An improved zinc-biofortified wheat variety, Akbar-2019, is being grown by farmers in Pakistan during the 2020-2021 planting season. First developed jointly by HarvestPlus and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in 2013, and tested in more than 60 field trials in Pakistan, Akbar-2019 is a second-wave zinc wheat variety that will contribute to alleviating hidden hunger in a country where people do not consume enough zinc in their diets.  

Several studies revealed zinc deficiency to be prevalent among schoolchildren (54.2 percent) and preschool-age children (37.1 percent) in Pakistan. Zinc deficiency is a leading cause of stunting, which  affects 40 percent of preschool children. Zinc deficiency also contributes to loss of appetite, lowered immunity, and increased risk of diarrheal disease and respiratory infections.

The new variety, besides having higher yield than the most popular non-biofortified variety planted in Pakistan (Faisalabad-08), contains up to 26 percent more zinc compared to traditional (non-biofortified) varieties. Akbar-2019 will complement the Zincol-2016 zinc-biofortified wheat previously released by HarvestPlus, which was already being grown by more than 220,000 farmers as of spring 2020. 

Seed production for the new variety began in 2019 and seed was harvested in April 2020. Enough seed was produced to distribute to farmers and seed multipliers for zinc wheat grain production that commenced in November 2020. Grain production is primarily for consumption.

The new wheat variety Akbar-2019 was released by the Ayub Agricultural Research Institute (AARI) in Faisalabad, Punjab during 2019. Punjab province is by far the leading wheat-producing region in Pakistan, accounting for 75 percent of national output. 

A continuous pipeline of improved, biofortified varieties is crucial for the sustainable production of zinc wheat. Apart from high yield—a key trait to trigger adoption by farmers—Akbar-2019 displays excellent resistance to rusts, the major wheat disease threat in Pakistan. 

M. Yaqub Mujahid, country manager for HarvestPlus Pakistan, said, “The response from farmers during the last seed production was overwhelmingly positive because of the great agronomic qualities of Akbar wheat, and we are looking forward to a bumper produce in the upcoming season.”

According to the current plan, more than 4000 tons of seed of the two released zinc wheat varieties will be produced during the 2020-2021 crop season. This is very good news for biofortification in a country with one of the highest wheat-consumption rates in the world, contributing 72 percent of Pakistan’s daily caloric intake.  Malnutrition costs Pakistan USD 7.6 billion, or 3 percent of GDP, every year.

Mian Abid Waseem, a wheat farmer from Faisalabad, Punjab, said: “The new variety [Akbar-2019] is laden with high zinc and promises increased grain production. This will surely benefit the overall population in the country to eliminate hidden hunger.”