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Agriculture: Nutritional Security

Embrace biofortified food for a healthier India

Lack of awareness of biofortified crops is a major hurdle to increasing the reach and scale of biofortified food in India. Ensuring a competitive price, such as through a minimum support price mechanism, for biofortified produce in the market would incentivise greater cultivation of these crops. Allocating resources to extension activities would effectively raise awareness among farmers, the industry and consumers about the availability and advantages of biofortified crops.

Embrace biofortified food for a healthier India


Pitambara and Bishwa Bhaskar Choudhary

NUTRITIONAL well-being has become a significant concern in recent times. According to reports, more than half of the global population suffers from malnutrition, indicating a lack of essential micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals. Empirical research indicates that malnutrition could lead to potential economic losses of up to $125 billion worldwide by 2030, with India alone accounting for around $46 billion. Various forms of malnutrition result in an annual loss of 4 per cent of India’s GDP. Among the nutrients, protein, lysine, tryptophan, iron, zinc, vitamin A and vitamin C are essential for human nutrition, and their deficiency leads to various health disorders. Nonetheless, increased agricultural production, economic opportunities and the National Food Security Act have contributed to food security over the years; the severity of malnutrition necessitates more agricultural interventions.

The production of micronutrient-rich non-staples such as vegetables, pulses, fruits and animal products has also increased, but their affordability is less in comparison to staple cereals for people with low purchasing power. Biofortification — the process by which the nutritional quality of a crop is enhanced through genetic manipulation that includes both breeding and transgenic approaches — could be a viable agricultural intervention to enrich micronutrient density in commonly consumed cereals such as rice, wheat and maize. The biofortified varieties are 1.5 to 3 times more nutritious than the traditional ones. Rice variety CR Dhan 315 has excess zinc; wheat variety HD 3298 is enriched with protein and iron, while DBW 303 and DDW 48 are rich in protein and iron. Maize hybrid varieties 1, 2 and 3 are enriched with lysine and tryptophan and finger millet varieties CFMV 1 and 2 are rich in calcium, iron and zinc.

Developing cultivars

As per a recent report of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), the council has developed 87 biofortified cultivars in 16 crops that can be integrated into the food chain to enable better health of human and animal populations. Staple grains emerged as a critical food source during the Covid-19 pandemic in India due to their cost-effectiveness for low-income segments, widespread availability in contrast to perishable goods, and distribution through the Public Distribution System (PDS). Hence, even marginal enhancements in the nutritional profile of staple grains could significantly contribute to combating micronutrient deficiencies across the country.

The ICAR has started several special programmes on the development and popularisation of biofortified crops. More than four million hectares is estimated to be under cultivation of biofortified crops in India. Reportedly, by 2019-20, the council, through its vast network of research institutes across the country, had developed 21 varieties of biofortified staples, including wheat, rice, maize, millets, mustard and groundnut. These biofortified crops have 1.5 to 3 times higher levels of protein, vitamins, minerals and amino acids compared to the traditional varieties. The Government of India has implemented programmes to address micronutrient malnutrition, such as the National Nutrition

Mission (POSHAN Abhiyaan). A special emphasis on the supply of fortified rice through the PDS, Integrated Child Development Services, Pradhan Mantri Poshan Shakti Nirman-PM POSHAN (erstwhile Mid-Day Meal Scheme) and other welfare schemes in all states and union territories by 2024 has been recently mooted by the government. The HarvestPlus programme, run by the Consultative Group for the International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), merits special recognition in this context. It has forged close collaborations with the ICAR, state agricultural universities, the CGIAR’s international research centres, seed companies and farmer organisations to expedite the production of iron-rich pearl millet and zinc-rich wheat and enhance the access of impoverished communities to them. However, acceptance and adoption of biofortified crops in the Indian food system are still inadequate. Globally, over 86 million people in farming households are eating biofortified food, as per reports. Research studies suggest that lack of awareness of biofortified crops is a major hurdle to increasing the reach and scale of biofortified food in India.

Handholding farmers

The sustainable incorporation of biofortified crops into food systems necessitates a comprehensive approach that encompasses the entire spectrum, starting from the initial stages of crop research and development and extending to the eventual consumption of biofortified crops and food products. To begin with, it is crucial to ensure that farmers have access to affordable biofortified planting material, along with the technical knowledge to cultivate it effectively. Diligent endeavours by governmental institutions and policy initiatives for conducting intense promotional campaigns have the potential to drive a notable surge in the adoption of biofortified crop varieties. Enhancing the seed supply chain for the cultivation and distribution of high-quality seeds stands out as a pivotal stride in propagating the use of biofortified varieties.

Ensuring a competitive price, such as through a minimum support price mechanism, for biofortified produce in the market would incentivise greater cultivation of these crops. Allocating resources to extension activities would effectively raise awareness among farmers, the industry and consumers about the availability and advantages of biofortified crops.

Pitambara is an agri biotechnologist and independent researcher; Choudhary is a scientist (agri economics) at ICAR-Indian Grassland and Fodder Research Institute, Jhansi. Views are personal

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#Agriculture #Minimum Support Price MSP


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