More nutrition in wheat, rice: Is Modi govt up to bio-fortification to move from food to nutritional security?

By: | Updated: October 15, 2018 1:27 AM

Grain production plummeted from 89.4 million metric tonnes (MMT) in 1964-65 to 72.4 MMT in 1965-66. India became heavily dependent on PL 480 food aid from US and underwent a ‘ship-to-mouth’ crisis.

More nutrition in wheat

October 16 is celebrated as ‘World Food Day’ to mark the creation of United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 1945. It envisions zero world hunger by 2030. Perhaps the occasion is incomplete without remembering Nobel Peace laureate Norman E Borlaug, whose ‘miracle seeds’ of wheat saved over a billion lives from starvation, and who also instituted the ‘World Food Prize’ in 1986, somewhat akin to a Nobel Prize in agriculture. Peeping into the past is important to realise the role of science and technology that paved the way for the ‘Green Revolution’, ensuring food security. Similar innovations in bio-technologies today hold promise to give nutritional security.

Rewind history and recollect that the Bengal Famine (1943) is said to have claimed 1.5 million to 3 million lives due to sheer starvation. India got independence in 1947 with a challenge to feed 330 million people. Situation became grim when India was hit by back to back droughts during the mid-1960s. Grain production plummeted from 89.4 million metric tonnes (MMT) in 1964-65 to 72.4 MMT in 1965-66. India became heavily dependent on PL 480 food aid from US and underwent a ‘ship-to-mouth’ crisis. No wonder, then, that self-sufficiency in food grains became top priority. India imported 18,000 tonnes of semi-dwarf high yielding (HY) wheat—Lerma Rojo and Sonora 64, developed by Borlaug and his team at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), Mexico, that ushered in the Green Revolution in India. Adaptation of imported germplasm to innovate indigenous varieties—like Kalyan, by DS Athwal and Sona by MS Swaminathan—aided the spread of this revolution. Around the same time, HY miracle rice—IR8—developed by Peter Jennings and Henry M Beachell of International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) was imported.

About a decade later, improved variety IR36 by Gurdev Khush from IRRI also made inroads into Indian fields. In-house crash breeding programme under All India Coordinated Research Project (AICRP) produced Padma and Jaya, the first indigenous HY rice varieties that formed the backbone of India’s revolution in rice. Later on, breakthrough in basmati rice came through Pusa Basmati 1121 and 1509 in 2005 through 2013, developed by teams led by VP Singh, AK Singh and KV Prabhu at Indian Agricultural Research Institute. This gave Indian rice more value with less water and 50% higher yields compared to traditional basmati. Singh et al. 2018, estimate the cumulative earnings through exports of Pusa Basmati 1121 and its share of the domestic market to be about $20.8 billion between 2008-2016.

Where does India stand today in terms of wheat and rice? While India’s population has grown by more than four times, from 330 million in 1947 to 1.35 billion in 2018, our wheat production increased by over 15 times (from about 6.5 MMT in 1950-51 to 99.7 MMT in 2017-18). India contributes about 13% to the world wheat production, next only to China with about 17% share. Rice production shot up by about 5.5 times (from 20.6 MMT in 1950-51 to 112.9 MMT in 2017-18), accounting for about 23% share in world rice production, next only to China with about 29% share. India is also the largest exporter of rice in the world with about 12.7 MMT (where Basmati is 4.06 MMT and Non-Basmati is 8.65 MMT), valued at $7.7 billion.

Notwithstanding foodgrain surpluses, India faces a complex challenge of nutritional security. FAO’s recent publication, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2018, estimates that about 15% of the Indian population is undernourished. Further, ironically, 38.4% of Indian children aged below five years are stunted, while 21% suffer from wasting. That is, one in every four children is malnourished. Several factors ranging from poor diets, unsafe drinking water, poor hygiene and sanitation, low levels of immunisation and education, especially that of women, contribute to this dismal situation. But latest innovations in bio-technologies towards bio-fortification of major staples with micro nutrients like vitamin A, zinc, iron, etc. can be game changers.

Globally, the HarvestPlus program of Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) is already doing lot of work in that direction. In India, they have released iron rich pearl millet. But Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), independently, has released zinc and iron rich wheat (WB 02 and HPWB 01), rice (DRR Dhan 45), pearl millet (HHB 299 and AHB 1200), etc. in 2016-17. This could possibly lead to the next breakthrough in staples, making them more nutritious. Recently, a research team, led by Monika Garg, at National Agri-Food Biotechnology Institute (NABI), Mohalia, pushed frontiers and innovated bio-fortified coloured wheat (black, blue, purple) through crosses between HY Indian cultivars (PBW550, PBW621, HD2967) and coloured wheat from Japan and America, rich in anthocyanins (antioxidants found in, say, blueberries) and zinc (40 ppm compared to 5 ppm in white wheat). For multiplying its production and evaluating its impact on health and nutrition, farmers of Borlaug Farmers Association from Punjab and Haryana have been roped in. This seems to be only the beginning of a new journey, from food security to nutritional security, and the best is yet to come.

But innovations in bio-fortified foods can alleviate malnutrition only when they are scaled up with supporting policies. This would require augmented expenditure on agri-R&D and incentivising farmers by linking their produce to lucrative markets. Can the Modi government do it? Only time will tell.

By- Ashok Gulati & Ritika Juneja. Gulati is Infosys chair professor for agriculture and Juneja is research assistant at ICRIER

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