists. It is on this cooperation that a new four year research programme focuses, which is partly financed by the Wageningen University INREF fund. It received a start-up amount of 1.8 million guilders, which will probably be doubled by resources from other funds.

West Africa and China

Rather than working on the development of new varieties either through conventional breeding or with modern biotechnology, the research programme will focus on screening existing varieties and studying how promising and new crops can be adopted by existing farming systems in West Africa and China. Improvements likely to be examined include timing and amount of fertiliser application, selection of a genotype for each environment, and the introduction of alternative food processing techniques. Any improvement in the farming system should be measurable at the top of the production chain, that is, should alleviate nutrient deficiencies of both rural and urban poor.

PhD proposals from West Africa and China are currently being considered for the project, which cooperates with local research institutes and universities. Dr Maja Slingerland, employed by the graduate school PE&RC (Production Ecology and Resource Conservation) to facilitate the project, emphasises that MSc students should also be able to participate in the project. Slingerland was director of the Burkina Faso based research Wageningen University satellite, which hosted 200 students during a six year period. Slingerland: "In this INREF project it will be more difficult to place many students, as we can not offer the same level of facilities."

Joris Tielens