Innovations in biofortified food can alleviate malnutrition only when they are scaled up with supporting policies
By Ashok Gulati & Ritika Juneja
On August 15, 2021, prime minister Narendra Modi addressed the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort to mark the occasion of India’s 75th Independence Day. Among many big announcements, the PM strongly emphasised the need to ensure ‘poshan’ (nutrition) to all poor women and children of the country. He announced that, by 2024, rice provided to the poor under any government scheme (PDS, mid-day meal, anganwadi, etc) will be fortified. It is a bold decision! Leveraging science to attack the complex challenge of malnutrition, particularly for vulnerable sections of society that cannot afford balanced diversified diets, can be a good intervention. We presume that nutrition experts of Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) are fully on board. Earlier, scientists of Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) have been developing biofortified crops with a view to attack malnutrition. At present, they have developed 71 varieties of biofortified crops, which have 1.5-3 times higher levels of protein, vitamins, minerals and amino acids than the traditional varieties. They are not genetically modified but developed through conventional breeding. Monika Garg and her team at the National Agri-Food Biotechnology Institute in Mohali has also developed biofortified coloured wheat (black, blue, purple) rich in zinc and anthocyanins, which is being cultivated by farmers from Punjab and Haryana. This is the beginning of a new journey, from food security to nutritional security.
HarvestPlus programme of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) has also been working with ICAR, state agricultural universities (SAUs), and many international centres, to accelerate production and improve access to iron-rich pearl millet and zinc-rich wheat for the poor in India. Globally, more than 40 countries have released biofortified crops, benefitting over 48 million people.
The PM’s strong commitment towards malnutrition-free India (Kuposhan Mukt Bharat) is crucial as 15.3% of India’s population is undernourished, and the country has the highest proportion of stunted (30%) and wasted children (17.3%) below five years of age, as per the FAO’s recent publication, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, 2021. Under the business-as-usual scenario, India will not be able to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of eliminating all forms of malnutrition by 2030. So, some bold decisions were needed, to fortify or biofortify staples for poor.
However, access to nutritious food is only one of the determinants of nutrition. Other factors like poor access to safe drinking water and sanitation (especially toilets), low levels of immunisation and education, especially of women, equally contribute to this dismal situation. In a country where about 50% of the rural population does not have safe and adequate drinking water within household premises, where about 15% of schools still lack access to basic infrastructure (electricity, drinking water and sanitation), and where the average annual school dropout rate at secondary level (Class 9-10) is still 18% (as per the Niti Aayog’s SDG Index for the year 2020), one cannot tackle this multi-dimensional problem of malnutrition just by biofortification. India needs a multi-pronged approach including the following initiatives:
First, there is a direct correlation between mothers’ education and the well-being of children. Children with mothers having no education have the least diversified diets and suffer from stunting, wasting and anaemia prevalence. Notwithstanding the considerable efforts by the government to improve female literacy, only 12.5% females (in age group 15-49 years) were found to have completed school education (Class 12) in 2018 (Sample Registration System survey). Targeted programmes for improving the educational status of girls, particularly at the secondary and higher educational levels, deserve priority. Also, child care and holistic nourishment should be compulsorily in school curriculum. This will improve mother’s knowledge regarding (i) colostrum; (ii) continued breastfeeding; (iii) diarrhoea prevention and treatment using Oral Rehydration Solution (ORS); (iv) child immunisation; and (v) family planning, etc. The Global Nutrition Report (2014) estimates that every $1 invested in proven nutrition programmes offers benefits worth $16.
Second, innovations in biofortified food can alleviate malnutrition only when they are scaled up with supporting policies. This requires more agri-R&D and incentivising farmers to sell these fortified produce in lucrative markets. Government can rope in the private sector for this. For instance, Tata Trusts are supporting different states to initiate milk fortification enriched with Vitamin A and D. Other private dairies are also encouraged to scale up milk fortification across the country.
Third, national awareness drive on the lines of ‘Salt Iodisation Programme’ launched by the government in 1962 to replace ordinary salt with iodised salt, can play an important role at individual and community level to achieve the desired goals of ‘poshan’ for all. Branding, awareness campaigns, social and behaviour change initiatives, such as community-level counselling, dialogue, media engagement and advocacy (especially in marginalised communities) can promote consumption of locally-available, nutrient-dense affordable foods among the poor and children. But, equally important are grandma’s recipe of diversified diet that we should always keep in mind.
Gulati is Infosys Chair professor, and Juneja is consultant, ICRIER