Bio-fortified foods can move India from food security to food security

On August 15, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke from the ramparts of the Red Fort on India’s 75th Independence Day. Among other big announcements, he emphasized the need to provide “poshan” (food) for the country’s women and children. Prime Minister Modi announced that by 2024 the rice delivered to the poor under a government program – PDS, Lunch, Anganwadi – will be fortified. It’s a brave decision. Using science to address the complex challenge of malnutrition, especially for low-income and vulnerable populations who cannot afford a varied and balanced diet, can be a good intervention. We assume that the nutrition experts at the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) were consulted in the decision-making process.

Scientists from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) have developed bio-fortified plants in India to eradicate malnutrition among the poor. According to the ICAR website, by 2019-20 they had developed 21 varieties of bio-enriched staple foods, including wheat, rice, corn, millet, mustard and peanut. Compared to the traditional varieties, these bio-enriched plants have a 1.5 to 3-fold higher content of proteins, vitamins, minerals and amino acids. It’s worth noting that these strains are not genetically modified – they were developed by our own scientists through conventional plant breeding techniques. A research team led by Monika Garg from the National Agri-Food Biotechnology Institute in Mohali has also developed bio-enriched colored wheat (black, blue, purple) that is rich in zinc and anthocyanins. Farmers from Punjab and Haryana were involved in order to multiply the production of this wheat variety. This signals the beginning of a new journey, from food security to food security.

Particularly noteworthy here is the HarvestPlus program of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), which has worked closely with ICAR, the state agricultural universities (SAUs), the international centers of the CGIAR, seed companies and farmers’ organizations to accelerate production and improve the access of the poor in India to iron-rich pearl millet and zinc-rich wheat. More than 40 countries around the world have approved bio-enriched plants, which benefit over 48 million people.

The prime minister’s strong commitment to malnutrition-free India – Kuposhan Mukt Bharat – is vital as 15.3 percent of the country’s population is malnourished and India has the highest proportion of “stunted” (30 percent) and “exhausted” children ( 17.3.). Percent) under five years of age, according to the latest FAO publication “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, 2021”. These figures show that India is at a critical juncture in terms of food security and cannot achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) to eradicate all forms of malnutrition by 2030 in the business-as-usual scenario.

However, access to nutritious foods is only one of the determining factors in diet. Other factors such as poor access to safe drinking water and sanitation (especially toilets), low levels of vaccination and education, especially of women, all contribute equally to this dire situation. In a country where around 50 percent of the rural population do not have safe and adequate drinking water on their premises, in which around 15 percent of schools still do not have access to basic infrastructure (electricity, drinking water and sanitation) and in which the average annual School The drop-out rate at secondary school (grades 9-10) is still 18 percent (according to the Niti Aayog SDG index for 2020). The multidimensional problem of malnutrition cannot be tackled through biofortification alone. It must be recognized that in the long run India needs a multi-pronged approach to address the root cause of this complex problem. This approach should include the following initiatives.

First, there is a direct link between the education of mothers and the well-being of children. Children with mothers without school education have the least varied diet, suffer from stunted growth, and are anemic. Despite significant government efforts to improve literacy among women, according to the 2018 Sample Registration System Survey, only 12.5 percent of women (aged 15-49) have completed schooling (grade 12). Therefore, targeted programs to improve the educational status of girls and to reduce early school leaving rates, especially in secondary and higher education, need to be promoted. Knowledge of childcare and information on holistic nutrition should also be included in the school curriculum. This will improve mothers’ knowledge of colostrum, continued breastfeeding, diarrhea prevention and treatment with oral rehydration solution, child immunization and family planning. Innovative strategies that integrate education and nutrition programs have a high priority in combating the malnutrition problem. The Global Nutrition Report (2014) estimates that every dollar invested in a proven nutrition program offers $ 16 worth of benefits.

Second, innovations in bio-enriched foods can only alleviate malnutrition if they are reinforced with supportive measures. This would require higher spending on agricultural R&D and incentives for farmers by linking their products to lucrative markets through sustainable value chains and distribution channels. This will generate a profitable income for farmers and fuel the expansion of developing technology. The government can also involve the private sector to create a segment of the market for high quality bio-enriched foods for high-end consumers. For example, TATA group trusts are helping various states fortify milk with vitamins A and D. Other private dairies should also be encouraged to expand milk fortification across the country.

Third, a national awareness campaign modeled on the government’s 1962 Salt Iodization Program to replace common salt with iodized salt can play an important role at the individual and community level in achieving Poshan’s goals for all. Branding, awareness campaigns, social and behavior change initiatives such as advice at the community level, dialogue, media engagement and advocacy, especially among marginalized groups, can encourage the consumption of locally available, nutrient-rich, affordable food among the poor and children. But grandma’s recipe for a varied diet is just as important – we should always keep that in mind.

Gulati is a professor at the Infosys Chair and Juneja is a consultant at ICRIER