India to improve nutrition with biofortified crops

India pins hopes on biofortified crops to tackle malnutrition Copyright: Flickr/Curt Carnemark/World Bank

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[NEW DELHI] India hopes to tackle micronutrient deficiency among its population by scaling up research aimed at improving varieties of food staples like rice, wheat, maize and pearl millet. 

Proposals for the annual budget that comes into effect next month (1 April) carry a US$ 40 million allocation for pilot projects to develop such crops as iron-rich pearl millet (locally called bajra), protein-rich maize and zinc-rich wheat.

The Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR), an autonomous organisation under the agriculture ministry, is already working on nutrient-rich crops, a conference on biofortification, held last month (27 February) in New Delhi, heard.

"ICAR is working on a platform for promoting nutrient-rich crops that will involve a network of researchers, social scientists and advocacy workers in this field," Swapan Kumar Dutta, director-general of ICAR, told the conference.

Dutta said India’s traditional food crops contained a variety of nutrients, but changing food habits in recent years has resulted in over-dependence on cereals that are low in micronutrients like zinc and iron.


  • Budget allocated funds for improving nutritional value of staples like rice and wheat
  • Departure from traditional food crops blamed for micro-nutrient deficiencies
  • Green revolution addressed food availability but failed to raise nutrition levels

Leading agricultural scientist M. S. Swaminathan told the conference that 60 years of the 'green revolution' had not improved nutrition levels in the country.

The green revolution relied on hybrid varieties and intensive application of irrigation and fertilizers to boost production of staples like wheat and rice.

HarvestPlus, a programme of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), links high rates of anaemia and stunting in India to diets that rely heavily on staples like pearl millet, wheat and rice. 

Howarth Bouis, director of HarvestPlus, said enhancing micro-nutrients in cereal staples is easier than changing the food habits of the population.   

In 2012 HarvestPlus introduced its first micronutrient-rich crop — an improved version of a popular open-pollinated pearl millet variety containing more iron — by distributing it to 100,000 farming households in Maharashtra state.

Progress in developing zinc-rich rice and wheat has been slower and farmers are resistant to new varieties. “We will involve all stakeholders to develop an understanding of the hurdles in promoting new crops in the country,” Dutta told SciDev.Net

"India has many traditional crops which are rich in nutrients, but are underutilised as compared to wheat and rice," Dutta said. "A major part of the work of our platform will be to promote these neglected crops."