Micronutrient deficiency, also known as “hidden hunger,” is widespread in Pakistan and is having profound effects on the health, development, and productivity of millions of Pakistanis. According to the National Nutrition Survey 2018, over one fifth of all women of reproductive age (22.1 percent) were deficient in zinc, with women more affected in rural (24.3 percent) than in urban settings (18.7 percent). 

Punjab province has the highest overall proportion of women with zinc deficiency at 24.1 percent. Meanwhile, 18.6 percent of Pakistani children under five have inadequate zinc intake, which is linked to growth impairment, loss of appetite, and impaired immune function. 

With its objective to eliminate hidden hunger among the most malnourished populations, HarvestPlus is working with a wide variety of stakeholders from the public and private sectors in Pakistan to promote nutrient-enriched biofortified crop varieties. Wheat is the main staple crop in Pakistan, with average per capita annual consumption of 87 kilograms (Kg), one of the highest levels in the world. Thus, zinc biofortification of wheat is one of the most suitable and sustainable interventions to address this deficiency.

In the past few years, the HarvestPlus country team has implemented innovative and strategic measures to increase zinc wheat seed production. In 2020-21, more than 35,000 tons of seed has been produced and it was available through the formal seed sector for planting on 360,000 hectares during the crop season of 2021-22. In addition, there is a significant quantity of seed coming through the informal sector—that is, kept by farmers from their last harvest, gifted, or sold to other farmers. Considering the planting done with the seed available through both the formal and informal sectors, grain production the 2022 season projections are 55,000 tons of seed which will produce 2.75 million tons of wheat grain, farmer saved seed will also make this number much bigger.

HarvestPlus Pakistan Country Manager Yaqub Mujahid explained that the Pakistan National and Provincial Wheat Improvement Programs have released three zinc wheat varieties, viz: Zincol-2016, Akbar 2019, and Nawab-2021, with the support and collaboration of HarvestPlus. “These varieties are disease-resistant, have high yield potential, high grain zinc, and are well-adapted compared to analogue varieties,” he said. 

Yaqub added: “These biofortified wheat varieties have been approved and certified by the Punjab Seed Council for multiplication and are licensed to several public and private seed companies to multiply seeds for local farmers.” He said both public and private sectors play significant and important roles in seed distribution. 

The HarvestPlus country team participated in the launch of Akbar-2019 at the Wheat Research Institute Faisalabad in March 2021, which was attended by more than 800 participants active in the wheat value chain. More than 3,000 participants were trained through Farmer Field Days and training programs for value chain actors. The participants trained included farmers, seed multipliers, representatives of seed and fertilizer companies, academics, extension and adaptive researchers, pest warning & quality control specialists, and international centers. In addition, a comprehensive awareness campaign was launched by HarvestPlus for promotion of biofortified wheat varieties during the crop season. The farmers were also reached with the help of a mobile application which distributed recorded voice messages.  

The HarvestPlus team in Pakistan has worked closely with research institutions, and has provided technical assistance for product development and to policy makers for adaptation of zinc wheat varieties. The Government of Pakistan has shown key interest in integrating biofortification in its policies and has welcomed support provided by the HarvestPlus for improving nutrition and food security in the country. 

Biofortification has been included in several key policies, including Pakistan’s 12th Five-Year Plan, Pakistan Vision 2025, the Pakistan Multi-sectoral Nutrition Strategy, and Provincial Multi-sectoral Nutrition Strategies. The biofortified zinc wheat varieties have been included in the Annual Production Plan 2020-2021 prepared by the Punjab Agriculture Department (Extension/Adaptive Research) for the guidance and awareness of farmers. In addition, zinc wheat is also included in the Annual Seed Production Plan 2020-2021 by the Punjab Seed Corporation (PSC).  Biofortified zinc wheat has also been included in the seed multiplication plan of the Wheat Research Institute Faisalabad, the Regional Agriculture Research Institute, and Bahawalpur and National Agriculture Research Center, Islamabad.  

HarvestPlus is working with private sector seed multipliers and seed distribution companies to popularize biofortified zinc wheat. The HarvestPlus country team is currently working with more than 40 companies who are distributing biofortified zinc wheat seed to farmers. This tremendous work has opened a gateway for Pakistan to address zinc deficiency through increased consumption of biofortified zinc wheat. These efforts should continue on a sustainable basis for improved zinc nutrition in the country.    

As a next step, the HarvestPlus country team is planning to develop farmer hubs. Initially, 300 farmers have been selected through the Punjab Agriculture Department (Agriculture and Adaptive Research) in five districts of the Punjab province. These farmers will receive additional technological support in crop management during the 2021-22 crop season. The farmers will be trained to segregate their biofortified zinc wheat for selling in the market, and will be linked with aggregators and millers to support and scaling up commercialization of biofortified wheat.     

This is 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.