New Delhi: To address the problem of zinc deficiency in India, associated with ailments such as childhood diarrhoea and chronic liver disease, the government has initiated efforts to develop rice bio-fortified with zinc.
Rice is the most widely consumed cereal in the country and is ideal to help expand zinc content in an individual’s diet.
At least 20 universities and research organizations in India will collaborate to identify genes in plants that may be combined to produce zinc-enhanced rice.
Officials at the government’s department of biotechnology, or DBT, the chief coordinator and fund provider for the project, said they prefer the marker-assisted selection (MAS) method for identifying genes rather than use genes from different organisms.
MAS involves using modern techniques to identify genes in plants that influence enhanced production of a substance—in this case, zinc.
Once these genes are identified, they can be introduced into rice varieties by traditional methods of crossing.
Though not the most effective way of introducing genes into an organism, it’s safer and faster than the traditional method of repeated crossings, which might take several years.
“As far as possible, we will stick to marker-based selection but we are not entirely ruling out transgenics. That will be a separate project if at all it’s needed,” said DBT secretary M.K. Bhan.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), zinc deficiency is usually due to insufficient dietary intake and is associated with malabsorption, chronic liver and renal disease, sickle cell disease and diabetes.
Clinical outcomes include diarrhoea, impotence, delayed sexual maturation, eye and skin lesions, impaired appetite, altered cognition and defects in how the body uses carbohydrates.
Animals with a zinc-deficient diet require twice as much food to gain the same weight as animals with sufficient zinc intake.
A 2007 study in the Public Health and Nutrition journal says the annual burden of zinc deficiency in India is 2.8 million disability adjusted life years (Daly) lost.
Daly is a popular metric to estimate the disease burden and reflects the mortality as well as the morbidity of a disease.
Zinc bio-fortification of rice and wheat, the study says, may reduce this burden by 20-51% and save 0.6-1.4 million Daly each year.
The cost for saving one Daly is $0.73-7.31 (Rs30-300), which, the authors of the study say, is cost-effective by WHO and World Bank standards.
Nutrition experts say that though zinc deficiency is a major problem, bio-fortified rice is useful only if it reaches the right population.
“It’s a great idea, but given the quality of our public distribution system, how can we guarantee that it’s indeed the malnourished who benefit from this?” asked former director, National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad, B. Sivakumar.
“If it goes only to the rich we could have another problem such as zinc poisoning,” said Sivakumar.