Biofortification is a process that involves enhancing the nutritional content of food crops through conventional breeding, genetic engineering, or agronomic practices. Read here to learn more.
Since 2014, 142 biofortified varieties including 124 field crops (Rice; Wheat; Maize, Pearl millet, small millets, Linseed, Lentil, Chickpea, Mungbean, Fieldpea, Urdbean, Mustard, Soybean, Sesame, Groundnut) and 18 horticultural Crops (Sweet potato, Amaranthus, Greater Yam, Potato and one each of Cauliflower, Okra, Grapes, Banana, Guava and Pomegranate) have been developed under aegis of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR).
These biofortified varieties don’t have any impact on ecological conditions especially on soil and water, as these are normally bred varieties and their water and nutrient requirement is like traditional varieties.
All the biofortified varieties are equal or better in yield to conventional varieties of respective crops. Produce of these biofortified varieties is not as expensive as the existing varieties in the market, as there is no yield penalty and no extra cost incurred in the cultivation of biofortified varieties.
The goal of biofortification is to improve the nutritional quality of staple crops to address micronutrient deficiencies and enhance the overall health and well-being of populations, especially in regions where certain nutrients are lacking in the diet.
The primary focus is on increasing the levels of essential vitamins and minerals in crops that are commonly consumed by large populations.
Types of Nutrients Targeted
- Iron: Biofortified crops aim to increase iron content, addressing iron-deficiency anemia.
- Zinc: Zinc deficiency can be addressed through biofortified crops to improve overall health and immune function.
- Vitamin A: Biofortification targets increasing the levels of provitamin A carotenoids, addressing vitamin A deficiency, and supporting vision and immune function.
Methods of Biofortification
- Conventional Breeding: Traditional breeding methods involve selecting and breeding plants with higher nutrient content.
- Genetic Engineering: Biotechnology is employed to introduce or enhance specific genes responsible for the synthesis of desired nutrients.
- Agronomic Practices: Some biofortification strategies involve optimizing soil nutrient levels or using fertilizers to enhance nutrient uptake by crops.
- Golden Rice: Genetically engineered to produce provitamin A (beta-carotene), addressing vitamin A deficiency.
- Iron-Biofortified Beans: Traditional breeding methods have increased iron content in common bean varieties.
- Zinc-Biofortified Wheat: Certain wheat varieties have been biofortified to increase zinc levels.
Biofortification in India
The Government of India has already taken an important step in linking agriculture and nutrition with biofortification.
- The government has given a strong endorsement to staple crop biofortification as a sustainable and cost-effective solution to alleviate malnutrition.
- On World Food Day 2020, the Prime Minister noted that common varieties of some crops lack key micronutrients that are essential for good health. Thus biofortified varieties were developed to overcome these shortcomings.
- He also dedicated to the nation 17 recently-developed biofortified seed varieties of eight local and traditional crops, including wheat and paddy rice, that are being made available to Indian farmers.
Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) has started the Nutri-Sensitive Agricultural Resources and Innovations (NARI) programme for promoting family farming linking agriculture to nutrition, Nutri-smart villages for enhancing nutritional security and location-specific nutrition garden models are being developed and promoted by Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVKs) to ensure access to locally available, healthy and diversified diet with adequate macro and micronutrients.
Under the National Food Security Mission (NFSM), assistance is given through State/Union Territory to the farmers for interventions like cluster demonstrations on an improved package of practices, demonstrations on cropping system, seed production, distribution of High Yielding Varieties (HYVs)/ hybrids, cropping system based training, etc.
Impact on Public Health
- Addressing Micronutrient Deficiencies: Biofortification is considered a sustainable and cost-effective approach to combat hidden hunger caused by micronutrient deficiencies.
- Improved Health Outcomes: Increased consumption of biofortified crops can lead to improved health outcomes, particularly in vulnerable populations such as children and pregnant women.
- Reduced risk of chronic diseases: Vitamin A-rich biofortified crops contribute to maintaining healthy vision and reducing the risk of blindness, particularly in populations where vitamin A deficiency is prevalent.
- By preventing and addressing micronutrient deficiencies, biofortification can contribute to reducing healthcare costs associated with treating nutritional deficiencies and related health conditions.
- Adequate nutrition, including essential micronutrients, is crucial for cognitive development, learning capacity, and educational achievement in children.
- Biofortification provides a sustainable, long-term solution to hidden hunger by integrating improved nutritional content directly into staple food crops that people regularly consume.
Addressing nutritional deficiencies through biofortification contributes to global health security by preventing diseases associated with inadequate nutrient intake.
Challenges and Considerations
While biofortification offers promising health benefits, it is essential to consider the cultural acceptance of biofortified crops, regulatory aspects, and ongoing research to monitor and enhance the effectiveness of these interventions.
- Acceptance and Adoption: Ensuring that biofortified crops are culturally acceptable and adopted by communities is crucial for their success.
- Regulatory Approval: Genetically engineered biofortified crops may face regulatory challenges, requiring approval for cultivation and consumption.
- Sustainability: Ensuring the sustainability of biofortification programs, including ongoing research, funding, and community engagement, is essential.
- Scaling up and accessibility: Biofortified seeds may not be readily available to all farmers, particularly in remote or economically disadvantaged areas. Expanding the cultivation of biofortified crops on a large scale requires investment in infrastructure, research, and extension services.
- Adaptation to Local Conditions: Biofortified crops need to be adapted to diverse agro-climatic conditions to ensure successful cultivation across different regions.
- Environmental Variability: Changes in environmental conditions, including climate change, may impact the effectiveness of biofortification programs.
- Maintaining Genetic Diversity: Intensive focus on a few biofortified varieties may lead to a reduction in overall genetic diversity, making crops more vulnerable to pests, diseases, or environmental changes.
- Cost-Benefit Analysis: Conducting cost-benefit analyses to determine the economic viability of biofortification programs, including considerations of production costs, market demand, and economic benefits for farmers.
- Impact Assessment: Robust monitoring and evaluation systems are needed to assess the impact of biofortification on nutritional outcomes and health. Conducting long-term studies to understand the sustained effectiveness and potential unintended consequences of biofortification is essential.
HarvestPlus: HarvestPlus is a global program that promotes biofortification to improve nutrition and public health, focusing on crops like rice, wheat, beans, and cassava.
HarvestPlus has operated in India since 2011, in close collaboration with partners in the public and private sectors, to improve nutrition and public health by developing and promoting biofortified crops and building out biofortified seed and crop value chains.
Biofortification is endorsed at the highest levels of government as a strategy to address widespread micronutrient deficiencies and their serious health impacts.
Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN): GAIN works on promoting biofortification as a strategy to improve nutritional outcomes, particularly in developing countries.
Continued research and development are expected to expand the range of biofortified crops to address a broader spectrum of nutrient deficiencies.
Biofortification is increasingly being integrated into broader agricultural and food security programs to ensure sustainable impact.
Biofortification offers a promising avenue to combat malnutrition and improve public health by harnessing the potential of agriculture to deliver essential nutrients directly through commonly consumed foods. Ongoing research, community engagement, and global collaboration are critical to realizing the full potential of biofortification in addressing nutritional challenges worldwide.
-Article by Swathi Satish