Nutrition through biofortification

Synopsis: Malnutrition is a serious problem for India. Biofortification can help us address it

Introduction

Malnutrition is still rampant in India despite it being the world’s top or second-largest producer of most food items, such as staple cereals, pulses, fruit, vegetables, and milk.

Biofortification can be a helpful tool in alleviating this problem.

What is the present scenario of malnutrition in India?

Nutritionally-deficient diet: The diet of a sizable section of the population is neither sufficient nor nutritionally balanced. The deficiency of protein, vitamins, minerals, or other major or micro-nutrients is widely prevalent.

India was ranked 94th among 107 countries on the Global Hunger Index 2020, falling behind its smaller neighbours like Nepal, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

Particularly worrisome is the lack of nutrients like iron and zinc, and vitamins like A and C, which are vital for growth and tissue repair, and preventing diseases.

This nutritional inadequacy had, in fact, been highlighted even earlier by the National Family Health Survey-4, conducted in 2016.

It had found that as many as 38.4% kids below five were stunted and about 21% had low weight for their height (dubbed as “wasted”) and more than half of all women (nearly 53%) were anaemic.

What is the problem with govt initiatives?

The government is attempting to combat undernourishment by offering highly subsidised or free foodgrains to the poor and the needy through various welfare programmes.

The month of September is observed as the “Poshan Mah” (nutrition month) and its first week as the “Poshan week” every year.

India’s mid-day meal scheme for school children, is one of the world’s largest programmes of its kind.

But these initiatives target the consumption of belly-filling staples rather than wholesome foods.

They lack the required emphasis on balanced nourishment. As a result, these initiatives have reduced the incidence of underfeeding but without denting malnutrition, which can be curbed only by boosting the intake of wholesome food.

What is the reason behind increased incidence of malnutrition?

Low nutrition foods: The poor nutritional profile of average Indians can, in fact, partly be attributed to the fact that most of the available and mass-consumed foods are inherently low in nutrition. 

Focus on yield: Most of the crop varieties developed by the country’s vast farm research network in the past were bred with an eye on enhancing yield and resistance against diseases and pests, then upgrading their nutrient content.

This problem is now sought to be rectified by biofortification.

What is biofortification?

Biofortification means incorporating nutrient-enriching genes in select crop varieties, using conventional or modern plant-breeding tools.

Such genetically altered and nutrition-augmented crops, termed aptly as “biologically fortified” or “biofortified” crops, differ from the commercially available fortified foods as these have genetically ingrained, rather than artificially added, additional nutrients.

What are the advantages of biofortification?

As per experts, Biofortification is the most sustainable and cost-effective means to provide the needed nutrition through food rather than food supplements.

The nutrient-doped varieties, developed under the all-India coordinated research programmes for different crops, provide enough calories, as also essential nutrients, for healthy growth.

More than 70 biofortified food crops have already been evolved and released for cultivation.

What is the way forward?

The greater use of biofortified foods can go a long way in meeting the universally agreed and United Nations-backed goal of zero hunger by 2030.

This would require a big push to the consumption of biofortified crops.

Besides, it would also need incentivising farmers to grow biofortified crops and making consumers aware of their health benefits.

The most important thing is to ensure that biofortified produce is traded separately in mandis and growers get premium prices for that. Once these products get the label of healthy foods, their production as well as consumption would inc automatically.

Source: This post is based on the article “Nutrition through biofortification” published in Business Standard on 20th Sep 2021.

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