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Biofortification in India – Pros, Cons, Initiatives

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Biofortification is a sustainable and cost-effective strategy to combat malnutrition, particularly among the economically weaker sections of society. It involves enhancing the nutritional quality of crops through selective breeding or genetic modification, targeting essential micronutrients like iron, zinc, and vitamin A. This approach not only addresses food security but also contributes to reducing nutrient deficiencies in vulnerable populations. Despite its potential, the adoption of biofortified crops in India faces challenges such as lack of awareness and initial costs.

Biofortification mind map

This topic of “Biofortification in India – Pros, Cons, Initiatives” is important from the perspective of the UPSC IAS Examination, which falls under General Studies Portion.

What is Biofortification?

  • Biofortification is a sustainable and cost-effective strategy to combat malnutrition, particularly among the economically weaker sections of society.
  • It is the process of enhancing the nutritional quality of food crops through selective breeding, genetic modification, or agronomic practices.
  • The process targets essential micronutrients like iron, zinc, and vitamin A.
  • Biofortification differs from ordinary fortification as it focuses on making plant foods more nutritious from the growth stage, rather than adding nutrients during food processing.
  • It is recognized as a nutrition-sensitive-agriculture intervention that can reduce vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

How is Biofortification Implemented?

  • Biofortification is implemented through three basic methods: transgenic, conventional, and agronomic.
    • Transgenic biofortification involves the use of biotechnology to biofortify essential micronutrients into crops.
    • Conventional biofortification involves crop breeding to enhance the nutritional value of crops.
    • Agronomic biofortification involves fertilization techniques to increase the nutrient content of crops.
  • Biofortified crops must be agronomically equivalent or preferably superior to the less nutrient-dense varieties to ensure adoption by farmers.
  • The process of biofortification also involves improving seed systems, demand and supply creation, diffusion, and marketing as part of the biofortification package.
  • Awareness generation is a crucial step in the implementation of biofortification. Lack of awareness on the health benefits of biofortified crops is one of the major factors for slow adoption.
  • It is also important to ensure that farmers have access to affordable biofortified planting material, along with the technical knowledge to cultivate it effectively.
  • In India, the first iron-biofortified crop cultivar to be officially introduced was “Dhanshakti”.
  • The government of India has also developed 17 new biofortified varieties of 8 crops to make available to farmers.

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Advantages of Biofortification

  • Health Improvement: Biofortification aids in enhancing overall health. Crops developed through this process are more resilient to diseases, pests, droughts, and other environmental factors, and they produce higher yields.
  • Cost-Effective: Biofortification is a cost-effective method to combat malnutrition. After the initial research and development costs, the recurrent costs are minimal, making it a sustainable solution.
  • Reach: Biofortification of staple crops is an effective way to reach large numbers of rural poor who cannot afford food supplements. It is built on what poor households grow and eat, making it a practical solution.
  • Sustainability: Biofortification is sustainable. Long after people stop thinking about biofortification, farmers will continue to grow biofortified crops.
  • Nutrient Bioavailability: Biofortification enhances the bioavailability and concentration of nutrients in crops, making them more beneficial for human consumption.
  • Addressing Hidden Hunger: Biofortification is instrumental in tackling hidden hunger, a form of malnutrition that occurs when people do not get enough vitamins and minerals in their diet.
  • Reducing Mortality and Morbidity Rates: The main objective of biofortification is to lower mortality and morbidity rates associated with micronutrient malnutrition and to increase food security, productivity, and quality of life for impoverished people in developing nations.

Disadvantages of Biofortification

  • Long Gestation Period: Biofortification through traditional plant breeding or genetic engineering requires a long time to develop and release new varieties.
  • High Initial Costs: Significant funding is needed for research and development in biofortification.
  • Limited Acceptance: Biofortified products are not accepted in every country, which can limit their reach and impact.
  • Slow Nutritional Improvement: Biofortification may not rapidly improve the nutritional status of populations, especially those in immediate need.
  • Cost of Agronomic Biofortification: The use of mineral fertilizers in agronomic biofortification can be expensive, potentially making biofortified foods less accessible to poorer populations.
  • Dependence on Farmers: Agronomic biofortification relies heavily on farmers applying mineral fertilizers regularly, which they may omit due to various reasons.
  • Potential for Toxicity: Repeated application of mineral fertilizers may lead to accumulation and toxicity in the soil.
  • Exhaustion of Mined Minerals: Increasing demand for mined minerals for biofortification could lead to resource exhaustion and environmental impacts.
  • Lower Nutrient Levels Compared to Supplements: Biofortification may not provide as high mineral and/or vitamin content as direct supplementation or commercial fortification.
  • Potential Health Risks: There is uncertainty regarding the long-term health effects of consuming genetically modified, biofortified crops.
  • Impact on Plant Health: Increasing levels of certain nutrients in plants through biofortification could potentially affect the plant’s lifecycle and generational health.

Government Initiatives

  • Endorsement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi: In 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi publicly endorsed biofortified crops, marking a significant step in the fight against malnutrition in India.
  • Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) Initiatives: ICAR has been developing biofortified crops with higher levels of essential nutrients. It announced that 10 percent of its Frontline Demonstrations (FLDs) of experimental crop varieties would include zinc-biofortified wheat and rice varieties. ICAR has also started special programs for the development and popularization of biofortified crops.
  • Nutri-Sensitive Agricultural Resources and Innovations (NARI) Programme: The Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) has initiated the NARI programme to promote family farming linking agriculture to nutrition and nutri-smart villages for enhancing nutritional security.
  • Inclusion in Midday Meal Scheme: The national government intends to include biofortified grains in government schemes such as midday meals for school children to reach the most vulnerable population groups.
  • Public Distribution System (PDS): By 2024, rice provided to the poor under any government scheme, including PDS, will be fortified.
  • National Nutrition Strategy – 2017 by NITI Aayog: This strategy envisages the alleviation of malnutrition in the country through food-based approaches, including the use of biofortified cereals in different government-sponsored programs.
  • Collaborations with HarvestPlus: HarvestPlus is working with ICAR, state agricultural universities, international research centers, seed companies, and farmer organizations to expedite the production and improve the access of the poor to biofortified crops.
  • Minimum Support Price for Biofortified Produce: The government is considering providing a minimum support price mechanism for biofortified produce to incentivize greater cultivation of these crops.
  • All-India Coordinated Research Project on Pearl Millet (ICAR-AICRP on Pearl Millet): This project encourages the development of biofortified pearl millet to fight iron and zinc deficiencies in India.
  • State Government Initiatives: The state governments of Bihar and Odisha have committed to scaling up the production of biofortified crops.

Challenges

  • Consumer Acceptance: Due to the color changes in the grain, people hesitate to accept biofortified food, as in the case of golden rice.
  • Adoption by Farmers: For biofortification to be successful, farmers need to adopt this on a large scale.
  • High Initial Costs: The initial costs could be a barrier for people to implement biofortification.
  • Potential Toxic Effects: Any potential products of biofortification should be carefully evaluated under real conditions to avoid toxic effects.
  • Nutrient Stability: The enhanced micronutrient trait must be relatively stable across various edaphic environments.
  • Consumer Acceptance Testing: Taste and cooking quality must be acceptable to consumers.
  • Lack of Awareness: Lack of awareness on the health benefits of biofortified crops is one of the major factors for slow adoption.
  • Political Interest: The success of biofortification may be jeopardized by fluctuating political interest.
  • Last Mile Reach: There can be challenges in ensuring the last mile reach of fortified foods to the most vulnerable populations.

Recommendations for Biofortification

  • Enhance Nutrient Absorption: Focus on breeding or engineering crops that not only have higher nutrient levels but also ensure these nutrients are easily absorbed by the human body.
  • Targeted Nutritional Requirements: Assess the specific nutritional needs of targeted populations to ensure that biofortification efforts address the most pressing micronutrient deficiencies.
  • Education and Marketing: Invest in education and marketing, especially for transgenic biofortification techniques, to increase acceptance among consumers and farmers.
  • Regional Specificity: Tailor biofortification techniques to tackle regional nutritional challenges effectively, considering the local diets and prevalent micronutrient deficiencies.
  • Stakeholder Coordination: Ensure effective coordination among multiple stakeholders, including governments, NGOs, farmers, and the private sector, to streamline biofortification efforts.
  • Improve Efficiency: Work on ways to increase the nutrient content of crops using fewer resources, making biofortification more cost-effective and sustainable.
  • Expand Crop Variety: While staple crops are the main focus, there is potential to biofortify other crops as well, such as fruits, vegetables, and legumes.
  • Consumer Acceptance Testing: Conduct extensive testing on taste and cooking quality to ensure consumer acceptance of biofortified crops.
  • Agronomic Performance: Develop biofortified varieties that are agronomically superior or at least equivalent to current cultivars to encourage farmer adoption.
  • Post-Harvest Handling: Research and implement post-harvest handling practices that retain the enhanced micronutrient levels in biofortified crops.
  • Policy Support: Encourage government policies that support the cultivation, distribution, and consumption of biofortified crops, including subsidies and educational campaigns.
  • Monitoring and Evaluation: Establish robust monitoring and evaluation frameworks to assess the impact of biofortification on nutritional status and health outcomes.

Conclusion

Biofortification is a promising, sustainable, and cost-effective approach to combat malnutrition, particularly in regions heavily reliant on staple crops. It has the potential to significantly improve the lives and health of millions of underprivileged people in India. However, it requires careful planning, extensive research, and robust implementation strategies. Challenges such as consumer acceptance, high initial costs, and potential toxic effects need to be addressed. Government initiatives and schemes play a crucial role in promoting biofortification. However, for its success, it is essential to ensure effective coordination among multiple stakeholders, including governments, NGOs, farmers, and the private sector.

Practice Question for Mains

Analyze the potential of biofortification as a strategy to combat malnutrition in India. Discuss the challenges and suggest measures to overcome them. (250 words)

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What is biofortification?
    • Biofortification is a process that increases the density of vitamins and minerals in a crop through plant breeding, genetic engineering, or agronomic practices when the plants are growing in the field.
  2. How does biofortification work?
    • Biofortification works by breeding crops to increase their nutritional value, either through conventional selective breeding or through the use of biotechnology.
  3. What are the benefits of biofortification?
    • Biofortification can help to improve health, is cost-effective, has a wide reach, is sustainable, enhances nutrient bioavailability, addresses hidden hunger, and can help to reduce mortality and morbidity rates.

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