The cognitive and physical development of nearly a third of Indonesian children under five is stunted because of poor nutrition. Without sufficient corrective action, the learning and earning potential of the world’s fourth most populous country will be stunted, too. Indonesia already loses more than US$2.6 billion a year in gross domestic product due to vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

A new approach to addressing the stunting problem was recently launched: Indonesia’s first variety of zinc rice, developed by the Indonesian Center for Rice Research with support from HarvestPlus and the International Rice Research Institute. Zinc is an essential micronutrient for healthy growth and development. Inadequate zinc intake can weaken the immune system, making children more vulnerable to diarrheal disease and respiratory infections. It also is a major contributor to cognitive and physical stunting.

This high-zinc rice was developed through a process known as biofortification, which uses conventional crop breeding to increase micronutrient levels in the rice grain. The development journey began by screening hundreds of potential candidates, then carefully crossing and testing the most promising ones with local varieties. The result of this labor-intensive process is a variety locally known as NutraZinc. It is high yielding, resistant to the pesky brown planthopper, and provides up to 50 percent of daily zinc needs.

Indonesia is dedicated to improving its human capital development. The “Smart Indonesia Program” improves access to education, and other initiatives seek to prepare millions of young people to compete in the global knowledge-based economy. These efforts can’t flourish, however, without addressing the permanent damage caused by poor nutrition.

At an event in Jakarta in December 2018 to celebrate the new variety’s release, an advisor to Indonesian President Joko Widodo recognized the key role biofortification can play in addressing childhood malnutrition. “Zinc rice can be a solution that allows Indonesia to move more quickly to achieve its long-term goals on stunting,” he said.

Senior officials from the Indonesian ministries of agriculture, health, national development planning, and economic affairs, as well as representatives of the private sector and civil society, also brainstormed on how to promote the variety. In the coming months and years, their support will be critical as Indonesia produces more seed, introduces the variety to farmers, and catalyzes consumer demand.

HarvestPlus’ efforts to promote the scaling of biofortification in Indonesia, as well as Papua New Guinea, Pakistan and the Philippines are supported by the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s innovationXchange.