Biofortified Crops For Improved Human Nutrition
Authors: Harsh Vardhan Singh Shekhawat, Jitendra Singh Shekhawat and Rajesh Kumar

The density of minerals and vitamins in food staples eaten widely by the poor may be increased either through conventional plant breeding or through use of transgenic techniques, a process known as biofortification.

Rationale for Biofortification

Modern agriculture has been largely successful in meeting the energy needs of poor populations in developing countries. Through plant breeding, biofortification can improve the nutritional content of the staple foods poor people already eat, providing a comparatively inexpensive, cost effective, sustainable, long term means of delivering more micronutrients to the poor. This approach will not only lower the number of severely malnourished people who require treatment by complementary interventions, but will also help them maintain improved nutritional status. Moreover, biofortification provides a feasible means of reaching malnourished rural populations who may have limited access to commercially marketed fortified foods and supplements.

Comparative advantages of biofortification

1) Reaching the malnourished in rural areas:
The biofortification strategy seeks to put the micronutrient dense trait in the most profitable, highest yielding varieties targeted to farmers and to place these traits in as many released varieties as is feasible. Moreover, as marketed surpluses of these crops make their way into retail outlets, reaching consumers in both rural and urban areas. The direction of the flow, as it were, is from rural to urban in contrast to complementary interventions that begin in urban centers.

2) Cost-Effectiveness and Low cost
Biofortified staple foods cannot deliver as high a level of minerals and vitamins per day as supplements or industry fortified foods, but they can help to bring millions over the threshold from malnourishment to micronutrient sufficiency. About 1 billion people are facing iron deficiency across the globe of which majority lies in south Asia. The estimated cost per case is estimated to be US $ 20. The benefits arising are far higher than cost of breeding, testing, and disseminating high iron and high zinc varieties of rice and wheat for south Asia.

3) Sustainability of Biofortification
Once in place, the system is highly sustainable. The major fixed costs of developing the varieties and convincing the nutrition and plant science communities of their importance and effectiveness are being covered by programs such as HarvestPlus. However, the nutritionally improved varieties will continue to be grown and consumed year after year.

Biofortification And India

In India biofortification is undertaken in crops of rice, wheat and pearlmillet. Various agencies like ICRISAT, CRRI, IARI, DWR are involved in this initiative.

In many Asian countries, rice provides up to 80 percent of the energy intake of the poor. High-zinc rice varieties for Bangladesh and India are developed by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI). The breeding target has been set at 28 ppm zinc in polished rice, an increment of 12 ppm above the baseline zinc concentration of commercially available rice. High-yielding varieties with more than 75 percent of the target are in official registration trials in Bangladesh and India. In Bangladesh variety named Brri dhan-62 has been released in year 2013 and India will soon release varieties of its own.

The development of high-zinc wheat for India and Pakistan is led by CIMMYT. The initial breeding target for whole wheat was set at 33 ppm zinc, an increment of 8 ppm above the baseline zinc concentration. It is expected that adoption of high-zinc wheat will be driven by its improved agronomic properties compared to current popular varieties, and breeding has focused on both zinc content and resistance to new strains of yellow and stem rust. Multilocation trials are underway in both India and Pakistan.

Pearl Millet
Pearl millet is a regionally important staple in the Indian states of Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Uttar Pradesh, the target area for biofortified pearl millet. The breeding target was set at 77 ppm iron, an increment of 30 ppm above the baseline. The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) carries out the pearl millet breeding research in collaboration with NARES and the private sector. The popular open pollinated variety (OPV) ICTP 8203 was improved to create the first biofortified variety, called ICTP 8203-Fe, which contains the full iron target and was officially released in 2013. Hybrid varieties with up to 100 percent of the iron target are in the development pipeline.

Initiatives in India

1. The erstwhile UPA government in the budget (2013-14) outlined a plan to develop Nutri-farms, where iron-rich pearl millet, zinc-rich rice and wheat, and protein-rich maize will be grown. These Nutri-farms will be piloted in the 200 districts in India that are most affected by malnutrition.

2. The Indian Government’s Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) have joined efforts to achieve high-quality research and accelerate the development of biofortified varieties in India. The India Biofortification Program, a long-term project of the DBT, focuses on rice, wheat, and maize. HarvestPlus is a collaborator in the development of these crops and also focuses on biofortified pearl millet and sorghum in collaboration with ICRISAT.

About Author / Additional Info:
We are the Ph.D scholars studying in the departments of Plant breeding, Horticulture and Agronomy respectively.