Congress recently passed a pair of laws aimed at encouraging women and girls to pursue careers in science and technology — a little-noticed move here in the U.S. that could have positive long-term ripple effects throughout the world. This is because we know that when women are on the frontlines of scientific advancements, the health and well-being of some of the globe’s most-vulnerable communities can be drastically improved.
As a non-profit research program that works to fortify crops with essential micronutrients such as zinc and iron, HarvestPlus engages women in all levels of the scientific process – from seed research to plant breeding to nutritional analysis. This includes women leading the charge in laboratories to develop these crops as well as on the ground to teach communities how to plant, grow and harvest them.
More than 2 billion people around the world suffer from micronutrient deficiencies, known as hidden hunger, and we have seen how the scientific work led by women is helping them lead healthier and more productive lives. More initiatives to encourage women and girls to enter STEM fields will only bolster these efforts to help solve hidden hunger and the many other critical challenges facing our planet.
Dr. Gorrettie Ssemakula, for instance, is a Ugandan crop scientist who has been developing more nutritious and better-performing crops for more than a decade. From her base at the National Crops Resources Research Institute in Kampala, she and her team developed two varieties of sweet potato that are providing more than half a million Ugandan farming households with vitamin A, an essential micronutrient for vision and immunity.
Another female scientist who has been promoting vitamin A-rich foods for close to two decades is nutritionist and public health specialist Esi Foriwa Amoaful. Now the Director of Nutrition at the Ghana Health Service, Amoaful was largely responsible for championing “Vitamin A for Africa,” a project promoting the increased production and utilization of the biofortified orange sweet potato. Thanks to her tireless work, that potato has saved hundreds of children in Sub-Saharan Africa from malnutrition, and in some cases, death.
Another critical part of our advocacy work involves consumer acceptance, and women scientists are essential to this effort. When Brazilian crop scientist Carolina Claudio Rio started researching biofortified crops, she launched a series of studies to test them in school lunches, finding that children not only ate the biofortified varieties of potatoes, beans and peas, but liked them just as much as the traditional, less nutritious versions, leading to widespread acceptance in those communities.
Working with these pioneering women has helped HarvestPlus deliver nutrient-rich crops to 20 million people in low-income farming households in 30 countries around the world. By helping women enter scientific fields, we can meet our goal of reaching 1 billion people with biofortified crops by the year 2030.
As the international community strives to achieve gender parity in science and technology, on International Women’s Day, we cannot forget the important contributions that female scientists are already making every day. By telling their stories and highlighting their achievements, we can inspire and teach the next generation of young women to pursue careers in science and technology and improve the lives of millions of people.