Fertilizer adds selenium to Malawi food crops

U. NOTTINGHAM (UK) — Soil in Malawi often lacks enough selenium for adequate nutrition, according to researchers who say enriched fertilizer could raise levels of the mineral in the country’s food.

This step could help to reduce disease and premature death in the country, say the researchers, whose findings are published in Scientific Reports.

The new study shows that dietary deficiency of selenium—which plays a vital role in keeping the immune system healthy and fighting illness—is likely to be endemic among the Malawi population.


The paper calls for further investigation into the benefits and costs of using selenium-enriched fertilizers and other strategies to boost levels within the country’s food.

“Selenium is a naturally occurring mineral of fundamental importance to human health, with critical roles in immunity,” says study leader Martin Broadley of the University of Nottingham’s School of Biosciences.

“People with low dietary selenium intakes are at increased risk of suffering from a variety of diseases. Most soils in Malawi have extremely low levels of selenium available to plant roots and so selenium is not transferred into crops in sufficient amounts for optimal human health.

“We urgently need to assess strategies to address this problem in Malawi and the wider Southern African region in the context of wider mineral malnutrition (for example, iron, zinc, and iodine deficiencies), often referred to as the ‘hidden hunger.'”

The study examines the diet and the resulting nutritional status of a total of 120 otherwise healthy women aged between 18 and 50 years old living in villages in Zombwe in the north of Malawi and Mikalango in the south.

Research assistants spent time in the homes of the volunteers collecting duplicate samples of what they ate and drank over a 24-hour period, and also taking blood and urine samples. The samples collected were sent back to the UK to be analyzed for their levels of selenium.

The findings show that the natural acidity levels of the soil in the two regions had a huge impact on the selenium levels of the inhabitants, as had been predicted from a previous study. Selenium intake was eight times higher in villages with more alkaline rich soils in Mikalango than those from villages in Zombwe where the soil was acidic.

Similarly the women of the Zombwe region had less than half the levels of selenium in their blood and about one-third of the levels of selenium in their urine than that of their Mikalango counterparts.

Due to a current lack of information, the researchers are not yet able to estimate the impact of selenium deficiency on the whole of the population of Malawi or the wider region using public health frameworks devised by bodies such as the World Health Organization.

However, similar frameworks are already in place for deficiencies of other minerals such as zinc which the authors estimate carries an annual economic burden of £70 million in Malawi alone.

The low levels of selenium in most soils in Malawi indicate that policies to tackle selenium deficiency in Southern Africa should still be considered, say the researchers.

“It is of course feasible for people to diversify their diets to increase the consumption of other selenium-rich foods such as meat, poultry, fish, and eggs but this is particularly challenging for people who are living in developing countries on an extremely low income,” adds Broadley.

“The Malawi diet is dominated by a single staple crop, maize, which is often used to make a thick porridge type dish called nsima which is often eaten with a vegetable-based relish.”

The researchers recommend that further research is needed into the benefits and costs of introducing a program to enrich nitrogen-based fertilizers—used relatively widely in maize cultivation in Malawi—with selenium as a way of increasing the levels of the mineral in maize.

A precedent for this has already been set in other countries such as Finland, where such fertilizers have successfully increased the selenium concentrations in Finnish foods and diets since the mid 1980s.

The research was done in collaboration with colleagues at the University of East Anglia, Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources in Malawi, the British Geological Survey in Nottingham, the University of Otago in New Zealand, the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, DC, and the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security and the Ministry of Health in Malawi.

The UK Natural Environment Research Council, the UK Department for International Development, and the Economic and Social Research Council under the Ecosystems Services for Poverty Alleviation scheme funded the study.

Source: University of Nottingham