Being simultaneously able to improve yields as well as the nutrient availability, especially for India’s women and children—among the world’s most malnourished, according to several international reports—would be a cost-effective method to address India’s nutrition needs, experts said. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint (Pradeep Gaur/Mint)
Being simultaneously able to improve yields as well as the nutrient availability, especially for India’s women and children—among the world’s most malnourished, according to several international reports—would be a cost-effective method to address India’s nutrition needs, experts said. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
(Pradeep Gaur/Mint)

Govt to link ‘bio-fortified’ crops to Food Security Mission

Govt earlier tried to introduce vitamin A-rich rice, but backed out after environmentalists protested

New Delhi: The government plans to link a new class of crops, called “bio-fortified crops", to the ongoing 6,000 crore National Food Security Mission, according to two persons familiar with the proposal who didn’t want to be identified.

Previously, the government had tried to introduce vitamin A-rich rice, or Golden Rice, in Indian fields but had to back out after environmentalists protested that such rice was developed by introducing genes not normally found in rice.

While such vitamin-A-laded rice isn’t likely to emerge in Indian fields anytime, officials said that several staple crops such as wheat, maize and millet had varieties that were naturally endowed with high levels of iron and zinc, and could be used to improve yields as well as the quantity of essential nutrients available in every morsel of grain consumed.

“Now we are able to combine high-yielding varieties of grain with those that are endowed with iron or zinc and get new biofortified crops," said an agriculture ministry official, one of the two persons cited above, who didn’t want to be identified. “There’s an in-principle plan to link such biofortified crops with the Food Security Mission." A second official confirmed the development.

The Food Security Mission is a five-year-old project of the agriculture ministry that aims to increase the yields of rice, wheat and pulses that have been stagnating for over a decade. Being simultaneously able to improve yields as well as the nutrient availability, especially for India’s women and children—among the world’s most malnourished, according to several international reports—would be a cost-effective method to address India’s nutrition needs, experts said.

Hari Kumar, a scientist at the National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad, said that on the whole, an average Indian today was not eating as balanced or nutritious a diet as in 1975.

“Iron deficiency in diet is among the serious problems we face and in terms of consuming the prescribed minimum of leafy vegetables, and consuming several micronutrients we are much worse off than in 1975," he said. “Being able to improve crops to address this is very much in the right direction."

To be sure, some private seed companies are already providing bio-fortified seeds to farmers. Maharashtra-based Nirmal Seeds Pvt. Ltd began selling iron-fortified pearl millet (bajra) in India last year and expects to be able to sell such varieties of wheat in the future.

Binu Cherian, who’s associated with Harvest Plus, an international organization that co-developed Nirmal Seeds’ millet, said that such seeds were developed using methods of conventional breeding. “There’s no new technology or genetically modified approach here. So there are no bio-safety tests required."

Being able to increase yields is essential to at least partially meet the United Progressive Alliance government’s Right to Food campaign, which through the proposed Food Security Bill, aims to entitle 75% of the rural population and 50% of urban India to 5 kg of subsidized foodgrain per person per month.

The average annual growth rate of agriculture and allied sectors during the 11th Plan was 3.6% against 2.5% and 2.4%, respectively, in the 9th and 10th Plans. In 2012-13, total foodgrain production will be over 250 million tonnes, finance minister P. Chidambaram said in his budget speech on Thursday and added that agricultural research would be allocated 3,415 crore in 2013-14.

His speech also referred to fortifying crops with micronutrients.

“Eminent agricultural scientists have suggested that we start a pilot programme on nutri-farms for introducing new crop varieties that are rich in micronutrients such as iron-rich bajra, protein-rich maize and zinc-rich wheat. I propose to provide a sum of upto 200 crore to start the pilots," the finance minister said in his budget speech.

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