India is a country of 1.3 billion people that faces significant nutritional challenges. One of them is micronutrient deficiency, or “hidden hunger,” which is caused by a lack of essential vitamins and minerals (micronutrients) in the diet. The condition contributes to high rates of stunting, anemia, and other serious health problems in India, particularly among low-income rural populations, and it impairs brain and physical development in children. 

HarvestPlus addresses hidden hunger by working with partners to scale up the development and delivery of staple food crops that have been bred naturally (non-GMO) to increase their content of important micronutrients—particularly, iron, zinc, and vitamin A. These “biofortified” crops are scientifically shown to improve nutritional status and health when eaten regularly. 

In the Bihar and Odisha Nutrition Initiative (BONI) project, HarvestPlus is working with public and private partners to scale up production and consumption of biofortified crops in these two high-poverty states in the eastern part of India, which have the highest rates of malnutrition and anemia in the country. According to 2019-20 National Family Health Survey, the incidence of anemia among children ages 6-59 months and women ages 15-49 years is over 60 percent in Bihar and close to 50 percent in Odisha. The rates of stunting in Bihar and Odisha are 48 percent and 34 percent respectively, making them two of the most nutritionally vulnerable states in India. 

Creating mass awareness and improving nutrition literacy are key for the adoption of biofortified crops at scale. Favourable policies to include biofortified crops in existing food and nutrition programs will help increase demand and improve nutrition in a cost-effective manner. With that as the background, the BONI project was launched in 2017 with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and with the goal of establishing a sustainable system of production and consumption of nutrient-rich, biofortified zinc wheat, zinc rice, and iron lentils to improve the nutritional status of people in both states.

HarvestPlus conducted a series of studies* to identify effective pathways for scaling up biofortification in the two states. Overall, we found that biofortification of key staple crops can be a cost-effective, efficacious, and scalable solution to alleviate micronutrient deficiencies if it is implemented on a large scale.

Tapping into public support programs

The studies recommend the integration of biofortified staples through large-scale public support programs, notably the Public Distribution Systems (PDS), to effectively reach nutritionally vulnerable communities in Bihar and Odisha. 

The PDS is operated by the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, and is jointly managed by state governments in India. Since 1951, public distribution of food grains has been an intentional social policy in India with the key objectives of providing food grains to vulnerable sections of society at subsidized prices; indirectly managing open market prices of various items; and intervening in the distribution of essential commodities in order to build up food grain stocks for distribution through Fair Price Shops (FPS). The PDS operates these FPS, which are government-sponsored chains entrusted with the work of distributing basic food and non-food commodities to low-income Indians at low prices. These ration shops are established in all Indian states.

However, one by-product of the PDS has been to contribute to cereal-dominated diets that may be filling more stomachs but are not providing many key nutrients in sufficient quantity. Indeed, over 80 percent of Indian adolescents suffer from one or more forms of hidden hunger.

The HarvestPlus studies conclude that integration of biofortified staples in the PDS would be an important step towards addressing hidden hunger. To do so will require setting up a robust physical and institutional infrastructure to oversee the production, procurement, and distribution of biofortified products. It is also important for policymakers to understand that nutrition security needs to be a critical component of food security on a whole. Farmers could be incentivized to grow biofortified crops through a price differentiation procurement mechanism, whereby the government offers a premium price for biofortified crops to encourage their cultivation. 

The studies also look at integration of biofortified crops in two popular welfare schemes: the Mid-Day Meal (MDM) scheme and the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS). While MDM can help address micronutrient deficiencies in school-age children, ICDS can reach children ages 0-6 years, pregnant and lactating mothers, and women of reproductive age generally. 

In addition to policy reforms, the studies suggest that agencies such as the National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation (NAFED) and the Tribal Cooperative Development Marketing Federation (TRIFED) under the Decentralised Procurement Scheme (DCP) can also help procure biofortified cereals effectively and ensure they reach the intended recipients. These agencies, under the Ministry of Agriculture, procure food grains under price support schemes and distribute them through existing retail chains in tribal regions of India. 

The studies also encourage the use of private sector channels to supplement and complement the public delivery mechanism to distribute biofortified grains for wider consumption.

Leveraging seed systems 

The studies also looked at seed production and delivery systems in Bihar and Odisha to determine how best to deliver biofortified crop seeds to farmers and incentivize their cultivation. The seed supply system is a complex mix of formal and informal channels, so the study analyzed both the established (legal) networks of registered dealers and the “fast forward” (unregulated) exchange of seeds between farmers. The findings suggested that both the distribution networks could be leveraged for efficient seed supply to the growers. The study has highlighted the “Four A” concept:  Awareness, Accessibility, Availability, and Affordability of seeds to promote adoption of biofortified crops by smallholder farmers in both these states. 

For setting up an efficient seed multiplication system the study has suggested that both the public sector and private seed production agencies should have access to breeder seeds. Seed production agencies should be encouraged to partner with  research institutes on popularizing and commercializing new varieties. 

Finally, the studies emphasized the partnership with Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVKs) and other extension agencies to leverage existing government schemes such as the National Food Security Mission (NFSM), the Chief Minister Rapid Seed Extension Programme, and the Seed Village Scheme, which can help boost the spread of biofortified crops. 

The studies’ findings also suggest three possible ways of procuring biofortified crops in Bihar and Odisha. One would be to leverage the existing Minimum Support Price (MSP) mechanism. MSP is a form of market intervention by the Government of India to ensure agricultural producers against any sharp fall in farm prices, thus helping producers receive an assured price through a government-monitored marketing channel. A second option is to establish a biofortified seed village model, in which all the cultivators in a designated village grow biofortified crops by forming a Farmer Producer Company. In these, farmers organize themselves into a collective to improve their bargaining strength in the market. This could provide forward linkages with state-owned procurement agencies and private actors engaged in food processing. 

The study also suggests a third option of setting up an independent body which can certify biofortified varieties and farmers growing certified biofortified crops could benefit through MSP regulations.

Based on the study outcomes, the HarvestPlus team will deepen its engagement with the State Agriculture Universities (SAUs), Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVKs), and State Seed Corporation Agencies to ensure biofortified seed is integrated in government seed production programs. The team will also leverage Farmer Producer Organizations and help connections with private seed players for scaling up biofortified cereal seeds in both Bihar and Odisha.

*[1] Exploring procurement opportunities for biofortified staples in Bihar and Odisha, [2] Promotion and dissemination of biofortified cereals seeds in Bihar and Odisha, [3] Exploring opportunities for the introduction of biofortified varieties of rice and wheat through the public distribution system in Bihar and Odisha

If you would like to request the Bihar and Odisha Nutrition Initiative study papers, contact us: [email protected]