Global Health


There is good news that could improve the health of millions of children in Africa and Latin America. Researchers have located long-forgotten varieties of corn with surprisingly high levels of Vitamin A. In some third world countries where people rely heavily on corn for nutrition, these new varieties could help keep children from going blind. But they'd have to get used to eating corn of the different color.

NPR's Dan Charles has the story.

DAN CHARLES: The very first corn thousands of years ago was white. Then, came a genetic mutation that turned some corn kernels yellow. The color came from chemicals called carotenoid. One of these carotenoids, beta-carotene, gives us vitamin A. So yellow corn is a little bit more nutritious than white corn.

But Torbert Rocheford, a corn geneticist at the University of Illinois, says, until recently, no one thought it mattered.

Mr. TORBERT ROCHEFORD (Corn Geneticist, University of Illinois): There was some measurements taken in the '80s. But it was just some simple measurements, and nobody really cared about vitamin A in corn.

CHARLES: A global epidemic of vitamin A deficiency has changed that. According to the World Health Organization, between 200,000 and 500,000 children each year go blind because they aren't getting enough of this vital nutrient. There's now a global effort under way to boost vitamin A levels in the grains that people rely on most: rice, wheat and corn. Torbert Rocheford took on corn.

The yellow corn that's widely grown today doesn't have enough beta-carotene to make much of a difference. So Rocheford tested hundreds of old and abandoned varieties drawn from every corner of corn's gene pool.

Mr. ROCHEFORD: These all had been used by breeders at some point in time in the last 70, 80 years.

CHARLES: And he struck gold - corn with 10 times more beta-carotene than average. There was more good news. A colleague at Cornell University traced the surplus of beta-carotene to a single gene. That makes it a lot easier for breeders to move the gene into corn varieties that people already grow and eat. t won't involve controversial tools like genetic engineering. The report appears in the current issue of the journal Science. But the last big hurdle isn't scientific. It's cultural.

Africans, for instance, generally prefer white corn, which has no vitamin A. One reason they don't like yellow corn is it usually comes as food aid. Alex Winter-Nelson, an economist at the University of Illinois, says that food aid corn doesn't feel or taste quite right.

Mr. ALEX WINTER-NELSON (Economist, University of Illinois): Yellow is sort of code for this texture, for quality issues, for a sense in the back of the mind that this corn was grown as animal feed and not as human food.

CHARLES: The researchers are hoping that Africans still might accept the vitamin A corn as something new and different. Because the latest lines of this corn which promised even higher levels of beta-carotene aren't yellow. They're orange.

Just over a year ago, Alex Winter-Nelson and one of his graduate students took some of this orange corn to an open-air market in Mozambique for a taste test. The Mozambiqueans still preferred their white corn, but almost half of them agreed to exchange it for bags of orange corn once they heard it was more nutritious.

Mr. WINTER-NELSON: Probably, the most encouraging part of it for me was that people who had reported that they didn't have much dietary diversity, people who reported that they didn't eat very many fruits and vegetables, that they very rarely ate animal products of any kind — eggs, meat, or chicken — were the most likely to take the trade, and so the ones who need it were attracted to it.

CHARLES: Winter-Nelson says that's just a hopeful sign, not proof that orange corn will save lives. But last week, a scientist from the one of the world's main corn-breeding centers in Mexico visited the University of Illinois, making plans to get vitamin A corn to farmers around the world.

Dan Charles, NPR News, Washington.

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