For 96 farming families in the parched Jodhpur and Bikaner districts of the Indian state of Rajasthan, zinc-biofortified wheat was a nutrition bonus during difficult times. Having been introduced to the crop in late 2019, shortly before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the zinc wheat helped the smallholder farmers get through a tough lockdown period, when other nutrient-rich foods were hard to come by.    

The farmers, who previously grew non-biofortified hybrid wheat varieties, were very pleased with the high-quality harvest, grain size, cooking quality, grain colour, and taste of the zinc wheat. “When the lockdown started, we were skeptical about producing biofortified wheat, but surprisingly the quality of wheat is very good, the wheat plants were very well cultivated and a good quality grain has been seen compared to traditional grain,” said Natthu Ram, a farmer from Bhaluri village in Bikaner.

The COVID-19 crisis has aggravated nutrition challenges faced by these smallholder farming families, especially those with limited access to healthy and nutritious food. Annually, India loses over $12 billion in GDP to the human and productivity impacts of vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and nearly one child in three is undernourished.

Almost 44 percent of Indian children under five are estimated to be zinc deficient, which has serious health consequences, including stunting and increased risk of common childhood infections such as diarrhea—especially among children. When eaten regularly, zinc-biofortified wheat can provide up to 50 percent of daily zinc needs. The zinc absorbed by the body from biofortified zinc wheat is significantly greater than that from common varieties. 

Partnership with URMUL Trust

The URMUL Rural Health, Research and Development Trust, based in Bikaner, was launched in 1983 by URMUL Dairy (officially the Uttari Rajasthan Cooperative Milk Union Ltd.). The URMUL Trust represents a family of organizations working towards social and economic change in the lives of the people living in the harsh, interior regions of western Rajasthan. URMUL works with farmers and agricultural enthusiasts in the remote parts of western Rajasthan, and aims to showcase and inspire farmers to adopt organic and sustainable farming techniques. 

URMUL Trust, under its sustainable agricultural program, collaborated with HarvestPlus India in 2019 to promote and distribute biofortified crop seeds to farmers living in these desert regions.  As part of their grassroot intervention, the trust distributed four tons of biofortified zinc wheat seed, including the varieties BHU25 and BHU31, to be planted on 100 bighas (approximately 25 hectares) of land cultivated by the 96 farming families. Following the seed distribution, it was mutually agreed that 10 percent of the yield per bigha per farmer would be provided to the program for future purposes, with an aim to support other vulnerable farmers.

“Due to a delay in the supply of seed because of the COVID restrictions, the harvest quantity was a little reduced. For the first time we haven’t used any chemical pesticides or fertilizers, but it did not make much difference to the yield, and the [zinc] wheat tasted very good,” said Ram.

The COVID-19 lockdown, restrictions on movements of farmers, and inflation in the prices of fertilizers and pesticides took a heavy toll on the local farmers. Travelling to the markets to buy agricultural inputs proved to be a daunting and expensive task during the lockdown. As the effect of the pandemic started to take effect, in April 2020, URMUL intervened and the farmers were trained on sustainable and organic methods of farming. Farmers learned about the need to increase soil fertility through organic methods and were trained on making natural fertilizers, pesticides, and vermicompost. 

Organic by necessity

For example, farmers were trained in making jeeva amruth, a natural fertilizer using cow dung, cow urine, jaggery,bengal gram and water. Agniastra, a natural pesticide, is a combination of neem leaf, cow urine, garlic, chillies, and other ingredients. More ingredients are added or removed depending on the local soil, water, and weather conditions. 

All biodegradable waste including vegetable waste, cow manure, saw dust, grain husk, and coconut fibre waste is stored and converted into compost for use in the fields as vermicompost. Trainings and local availability of these raw materials in the village have made it easy and sustainable for these smallholder families to continue farming organically. They are of the opinion that these methods help maintain soil productivity in the long run. 

The nationwide lockdown disrupted traditional farmer support processes and procedures, so the partners conducted trainings over video calls and with a few isolated visits by field workers. The partners held frequent consultations, provided technical support, and gathered feedback from farmers on a regular basis by phone.

In Rajasthan, just like other parts of India, farmers also found it difficult to sell their produce, and even when they did, the prices were low. Lack of field labor and essential agricultural equipment like tractors and harvesting machines, heavy transportation costs, lack of storage space in the grain markets, and low prices compounded their problems.    

Self-help in crisis times

The farmers decided to help each other harvest the crop. As agreed, farmers were happy to contribute a part of their zinc wheat yield to the program. Some of this contribution was redistributed as food grain in COVID-19 relief kits to marginalized communities affected by the pandemic in Jodhpur and Bikaner districts. A portion of this seed has been kept aside for distribution to poor rural farmers in future periods of difficulty.  

Zinc wheat is currently grown by about 442,000 farming households in India, with an estimated 2.1 million household members benefiting. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has given a strong endorsement to staple crop biofortification as a sustainable and cost-effective solution to alleviate malnutrition. 

HarvestPlus works in India to breed, test, release, and commercialize biofortified iron pearl millet and zinc wheat through 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, and community organizations.

In Rajasthan, this localized food initiative has not just helped farmers become self-sustaining but also provides for their nutritional needs as they cope with this pandemic. This initiative is not just helping them sustain through these challenging times but is also encouraging a lot more farmers to take up cultivation of biofortified crops in the surrounding districts.