Silent famine: Can India halt its own weakening nutritional security?

If India has to have any chance in arresting malnutrition and micronutrient deficiency burden, nutrition has to be made a priority at par with yield if not more

By Shagun
Published: Tuesday 23 January 2024
Photo from iStock

This is the third of a 3-part series. This was first published in the January 16-31, 2024 print edition of Down To Earth. Read the first and second parts here and here.

Irrespective of the reason, a significant effort is being made in India to improve the nutritional profile of food grains. This time, agricultural scientists have turned to landraces and wild species of cultivated varieties for answers. In the past 10 years, scientists at ICAR and agriculture universities have undertaken germplasm exploration across the country to find donor varieties that are high in nutritional content under a special project on biofortification, launched by the Union government.

“We are trying to identify donors that are rich in at least one nutrient, for instance zinc or iron,” says Sanghamitra Samantaray, who heads the crop improvement division at ICAR’s National Rice Research Institute, Cuttack, Odisha. “Since strong donor varieties are not easy to find, we are also creating nutrient profiles of landraces conserved by farmers and of wild varieties that are not cultivated but are naturally growing,” she says.

This article was originally published as part of  Down To Earth’s special issue dated 16-31 January, 2024. 
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G Padmavathi, principal scientist, Indian Institute of Rice Research (IIRR), Hyderabad, explains the institute’s plan of using the donor varieties in biofortification. Most donor varieties are usually poor yielders, photosensitive, suffer from lodging, and have other negative traits. They need to be crossed with either already released high yielding varieties or unreleased promising lines, so that there is no compromise no yield, Padmavathi says.

Since 2016, three national plant breeding institutes under ICAR—the National Rice Research Institute (NRRI), Cuttack; the Indian Institute of Rice Research (IIRR), Hyderabad, and the Indira Gandhi Krishi Vishwavidyalaya, Raipur under the All India Coordinated Research Project on Rice—have released 10 such zinc- and protein-rich rice varieties. Other institutes under ICAR have developed 43 wheat varieties that are rich in protein, iron and zinc. “There are many malnourished children in India who do not get enough protein-rich food. But they are habituated in taking rice and wheat. So, these varieties can provide them that required nutrition,” says Samantaray.

So far, institutes under ICAR have developed 142 biofortified varieties. The list includes 124 field crops (10 rice varieties, 43 wheat, 20 maize, 11 pearl millet, 13 small millets, one linseed, two lentil, two chickpea, one mungbean, one field pea, one urd bean, eight mustard, seven soybean, one sesame, three groundnut varieties) and 18 horticultural crops (five sweet potato varieties, three amaranthus, two greater yam, two potato and one each of cauliflower, okra, grapes, banana, guava and pomegranate varieties).

However, these varieties are far from being popularised and adopted by farmers on a large scale. “This is because the task of convincing farmers to switch to a new cultivar is huge. Then, there are problems like availability of seeds,” says Debnath.

During the past six years, about 10 million hectares (ha), or 6 per cent of the country’s total area under farming, has been brought under biofortified varieties, including that of wheat, rice, pearl millet, mustard and lentil, as per a reply by the Union government in Lok Sabha on December 8, 2023. The statement does not give any bifurcation of area under rice and wheat, but according to an ICAR document on biofortified varieties published in 2022, only 25,565 kg and 1,043,014 kg of breeder seeds of rice and wheat, respectively, have been produced. To put this in context, in the kharif season of 2023, rice was sown on 41 million ha. The optimum seed rate is 40 kg per ha on average, with the transplanting method commonly used in the country. The 25,565 kg seed produced would cover just about 639 ha. Similarly, in the ongoing rabi season, about 30.73 million ha of wheat has been sown till December 15, 2023. And given that the seed rate of wheat is around 100 kg per ha, the 1,043,014 kg biofortified seeds will be sown in about just 10,430 ha.

Besides, the efforts on fortification as of now is focused on zinc, iron and protein. Scientists Down To Earth spoke to say other biofortification of other essential elements like manganese, copper and calcium will take some time as breeding and releasing any variety is a long and arduous task, and can take about eight years on average.

To fast-track the process, a few scientists are also experimenting with agronomic biofortification, which involves using micronutrients as fertiliser or spraying it directly on the leaves. However, the process is expensive. Environmental factors like rainfall soon after the spray can also nullify the effect, cautions Debnath.

Abhinandan Patil, scientist with Agharkar Research Institute in Pune and a plant breeder, says research institutions developing varieties need to overhaul their breeding process. “There should be an integrated mainstreaming process where breeders can use multiple parents to bring out new varieties by pooling genes and traits into one variety of different packages. There is no need for so many different varieties. Those just confuse the farmers and consumers,” Patil adds.

While yield continues to preoccupy the agenda of farmers as well as breeders in the face of food shortage because of extreme weather events and global conflicts like the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the government and its various research and extension institutes have their task cut out. If India has to have any chance in arresting malnutrition, micronutrient deficiency burden and other NCDs, nutrition has to be made a priority at par with yield if not more, and popularising these varieties among farmers has to be done on a mission mode.

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