Getting enough zinc in the diet is essential for proper growth and development, a well-functioning immune system, healthy tissues, and many other physiological requirements. Zinc deficiency is also a leading cause of childhood stunting and can even lead to premature death.
According to India’s Comprehensible National Nutrition Survey 2016-18, nearly one-third of adolescents ages 10 to 19 years were zinc deficient, leaving them highly vulnerable to stunting. The highest rates of stunting in India, for children under five, are in the states of Bihar (127 million population) and Odisha (46.8 million population), at 48 percent and 34 percent respectively.
The state governments of Bihar and Odisha have both made major commitments to scale up production and consumption of zinc-biofortified wheat and rice to help address malnutrition generally, and stunting rates in particular. In 2020, the first zinc-biofortified wheat variety (Rajendra-Gehun-3) was released for cultivation in Bihar. The same year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi publicly endorsed biofortified crops, and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) announced that 10 percent of its Frontline Demonstrations would include zinc-biofortified wheat and rice varieties. Front Line demonstrations (FLDs) is a unique approach to provide a direct interface between researcher and farmers as the scientists are directly involved in planning, execution, and monitoring of the demonstrations for the technologies developed by them and get direct feedback from the farmers’ field.
This surge of government support is expected to boost the impact of biofortified food interventions of HarvestPlus under the Bihar and Odisha Nutrition Initiative (BONI) project, which is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. BONI launched in 2017, when the Government of Bihar included biofortification in its third Agriculture Roadmap (2017-22). By the next year, HarvestPlus and its research partners had begun testing zinc wheat varieties across three agro-climatic zones of that state. The operations in Odisha started in July 2021.
Under BONI, HarvestPlus is strengthening and leveraging the capacities and experience of a diverse range of stakeholders to establish a sustainable system of production and consumption of nutrient-rich, biofortified crops in the two states. This is achieved through a network of public-private partnerships, and by strengthening those partnerships over time through a project stakeholder advisory committee, extensive research with partners, and establishing evidence and credibility for biofortified food products.
The program has already made significant progress, particularly in crop development, crop promotion, value chain enhancement, and policy advocacy. Below are a few details.
The key aim of the BONI project is to develop locally adapted, high yielding, and nutritious crops like zinc wheat, zinc rice, and iron and zinc lentils. The Rajendra-Gehun-3 variety is already being cultivated in Bihar. Another biofortified zinc wheat variety, Rajendra-Gehun-4 (BHU-31), is expected to be released during 2021. The development and testing of biofortified rice varieties such as Sabour Aayush (IR84275), and DRR Dhan 49 started during the kharif season (production season July-October) of 2021. Biofortified lentil varieties, namely Pusa Ageti and IPL-220, are also in the pipeline for testing.
Bri Bihar Choudhury, owner of Sone Ganga Seed, who has been producing seed since 2018, said: “By working with HarvestPlus, we are working towards eliminating malnutrition and bring prosperity to the family.”
Dr. Virendra Mandal is an agronomist at the Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK), a government-run agricultural center, in Manpur-Gaya district of Bihar. He observed that zinc wheat varieties BHU-31, BHU-25 and WB-02 are high yielding and well suited to the area and climate. He said: “I have been planting the zinc rich wheat BHU-31, BHU-25, and WB02 in our KVK campus for the past two years. Many farmers got demo seed from our KVK, and they are happy with the production of BHU-31. Zinc is a most important nutrient for our health it provides protection from many diseases.”
Promotion & Value Chain Intervention
Another key objective of HarvestPlus is to promote biofortified varieties to create demand for seed and grains by households to improve food and nutrition security. To achieve this, Harvestplus is partnering with several public, private, and civil society groups to strengthen value chains.
Currently, HarvestPlus is engaging with 65 market actors, including seed producers and distributors, digital platforms, buyers, research institutions, and public sector institutions across zinc wheat and zinc rice value chains. So far, 17,584 crop demonstrations have been conducted in Bihar and 1,676 metric tons of zinc wheat seed (covering 500 hectares when planted) have been produced and marketed by private seed companies.
The project is helping farmers access markets for their biofortified gain by engaging with private sector food players to promote procurement of grains for value-added products. For example, Delhi-based Aarti Mills is procuring biofortified wheat grain from farmers to market zinc wheat flour to urban consumers under the brand name of City King Chakki Atta.
Policy Advocacy for Better Uptake
Under the BONI project, HarvestPlus also works on helping to advance policy reforms that support and incentivize the production and consumption of biofortified crops in Bihar and Odisha. As a result of efforts with advocacy partners, Bihar State Seed Corporation (BRBN) has started producing 2100 tons of certified zinc wheat seed using its own resources. HarvestPlus has also collaborated with the Government of Bihar to establish the country’s first “Nutritional Village” model. Nutritional villages will demonstrate a holistic farming model for biofortified crops that optimizes nutrition for farming families and also promotes ecological resilience.
In addition, the Chief Minister Rapid Seed Extension Programme now offers a 50 percent subsidy on zinc wheat seeds. The programme provides high yielding varieties of seeds for rabi crops (October-March season) to farmers at highly subsidized rates. The programme is expected to boost agricultural production of all crops, especially rabi crops, and help Bihar state address an acute shortage of high- yielding seed varieties.
HarvestPlus is currently engaging with the Department of Food and Nutrition at Dr. Rajendra Prasad Central Agricultural University and the Ministry of Women and Child Development on the development of a Nutri-mix product line. Nutri-mix products (e.g., Balshakti, Paushtik Laddu, Sattu Laddu and other products) are health supplements made with biofortified crops (zinc wheat, zinc rice, and iron lentils) along with locally available nutrient rich foods, which are developed to satisfy the nutritional requirements of children ages 1-6 years, and women of reproductive age.
HarvestPlus is also partnering with State Rural Livelihood Mission (JEEViKA) to implement a biofortified value chain intervention with women-owned Farmer Producer Companies. A Farmer Producer Company (FPC) is registered under the Companies Act 2013 and formed by primary producers such as farmers, milk producers, and fishermen. FPCs help spur economic development at the grassroots level by providing an opportunity for members to pool their produce and share the profits in the form of dividends.
“I am very happy with the last year's performance of the high zinc wheat crop. Seeing bold grains of wheat containing zinc makes all the efforts worth it. It is well adapted to our soil and climate.” – Rameswar Rajwar, wheat grower from Ruknnadih village, Buxar, Bihar.
“With this wheat variety flour, you don’t have to work hard on the dough. The rotis (Indian flatbread) are very soft and easy to make. My father-in-law is particularly happy with it and has expressed a desire to continue growing only biofortified zinc wheat from now on. In addition to the grain quality, the plants also grow well in tough geographical conditions. We are happy that we tried growing this variety, and now there is no looking back.” – Saroj Devi, consumer from East Champaran, Bihar.
“I have planted BHU-25 and BHU-31 zinc wheat varieties every year in my 5-acre plot. The average harvest that I receive every year is between 200-225kgs. Having grown regular wheat varieties in the past, I find growing zinc wheat much more profitable and healthier. The growth and yield are of superior quality. The wheat panicle size is good, and the plant height is medium. It doesn’t require too much fertilizer, yet the yield is very encouraging. The grain of BHU-25 is round and beautiful, and the grain size of BHU-31 is long and slender. I will continue to grow zinc wheat and I am thankful to HarvestPlus for introducing these varieties to us.” - Ram Vinay Kuma, zinc wheat farmer from Kukribigha Village, Patna, Bihar.
The Numbers Tell the Story
Table 1: The Impact of BONI (2018-2020)
|Zinc wheat seed production (in MT)||171||685||820|
|Farming households reached in Bihar||5,565||17,767||38,392|
|Partners engaged in the project||33||54||65|
(Source: BONI Project Monitoring & Evaluation Report)
The data in Table 1 show that the total number of partners* for HarvestPlus nearly doubled from 2018-2020. Over the last three years, HarvestPlus’ biofortified crops have been made available to more households as the BONI project continues to engage with new partners in Bihar and Odisha. Active collaboration with new partners has had an overall positive impact on BONI as it has allowed for a significant increase in zinc wheat seed production, and consequently, an increase in the total number of households reached.
Bihar and Odisha are not the only states where HarvestPlus is helping to advance biofortified crops. In 2019, HarvestPlus began helping private seed companies to produce biofortified zinc wheat varieties (BHU-31 and BHU-25), with the intention of reaching more than 1 million farming households in India with these varieties over five years. By August 2020, biofortified zinc wheat was being grown by 442,078 farming households across India, benefiting an estimated 2.2 million household members. Investments in biofortification by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are helping to make this happen.
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 and is based at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).
* The project partnership ranges from research institutions (CIMMYT, IRRI, ICAR, ICAR-IIRR, ICAR-IIWBR), Agriculture Universities (BAU, RPCAU, OUAT), Seed sector partners (JK Seeds, Dehaat, JEEViKA, Bihar Beej Nigam, Sood seeds, Prithvi seeds, Ratnagiri seeds farms, Sone Ganga seeds), Digital partners (Kisan Gates, Reliance Foundation, BAU), Value chain actors (Aarti Mills, Bihar Flour Mills association), Civil societies (Syngenta Foundation, Reliance Foundation, Nidan, Pradan)