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| Last Updated:25/03/2020

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How biofortification can fight hunger (April)

 Financial Chronicle, Delhi, Thursday 17th April 2014 The proposed nutri-farm movement will include the popularisation of biofortified crops like iron-rich pearl millet, zinc rich wheat and rice, protein rich maize and vitamin A rich sweet potato, among others The goal of complete elimination of hun­ger envisaged by the UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon is to be achieved by the year 2025.


This is a challenging task since inspite of impressive economic and agricultural progress, there is widespread malnutrition prevailing in developing counties, particularly in south Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. The south Asian enigma relates to extraordinary economic growth, population largely dependent on agriculture, region with the largest number of children with stunted growth, and one in four babies having low birth weight. Available data shows that undernutrition reduces a nation’s economic advancement annually by 8 per cent. The African enigma arises from the prosperity of nature and the poverty of people.


It is possible to convert the rich bioresources of the African continent into jobs and income, as is evident from the wildlife tourism industry. But inspite of all this natural wealth, why is there so much persistence of poverty and malnutrition? What can we do to achieve the Zero Hunger Challenge? This is the issue which was addressed at the second global conference on biofortification held from March 31 to April 2, at Kigali in Rwanda. Its theme was ‘getting nutritious food to people’. In my keynote address, I referred to the opportunities now available for integrating nutrition and agriculture, so that our approach to ending malnutrition becomes food and not drug-based. The Kigali participants agreed that there is an acute need to improve the nutritional profile of food consumed in regions where malnutrition is rampant, with a focus on women and children, especially during the first 1,000 days of a child’s life. Also, agricultural development and effective local food systems are the foundation for improved nutrition and health outcomes.


A range of complementary approaches is required to improve nutrition security. These include improvements in dietary diversity, biofortifying food crops, improving nutrient retention through altered processing and cooking techniques and altering soil composition to increase nutrient level of the crops. When soils are hungry, there is a corresponding impact on the nutritional content of the crops grown in such soils. Fortunately, some worthwhile initiatives have been taken in our country in recent years, as indicated below: (1) Enlargement of the food basket: Under the National Food Security Act, nutri-cereals like a wide range of millets and local food crops will be included in the public distribution system at Re 1 per kg; (2) National horticulture mission: Horticultural remedies will be popularised for major nutritional maladies under a well-funded national horticulture mission; (3) Launching a nutri-farm movement: The nutri-farm movement will include the popularisation of biofortified varieties and crops like iron-rich pearl millet, zinc rich wheat and rice, protein rich maize and vitamin A rich sweet potato, among others.


The following are some of the initiatives taken by state governments: (1) Supply of protein rich grain legumes like chickpea, beans, pigeon pea, lentils, green and black gram among others; (2) Multiple fortified salt; (3) Supply of eggs in school noon meal programmes The M S Swaminathan Research Foundation programme on biofortification includes: (1) Getting governments resolve at the Asia-Pacific conference on the year of family farming scheduled to be held in Chennai in August, that every family farm will be developed into a biofortified farm; (2) Establishment of a genetic garden of biofortified crops and varieties both for promoting nutritional literacy and the conservation, cultivation, consumption and commerce of such nutrition rich crops. The proposed MSSRF genetic garden of biofortified crops may be the first of its kind; (3) Take an active part in the Harvest Plus programme and other similar programmes and undertake nutritional enrichment of staples as well as commonly consumed vegetables through Mendelian breeding and molecular marker-assisted selection. There are three pathways to biofortification.


First, we can popularise naturally occurring plants like drumstick, sweet potato, amaranthus and other plants which are rich in micronutrients. Secondly, we can breed varieties for specific nutrients such as iron rich bajra, and zinc rich wheat and rice. Thirdly, it is also possible to create new biofortified plants through genetic modification as was done in the case of golden rice rich in vitamin A content.


Biofortification through recombinant DNA technology is, however, a controversial area and at the moment, all the needed micronutrients like iron, iodine, zinc, vitamin A and vitamin B12 can be provided to the child through either naturally occurring nutrient rich plants and vegetables, or those developed by conventional plant breeding. The following are six key issues which will determine the economic success of biofortification: (1) Farmers’ decision on crop and varietal choice is governed by the cost-risk-return structure of farming; (2) Consumers’ decisions are based on cost and culinary characteristics; (3) Public-private partnerships: Pricing, procurement, value chain development, public distribution and social protection are areas where public-private cooperation will be useful; (4) Nutritional literacy through community hunger fighters; (5) Convergence and synergy among food and non-food factors and formation of a coalition for a nutrition secure India; (6) Estimation of impact based on measurable indicators. My proposal at Kigali that one of the years between 2018-2020 should be designated as the international year of biofortified and underutilised crops was welcomed. If this is done, there will be widespread awareness, which is required for ending malnutrition through a food-based approach.


Financial Chronicle, Delhi, Thursday 17th April 2014