Ravinder Grover, Regional Coordinator-Asia, HarvestPlus
Around 88 percent of Asian and African countries face two or three forms of malnutrition simultaneously. Several factors such as insufficient food supply, low household income, poor healthcare facilities and food insecurity are responsible for increased prevalence of malnutrition in South Asian countries. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), about 181 million people in as many as 41 countries, could face food crises or increased food-insecurity. The Russia-Ukraine war contributing to high food prices, COVID-related disruptions in supply chains, political instability and several other factors over the last two years worsened the situation further. As a result, approximately 7.6 to 13.1 million more people could be undernourished globally in 2022.
Traditional nutritional interventions mainly focus on four main strategies: dietary modification, supplementation, commercial fortification, and biofortification. Biofortification involves selectively breeding staple plant varieties to increase nutrient content in staple crops. We all know that no single intervention can solve the problem of micronutrient malnutrition, but biofortification complements the existing interventions to provide micronutrients to the most vulnerable people in a relatively inexpensive, cost-effective, and sustainable manner.
Iron, vitamin A, and zinc deficiencies are the most common contributors to poor growth, cognitive impairments, perinatal complications, and increased risk of morbidity and mortality. In biofortification, these micronutrients are naturally enhanced in the staple crops and roughly 400 varieties of wheat, rice, maize, beans, cassava, sweet potato, and pearl millet in 40 countries are available benefiting an estimated 64 million. In India, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) has released more than 25 varieties of iron & zinc enriched staples. Biofortification as a strategy offers a way to reach poor consumers who have difficulty in accessing diverse diets, supplements, or fortified food products.
Biofortification provides a comparatively cost-effective, sustainable, and long-term means of delivering micronutrients to populations that might otherwise not have access to a fully balanced diet. Biofortification as a strategy also fits with some of the emerging trends in the food sector, such as the increased demand for naturally nutritious foods, plant-based foods etc. Biofortification through its supply chain also takes account of key parameters such as gender empowerment, improving nutrition, climate adaptation etc.
It was found that about half of the preschool children are malnourished, ranging from 16 per cent in China to 64 per cent in Bangladesh. Iron deficiency anaemia affects 40 – 50 per cent of preschool and primary school children in Asia. Nearly half of all vitamin A deficiency and xeropthalmia in the world occurs in South and Southeast Asia, with large numbers of cases in India (35.3 million), Indonesia (12.6 million) and China (11.4 million). According to the World Food Programme, 6.3 million people, or over 30 per cent of Sri Lanka’s population, are food insecure. About 6.7 million people are not consuming an adequate diet and 5.3 million people are reducing the number of meals partaken during the day while more than 60 per cent of families are eating less, cheaper, and less nutritious food. In Afghanistan, 14 million people are facing acute food insecurity.
HarvestPlus through its efforts has been working with 600+ partners globally since 2003 to facilitate the release of more than 260 biofortified varieties of 11 staple crops in 30 countries. In Asia, around 11 varieties of zinc wheat have been released in countries such as Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Nepal, 10 varieties of zinc rice have been released in Bangladesh, India and Indonesia, 18 varieties of vitamin A sweet potato have been released in China, Indonesia, South Korea etc. and there is ample evidence supporting drastic improvement in nutrition status in these countries. These nutrient-enriched varieties are multiplied and made available to countries through their national agricultural research systems (NARS). NARS through its processes, tests and develops these varieties with farmers through multi-location trials and different planting seasons, in order to compare the performance of these biofortified variants with the varieties grown in that region. The best-performing varieties are then selected and further released for planting by farmers in that country.
Biofortification as a strategy can significantly improve the nutritional status of people in developing countries. So, the time has come to shift our focus towards food and nutritional sufficiency. Governments in these regions should invest more on research in this particular subject, to improve the nutritional status of the people living in South Asia. Large sections of people living there have poor access to other fortified foods or nutritional supplements, and are hampered by low income, limited awareness etc.
Governments around the world are endorsing biofortification. The Government of Bangladesh has started procuring zinc rice in its safety net programmes. In Pakistan, the zinc wheat seeds had reached an impressive 20 per cent share of the certified wheat seed market. The Food labelling & Marketing guidelines for biofortified food products have also been prepared and circulated in Pakistan. In Indonesia, HarvestPlus is working with the Ministry of National Development Planning (BAPPENAS) to accelerate the rollout of NutriZinc. The Presidential Regulation No. 18/2020 also talks about promoting the production of biofortified zinc rice.
The Government of India is also consciously working towards promoting the benefits of consuming biofortified staples. It has linked them with several government programmes to make India free from malnutrition. Prime Minister Narendra Modi dedicated 17 biofortified varieties of eight crops to the nation on the 75th Anniversary of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). On September 28, 2021, the PM also launched 35 crop varieties with special traits developed by the ICAR. These include drought-tolerant variety of chickpea, wilt and sterility mosaic resistant pigeonpea, early maturing variety of soybean, disease resistant varieties of rice and biofortified varieties of wheat, pearl millet, maize and chickpea, quinoa, buckwheat, winged bean and faba bean.
The increased consumer preference for nutritious, sustainable, and clean-label ingredients is driving the demand for nutrient-enriched crops. Several big players in the cereals and snacks industries, as well as startups, are looking at opportunities to incorporate biofortified food ingredients in their food-product portfolio. In India, ready-to-eat food such as pearl millet noodles and pearl millet flakes from biofortified grains are already being marketed. In Pakistan, zinc-biofortified wheat production is rapidly scaling up and processed food products made with biofortified wheat, such as packaged flour, bread, noodles, and breakfast cereals are already available. Private sector engagement and investment will help create an ecosystem for scaling up biofortified crops to address the complex issue of micronutrient-malnutrition. The private sector can play a significant role in improving productivity, resilience, and quality of biofortification value chains, and increasing the availability and accessibility of nutritious biofortified products for farmers and consumers, at competitive prices.
Role of standards
The lack of standards for grain had been identified as a binding constraint to scale up and commercialise biofortified seeds, grains, and foods. Earlier, users or buyers of grain did not have a reference point or a benchmark for what made a grain nutrient-rich compared to standard grains. The British Standards Institute (BSI) recently released the first-ever international standards for nutrient-enriched (biofortified) grains for zinc, vitamin A and iron-enriched crops, paving the way for global and national trade and ensuring rapid adoption of nutrient-enriched grains in commercial food systems. These standards can help overcome the barriers to scale and be a game-changer for the commercialisation of biofortification, which is a powerful technique for addressing malnutrition.
Standards, in general, allow for the smooth transaction of goods, and ultimately ensure the nutritional quality of relevant grains and that they are safe and acceptable for consumption. Application of these standards by food market participants and government regulators will assure buyers that they are receiving quality biofortified products, increasing market confidence and spurring growth in trade. Successful adoption of the Publicly Available Standard (PAS) along with food labelling laws and regulations will make it easier to label foods and communicate nutrition-related health claims to the consumers. This will also open up a huge opportunity for food producers and processors looking to procure nutrient-enriched grains for product innovations.
There are several challenges associated with commercialisation of biofortified crops such as traceability, awareness-generation among relevant stakeholders, consumers, farmers, and government etc. regarding matters such as the concept of biofortification and ensuring appropriate functioning of the supply chain. One of the key steps for policymakers is to understand how nutrition security is the larger whole, of which food security is a part. In case of biofortification, farmers, with limited resources and inadequate market access, can grow biofortified crops since they do not need repeated purchases of seeds year after year- they can use a part of their produce as the seeds for the following year.
The Data Bridge Market Research analyses that the global biofortification market will project a CAGR of 8.6 per cent for the period 2021-2028. Several factors contribute to the growth of the biofortification market. These include the growth and expansion of the food and beverages industry, increasing population across the globe, rising consumer preference for high-quality, healthy and nutritional food products, surging investments in agro-genomics and increasing personal disposable income. Emerging economies such as China and India in the Asia-Pacific region, dominate the biofortification market and will continue to do so, during the forecast period owing to the growing investments in agro-genomics and increasing awareness about the autonomous environment for biofortification.
Biofortification has proved to be a strong instrument against malnutrition and therefore, governments in South Asia should invest more in this area. Also, integration of biofortification in the safety net scheme and public distribution programmes and several other government related interventions will significantly enhance the consumption of nutrient-enriched staples. Around 24 governments have already integrated biofortification in official policies. Academia and the knowledge industry could fulfil their responsibility by framing policy-level guidelines and engaging in research-related activities. The key components of this role include developing biofortified seeds, conducting efficacy studies, monitoring improvements in nutritional statuses of target populations, and researching on crop improvement. Private sector prioritisation, driven by increasing health awareness, and more demand for naturally nutritious food can also play a significant role.