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The “zip code lottery” for micronutrients in crops

When it comes to extracting important micronutrients from plants, it really depends on where you live. This is evident from new research carried out by a team from universities from the UK, Ethiopia and Malawi.

Soil sample is taken in Malawi

Soil samples like this one in Malawi were an integral part of the study Credit: University of Nottingham

The amount of micronutrients people get from the plants they eat is a kind of “zip code lottery”. This is emerging from new research analyzing thousands of grains and soils as part of a project to tackle hidden hunger in Malawi and Ethiopia.

A global team led by the University of Nottingham and its Future Food Beacon, including scientists and researchers from Addis Ababa University (AAU) in Ethiopia and Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR) in Malawi, working on GeoNutrition- Working project discovered more about the relationship between soils, plants and micronutrient deficiencies in the people who live there. Your findings were published today in the journal Nature.

The team analyzed the grain from more than 3000 grain samples from farm fields in Ethiopia and Malawi. They found that the amount of dietary micronutrients calcium, iron, selenium, and zinc in cereal grains varied significantly depending on location, with some areas having far fewer micronutrients than others. Some grains like millet are more nutritious than others like corn. However, the likelihood of defects in an area also depends on its soils and landscapes.

Micronutrients are the vitamins and minerals that the body needs in small amounts from food for a number of functions. Micronutrient deficiency, also known as hidden hunger, is common worldwide and affects more than half of children under the age of five, especially when access to adequate food from plant and animal sources that are rich in micronutrients is restricted for socio-economic reasons. Micronutrient deficiencies pose serious risks to human health, including child growth and cognitive development, and susceptibility to infectious and non-communicable diseases.

This research shows that location is inextricably linked to the nutritional quality of diets. Getting enough micronutrients is a kind of “zip code lottery”, the nutritional value of which varies depending on the location. This particularly affects rural households that consume locally sourced food, including many smallholder farming communities, where location may even be the single largest factor influencing the determination of micronutrient food intake.

“It is important to have good quality evidence of the nutritional quality of diets if we are to support public health and agriculture policies to improve people’s health and wellbeing. Improving the quality of diets is an important part of this finding, ”said Martin Broadley, professor of plant nutrition at the School of Biosciences and Future Food Beacon employee who led the study.