The Government of Bihar, India’s third most populous state, is making a major commitment to scale up production and consumption of zinc-biofortified wheat to help address a serious malnutrition problem and reduce the highest rate of stunting in the country. 

Dr. Prem Kumar, the Honorable Minister for the Agriculture Department and the Animal and Fisheries Resources Department of the Government of Bihar, announced that the State Government will help increase the production of biofortified zinc wheat seed by leveraging the capacity of Bihar’s State Seed Corporation as well as local agricultural universities and farm schools. 

The Honorable Minister Dr. Kumar made the announcement during a webinar, “Future of Farming for Food and Nutrition Security,” organized by the Rural Development Council and Bihar Agriculture Management and Extension Training Institute (BAMETI) on Aug. 25. 

Zinc wheat seed is already available to some farmers in Bihar through sales by private companies, but the government’s new commitment has the potential to significantly ramp up seed production volumes and reach millions more nutritionally vulnerable households in Bihar, which has the lowest per capita income level of any Indian state. 

Governments, through their ability to harness public sector resources and lead on policy, play an essential role in scaling up biofortification and enabling activity in the private sector. HarvestPlus and its partners are working with governments in Africa, Asia, and Latin America/Caribbean, as well as private sector, NGO, and civil society partners, to reach 1 billion people with nutritious biofortified crops and foods by 2030. 

The heavy toll of zinc deficiency 

Zinc deficiency is a major cause of stunted brain development and child mortality in countries where rural families cannot afford zinc-rich foods like eggs, meat, fish, or fruits. Diarrhea, malaria, and lower respiratory infections are all exacerbated by lack of zinc. Sufficient zinc in the diet is also needed for strong immune systems—the body’s first line of defense against viruses such as COVID-19 and other health threats. 

Almost 20 percent of global deaths linked to zinc deficiency occur in India, where HarvestPlus has been supporting partners in the public, private, research, and civil society sectors since 2004 to combat this and other health challenges. Research conducted in India has demonstrated that children who eat bread made with biofortified zinc wheat suffer significantly fewer days of illness. When eaten regularly, zinc wheat can provide up to 50 percent of daily zinc needs. 

Zinc wheat is currently grown by 442,078 farming households in India overall, with an estimated 2.1 million household members benefiting. Thanks to partnerships in both the public and private sectors, and a generous investment by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, improved varieties of zinc wheat are being made available to farming communities where they are most needed. In November 2019, two commercially available, truthfully labelled (TL) zinc wheat varieties (BHU-31 and BHU-25) were formally launched by seed companies in Bihar, with the intention of reaching more than 1 million farming households with these varieties over five years. 

During the webinar, the Honorable Minister Dr. Kumar also expressed his gratitude to HarvestPlus for working closely with agricultural universities to develop and promote varieties of biofortified zinc wheat. “I feel proud that the Rajendra Prasad Central Agricultural University (RPCAU) has developed biofortified wheat called Rajendra-Ghehu-3. This has already been released by the [Bihar] State government for use. This is the State’s first variety of biofortified wheat and contains 38 [parts per million] of zinc.” This is the target level of zinc content for biofortified zinc wheat varieties to have the intended nutrition and health benefit when eaten regularly. 

Plans to establish a “Nutritional Village” 

Meanwhile, in a novel effort to help promote biofortification in Bihar, the Rural Development Council will partner with HarvestPlus on a plan to make the village of Kukribigah in Patna district a model “Nutritional Village.” It will be country’s first village to cultivate only biofortified crops, and with the use of organic methods. The village will demonstrate a holistic farming model that optimizes nutrition for farming families and also promotes ecological resilience. 

HarvestPlus has operated in India for nearly nine years, in close collaboration with partners in the public and private sector to improve nutrition and public health by developing and promoting biofortified crops and building out biofortified seed and crop value chains. These biofortified crops—iron pearl millet, iron lentil and zinc wheat— boost the levels of much needed iron and zinc available in the diet, helping to alleviate micronutrient deficiencies. The shared goal of HarvestPlus and our partners is to accelerate access to these nutritious crops and the foods made from them to boost food and nutrition security and improve lives. 

HarvestPlus India supports biofortification through key partnerships with the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR), State Agricultural Universities (SAUs), the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics(ICRISAT), the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), seed companies, farmer organizations, and community organizations. HarvestPlus is part of the CGIAR Program.