The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, started by the founder of Microsoft and his wife, has given a multi-million-dollar grant to increase research into an innovative way to fight malnutrition.
The Gates foundation has given $25 million to Harvest Plus, which plans to grow genetically-modified staple-food crops in the developing world to make them more nutritious.
A severe lack of such key nutrients as zinc, iron, and vitamin A leads to developmental problems in children, learning disabilities, blindness, and sometimes death. Undernourished mothers are also more likely to die in childbirth.
Scientists say more than three billion people lack these essential nutrients in their staple foods, primarily in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
"Achieving this will take many decades and billions of dollars in investments by farmers, businesses, and public agencies," said Howarth Bouis, director of Harvest Plus. "Meanwhile, bio-fortification makes sense as part of an integrated food systems approach to reducing malnutrition."
Scientists will breed crops that will have higher levels of zinc, iron, and Vitamin A. The six staple foods to be fortified are rice, corn, wheat, cassava, sweet potatoes, and common beans.
Mr. Bouis compares crop fortification to adding fluoride to water supplies to prevent tooth decay. He says the program differs from the controversial science of genetically-modified crops because it concentrates on conventional growing plants that are naturally more healthy and resistant to disease and stress.
Several countries ban the production or import of genetically modified crops and food.
The World Bank is also granting $3 million into the research. World Bank Vice President Ian Johnson says there are risks to growing such crops, but says there are more important considerations.
"We must look from the viewpoint of a kid sitting in Manila or Dhaka in Bangladesh who has vitamin A deficiency and suffers as a result," he said. "I think this is one of the most exciting new global research programs we have seen for some time. I think it can really, really make a very big difference."
Mr. Bouis says it may be a hard to convince many Africans who lack vitamin A in their diet to eat yellow and orange colored sweet potatoes, instead of the widely consumed white sweet potatoes. But he said an education campaign is underway in parts of Africa.
Ugandan Queen Silvia Nagginda recently went on television, munching an orange-sweet potato to help convince schoolchildren and others to change their diet.