Nutri-farms to fight hidden hunger

In a first, bio-fortification technology gets Rs 200 crore in the Union Budget

By Jyotika Sood
Published: Thursday 28 February 2013

An intervention to fight hidden or nutritional hunger (deficiency of micronutrients) through agricultural technology has, for the first time, found a place in the Indian budget. Finance minister P Chidambaram has allocated Rs 200 crore for starting pilot programmes on nutri-farms. The idea of nutri-farms is based on bio-fortification technology, in which a crop is made rich in a nutrient either through conventional plant breeding or using genetic modification.

Chidambaram, in his Budget speech, said that eminent agricultural scientists have suggested that India should start a pilot programme on nutri-farms for introducing new micro-nutrient-rich crop varieties such as iron-rich bajra (pearl millet), protein-rich maize and zinc-rich wheat. He asked the Union Ministry of Agriculture to formulate a scheme and start pilots in districts most affected by malnutrition.

“The technology has to be need based and a lot of under-utilised crops, in addition to our staple crops, like wheat and rice, can be brought under it. We cannot ask people to change their eating habits suddenly. You can’t force them to eat jowar and bajra instead of wheat and rice and hence bio-fortification would play a key role,” says Swapan Kumar Datta, deputy director general (crop science) at Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR).

He criticised the allocation of a paltry sum Rs 3,415 for agricultural research, since the field needs a huge boost but said he is hopeful about biofortification technology. “There are different technologies for biofortification and ICAR will certainly look for promising technologies, like genomic research, where micro-nutrient providing genes could be inserted in plants. This can help fight iron and beta carotene deficiencies.”

Ram Kaundinya, chairman of Association of Biotech Led Enterprises – Agriculture Group (ABLE-AG), the industry lobby for GM crops, also welcomed the move. “Development of Nutri-farms or biofortification projects which can encourage development of novel food items using modern technological tools is a step in the right direction,” says Kaundinya.

Interestingly, research on commercial cultivation of bio-fortified crops has been going on for years in the country but has never received government support. An international initiative to commercially cultivate bio-fortified pearl millet in India led by HarvestPlus, a global alliance of research and implementing agencies, has been in the pipeline for several years. The project involved commercialisation of nutri-farms in India by 2012 and distribution of iron and zinc fortified pearl millet in Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh. HarvestPlus also planned to distribute bio-fortified seeds free of cost to companies so that they can multiply and sell them to farmers. But the project never saw the light of the day. 

Dr K N Rai, principal scientist at International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Andhra Pradesh, has been working on bio-fortification of pearl-millet to improve its iron and zinc nutrients. He says bio-fortified pearl millet can increase the absorption level of iron by people by 5 to 10 per cent and grain yield by 5 to 6 per cent. The new crop can be one of the strongest weapons against anaemia. It has 50-65 parts per million of iron; about twice of modern wheat varieties provide. Its increased zinc content is crucial for a person’s immunity, brain functions and reproductive health.

In a previous interview with Down to Earth, Rai had said that bio-fortification is a better way than fortification because it’s a more natural way to improve nutrition. Besides, it solves the problem of malnutrition using the grains people are already consuming. His institute has been involved in increasing iron and zinc in sorghum and beta-carotene in pigeon-pea and groundnut in India. Nigeria, Mozambique and Zambia are already growing bio-fortified cassava, sweet potato and maize.

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