In August 2020, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) took a bold step to help scale up production and consumption of nutritious biofortified crops in this country of nearly 1.4 billion people: Dr. TR Sharma, ICAR’s deputy director of Crop Science, announced that 10 percent of ICAR’s Frontline Demonstrations (FLDs) of crops would now include zinc-biofortified wheat and rice varieties. 

In India, FLDs are an important and unique strategy to demonstrate the potential of new agriculture technologies, targeted at both farmers and government agricultural extension officers. The FLD plots are used by crop scientists, extension agents, and policymakers to gather feedback from farmers on newly developed crop varieties, while farmers have the opportunity to learn about these varieties.

Farmers are also genuine partners in the process, evaluating new varieties and guiding crop scientists and others to better understand farmers’ needs, preferences, and capabilities, which may lead to beneficial adjustments to the varieties to ensure better uptake. HarvestPlus Project Manager Ravinder Giri said integrating the biofortified varieties “will enhance awareness and popularity of biofortified zinc wheat and rice among both farmers and policymakers” and the importance of micronutrients to human health. 

This is only one recent example among many of India’s strong commitment to alleviating malnutrition through innovative, micronutrient-dense crops. In this particular case, the commitment involves scaling biofortification through national crop breeding programs at government institutes and state agricultural universities (SAUs), but India is also pursuing scale by working with private sector partners across seed and food value chains.   

Government support for biofortification reflects policymakers’ commitment to tackling widespread malnutrition and its serious health and livelihood impacts.  Coupled with a strong push to mainstream nutrition in the public food distribution system and other policy initiatives, there is potential for greatly increasing the breeding, release, production, and consumption of naturally nutritious crops in India and ensure healthier generations to come. 

India leads in biofortification

The Indian government is a leading advocate for reducing malnutrition by increasing the production and consumption of nutrient-enriched staple foods, particularly biofortified zinc wheat, zinc rice, and iron pearl millet (IPM). It declared 2018 as the “Year of Millets,” to incentivize farmers to grow such “nutri-cereals,” which the government recognizes as being important to improve both food and nutrition security. 

That same year, ICAR took a decisive step by establishing minimum levels of iron and zinc to be bred into all national varieties of pearl millet. Climate-smart IPM varieties are aimed at providing more dietary iron to rural farming communities in arid and drought-prone regions where few other crops thrive. 

Insufficient iron status can impair cognitive and physical development; it most severely impacts women, children and infants. More than 50 million people living in the semi-arid regions of India eat pearl millet daily. As a relatively cheap dietary source of iron, IPM has the potential to improve nutrition for millions of farming households, and most importantly, it has the potential to enhance the physical and mental performance of school-age children

This important mandate represented the culmination of years of coordinated efforts to improve the nutritional value of varieties released, led by the All-India Coordinated Research Project on Pearl Millet (ICAR-AICRP on Pearl Millet), International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), and other partners under the HarvestPlus crop development alliance. As early as 2006, the ICAR-AICRP had encouraged India’s national agricultural research systems (NARS) to begin breeding programs for micronutrients alongside higher yields. Since then, in part by expanding the alliance to private sector partners, 10 iron pearl millet varieties and nine zinc wheat varieties have been released to farmers and adopted in India, while more biofortified varieties have been identified for commercialization and future release.  

Biofortification is also being championed at the highest levels of government. Recently, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave a strong endorsement to staple crop biofortification as a sustainable and cost-effective solution to alleviate malnutrition. Meanwhile, the government of Bihar, India’s third most populous state with the lowest per capita income and highest rate of stunting, has committed to scaling up production of zinc wheat seeds through public seed companies. The Bihar government also inaugurated a “nutritional village” that will cultivate only biofortified crops, in this case using organice methods, to promote these nutrient-rich varieties. 

The need for nutritious seeds 

Around the world, governments’ NARS play a key role in testing and disseminating more-nutritious crop varieties. Working in partnership with other elements of government, such as ministries of agriculture, NARS can help promote biofortified seeds to ensure farmers’ uptake. Ultimately, this is a sustainable way for countries to own the solutions that improve their citizens’ food security, health, and livelihoods. 

The NARS are also uniquely positioned to lead the scale-up of innovations such as biofortification by making nutrition a mandatory crop breeding trait, just as they already do for important traits such as yield or resistance to diseases, pests, and the effects of climate change. India is just one leading example of this commitment to mainstreaming nutrition in crop breeding; other countries are now also considering this approach. 

Today, the NARS in India is one of the largest networks of research and education institutes in the world. ICAR is responsible for coordinating agricultural education and research in India, including crop variety release programs. ICAR has been a key partner of the HarvestPlus alliance since the biofortification program commenced in India in 2004, and the partners share the goal of accelerating access to more-nutritious, higher-yielding, and climate-resilient crops. To this effect, ICAR’s 2017 publication, “Biofortified Varieties: Sustainable Way to Alleviate Malnutrition,” prioritized crop biofortification as a cost-effective solution to tackle hidden hunger among the masses.  

The HarvestPlus crop development alliance has operated in India for nearly 15 years. HarvestPlus assembled a multidisciplinary global alliance of CGIAR research centers, private companies, NARS, and civil society organizations to accomplish the important task of improving nutrition and public health by developing and promoting biofortified crops in India and globally. CGIAR centers— International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) for wheat and maize, ICRISAT for pearl millet and sorghum, International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) for rice, and International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) for lentils—form the nexus of the development of biofortified crops. With NARS partners, they make up a research alliance that conducts adaptive and participatory breeding as well as participatory variety selection of promising crop candidate varieties in target zones. 

Several varieties of these crops—iron pearl millet, zinc wheat, zinc rice, zinc sorghum and iron/zinc lentil—are currently available in India and boost the levels of much-needed iron and zinc in the diet, helping to alleviate micronutrient deficiencies. As of 2019, an estimated 442,000 households were growing zinc wheat and 238,000 households were growing iron pearl millet. In addition, an estimated 2.2 million people were consuming zinc wheat and nearly 1.2 million people were consuming and benefitting from iron pearl millet.