In its less-than-impressive fight against malnourishment, India is set to deploy a new weapon: super foods from "bio-fortified" crops packed with nutrients. The first of these, high-iron pearl millet, will be introduced in 20112.
Indian research facilities are also close to breeding high-zinc wheat and provitamin-A rice and maize. "Together, they have the potential to improve nutrition of millions," said Kedar Rai, the director of HarvestPlus, part of a globally funded alliance that has introduced super foods in impoverished Sub-Saharan Africa.
HarvestPlus is "biofortifying" seven food crops that can help reduce micronutrient malnutrition or "hidden hunger" globally.
Despite a strong economy predicted to overtake China’s within three years, India is among 29 countries with the highest levels of hunger, stunted children and poorly fed women, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)'s 2010 hunger index.
Malnutrition is by far the biggest contributor to child mortality in India. According to the Lancet medical journal, malnutrition in the first two years is irreversible.
Fortifying the food handed out by the government’s public distribution system (PDS) would be an economical and effective way to tackle malnutrition. "Discussions are on to introduce bio-fortified foods through the PDS," said Swapan Kumar Dutta, ICAR's chief of crops sciences.
In Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Gujarat, where millet or bajra is commonly grown and consumed, the prevalence of anemia among children is a staggering 66%. When severe, it also raises women’s risk of dying in childbirth.
Under an optimistic scenario, HarvestPlus estimates that 10 years after release, 28 million people in India will be consuming new iron-rich pearl millet. However, Dutta says the real breakthrough would come from super wheat and rice.
Pearl millet is an important cereal crop in arid and semi-arid tropical regions of Asia and Africa. It is a significant source of dietary energy and nutritional security for poor farmers and consumers in several highly populated regions of India. Pearl millet with elevated iron levels can help reduce iron deficiency, and to some extent, zinc deficiency, in regions of India where it is a staple food crop. It is hoped that some benefit will also be realized in parts of Africa where pearl millet is consumed.
India has been identified as the first target country for biofortified iron pearl millet.
Super foods is the result of a collaboration between India's department of biotechnology, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and HarvestPlus.
Bio-fortified crops, by design, offer a rural-based approach to initially reach low-income groups. According to the IFPRI, their success hinges on three things. First, the breeding must be effective for both high nutrient density and yields. Second, sufficient nutrients must be retained after cooking. Third, farmers must adopt them widely.