Soldiers growing microgreens at snowy posts
Microgreens, which grow fast and provide leaves and shoots of salad plants, are now being used by soldiers at the Indian Army’s snow-covered posts in remote areas, with a presentation on the technique attracting attention at the 107th Indian Science Congress’s Pride of India exhibition on Saturday.
Small plants of cabbage, radish, and fenugreek called microgreens, which are grown over 8-10 days in small dishes of soil and nutrients, can be eaten as supplements, according to scientists from the Defence Institute of High Altitude Research (DIHAR), a laboratory of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).
“Our research has shown that you will get the same amount of nutrients if you consume 100gm of salad and 10gm of these microgreens. They are nutrient-rich and supplement the micronutrients and vitamins that soldiers living off of tinned food miss out on,” said Samar Bahadur Maurya, a participant from DIHAR who was present at the Pride of India exhibition.
Ishi Khosla, who practises as a clinical nutritionist in the national capital, said: “Micro greens are indeed more nutritious than many vegetables. Especially so when people are consuming processed or tinned foods as it fills the nutrient gaps. Processed and cooked foods lose a lot of enzymes and nutrients needed by the body. There is also the functional issue of pH; processed foods are acidic whereas fresh greens are basic in nature, helping in maintaining the balance.”
The exhibition comprised displays from about 150 public and private scientific organisations at the University of Agricultural Sciences in Bangalore.
The pavilion set up by the DRDO was inaugurated on Saturday by Union science minister Harsh Vardhan. The outdoor display at the pavilion also showcased long-range surface-to-air missiles and quick reaction surface-to-air missile system among other technologies.
The microgreens do not have to be taken out for sunlight and flourish in the army’s barracks, which are warmer than the outdoors at high altitudes. They cannot grow into full-size vegetables as they are planted intensively in soil of very little depth. It is essential that the seeds and the soil are both chemical-free for the plants to grow.
“Since the plants are being consumed so early on in their life cycle, we need to ensure that the seeds and the soil have not been treated chemically. Everything here is organic. Soldiers who stay in the remote outposts usually carry their food once a year and most of it is tinned. This can help balance the sodium levels from the tinned food and provide something fresh,” said Maurya, who is a technical officer at DIHAR. The project is headed by Narendra Singh, a scientist at the institute.
A senior army officer familiar with the developments, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said microgreens are being experimented with and could emerge as a good supplement with tinned food in forward areas, provided they are available in good quantities.
The army conducted a pilot programme at some outposts in Ladakh in 2015, followed by several acceptability studies at various locations in the region. “Now, the final kits are being designed in preparation for a mass rollout,” Maurya said.
Microgreens are used across the world usually by chefs at fine-dining restaurants or by nutrition enthusiasts. They first showed up in chefs’ menus in the 1980s in San Francisco, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
The plants raised by DIHAR researchers are grown indoors, ideally at temperatures between 15° and 20° Celsius. “It can survive even at 10 degrees Celsius but will take a couple of days longer to grow. This temperature is suitably found within the barracks that are kept heated in cold regions. And, as these are indoor plants, they do not need to be taken outdoors for sunlight,” said Maurya.
To grow microgreens, a multipurpose medium made of coconut husk is mixed with inorganic soil additives along with water and other media. “After that, the plant has to be only occasionally watered if it starts drying out. Tending to the plants and having some greenery around also helps with the morale,” he added.