Friday, July 12, 2024

Iron biofortified pearl millet: A sustainable approach for improving food and nutritional security in India

The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) is a Swiss-based foundation launched at the United Nations in 2002 to tackle the human suffering caused by malnutrition. GAIN’s mission is to advance nutrition outcomes by improving the consumption of nutritious and safe food for all people, especially the most vulnerable to malnutrition. By understanding that there is no “one-size-fits-all” way of dealing with the problem of malnutrition, GAIN focuses on developing alliances and building tailored programmes using a variety of models and approaches., focusing attention on where people get their food from – markets. As a result, GAIN gives priority to finding sustainable and scalable solutions for improved nutrition.

According to Jyoti Rupa Pujari, Senior Project Associate, GAIN, & Prateek Uniyal, Program Manager, Harvest Plus, Iron deficiency is the most common cause of anemia, which can lead to maternal mortality, child stunting, and other health challenges. An estimated 40% of pregnant women and 42% of children less than 5 years in India are iron deficient (Source: WHO). Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to iron deficiency because of periods of rapid growth, the onset of menstruation among girls, and poor dietary habits. To address these challenges, GAIN and Harvest Plus launched a landmark partnership in 2019 to accelerate progress in scaling up access to biofortified seeds, grains, and foods via commercial channels with the Commercialization of Biofortified Crops (CBC) programme. In India, the project
specifically focuses on 2 crops – Wheat and Pearl Millet biofortified with Zinc and Iron
respectively. The target implementation geography are six states – Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab for Zinc Wheat and Rajasthan, Maharashtra, and Karnataka for Iron Pearl Millet. The programme partners with food processors, millers, aggregators, farmer groups, and other value chain actors to quickly scale up the seed and grain uptake of these biofortified crops.

The partnership also pilots digital platforms for innovative solutions to commercialization while simultaneously improving the nutrition of the most vulnerable smallholder farmers. Being a climate-resilient crop, millet has the potential to increase the income and food security of farmers in arid regions. It is nutritionally superior and rich in micronutrients such as iron and zinc that can mitigate iron deficiency and hidden hunger. Biofortified pearl millet can help to mitigate hidden hunger in women and children while simultaneously providing smallholder farmers with a climate-ready crop to face the vagaries of climate change. Nationally, pearl millet is consumed by 6-7% of households in India but reaches a much higher percentage in six states, i.e. Rajasthan, Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Uttar Pradesh. Gujarat, Haryana and Rajasthan account for 90% of pearl millet production and consumption. Other states where the crop is often consumed include Maharashtra and Karnataka. Consumption of pearl millet is highest in the state of Rajasthan, at 60 grams per day on average.

Nutrient-enriched crops or scientifically known as biofortified crops are developed through agronomic practices or conventional breeding with higher micronutrient content than conventional methods. It is a food-based innovation-proven method to address micronutrient malnutrition. It not only addresses concerns with cognitive development and physical growth that persist throughout life, but it also enables women to start pregnancies with healthier iron storage, which positively impacts the future generation. Iron pearl millet is estimated to provide up to 70% of daily iron needs in young women while zinc wheat biofortified is estimated to provide up to 50% of daily zinc needs.

As a cost effective dietary source of iron and zinc in the region, Iron Pearl Millet has the potential to improve nutrition for millions of farming households, and most significantly, it has the potential to enhance the physical and mental performance of adolescents.

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