Crop Biofortification for Food and Nutritional Security

Prof. Akhil Verma
Human race has been in constant quest for attaining food right from the stage of food gathers to food producers since 12000 years ago during Neolithic age. Although man has achieved colossal heights in food production sphere and still been able to feed its ever growing population. Besides, enormous gains, humankind is still facing the challenge of hunger and malnutrition. Providing quality food in sufficient quantity for incessant global human population remains a challenge. It has been estimated that we need to produce more food in the next 35 years than we have ever produced in human history, owing to the projected increase in the world population. Besides, it is fairly anticipated that no new land for agriculture will be available due to increasing urbanization (the world will be 70% urbanized by 2050), sea levels are rising thereby reducing land availability, and the growing need of land for bio-energy, carbon capture and storage to remove greenhouse gases (GHGs) from the atmosphere. It means sustainable intensification (SI) of agriculture on the existing land is of paramount importance (i.e, produce more without expanding the agricultural area). Climate change will only make things worse, as elevated levels of CO2 reduce the nutritional content of grains, tubers and legumes, affecting key nutrients such as zinc and iron.
The latest assessment of FAO (Food & Agriculture Organization, 2022) on global food and nutritional security indicates that the world has been moving backwards in recent years consequent to the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Food security has deteriorated across most countries excluding HICs (High Income Countries). Low-income and Least Developed Countries are experiencing more food and nutrition insecurity, estimated at over 50 percent and 25 percent, respectively. Some countries in the Global South are facing a deficit in food production and import constraints (both economic and market). The COVID-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine conflict have aggravated the constraints on supply as well as demand in most countries. The cost of nutritious food has also risen during recent past. It is also the policy concern of the G20 nations for checking and reversing theses regressive trends. Many countries are facing the double burden of hunger and undernutrition alongside overweight and obesity, with one among three people across the globe are currently suffering from some form of malnutrition. Indeed, it is not unusual to find people with different forms of undernourishment living side-by-side in one country, in one community, or even in the same household. Worldwide, there are now more people who are overweight or obese than underweight, with the two combined accounting for more than half of the world population: a new normal. Recent studies have clearly indicated that even in High income countries, hidden hunger co-exist with overweight or obesity when people feed more on macronutrients such as fats and carbohydrates while intake of micronutrients like vitamins and minerals are low. An overweight child can actually suffer from hidden hunger (Hidden hunger is a condition which occurs due to the deficiency of micronutrients such as zinc, iron, vitamins and minerals, this can prevail even while consuming energy rich but nutrient poor diet). At the same time, around 795 million people face hunger on a daily basis and more than two billion people lack vital micronutrients (e.g. iron, zinc, vitamin A) affecting their health and life expectancy. Nearly a quarter of all children aged under five today are stunted, with diminished physical and mental abilities, and less than a third of all young infants in 60 countries (both low- and middle-income) meet the minimum dietary standards needed for growth.
Food and nutrition policies hitherto followed in developing countries are mostly on the supply-side (public distribution systems) with a specific focus on increasing access and consumption of nutritious food in poor households. Though these policies have helped to improve the food sufficiency of targeted groups in the short run, however their effectiveness and sustainability is limited because of the low nutrition density of foods and changing food habits. Besides, the nutrition density of foods in developing countries is low because of poor production practices, processes, storage and transport. India is also no exception to this international issue of hunger and malnutrition with same reasons and repercussions. Various studies and reports show that India too faces a huge challenge in the form of undernutrition. Anaemia and iron deficiency are the problems prevailing in the society especially among economically weaker sections and women. The Green Revolution and related movements in India were focused on eradicating hunger from the country. As a result of Green Revolution, the country has increased the production of food grains and is largely self-sufficient. There are various schemes and measures undertaken by the government to ensure that the population gets enough food intake in terms of the calorific value. Despite having ‘enough to eat’, many people are not getting enough nutrients in their food intake. This causes the problem of hidden hunger. However, the current focus is on increasing the nutrient content of the food intake.
Deficiencies of various micronutrients, including vitamin A, zinc, and iron are common in low and middle-income countries and affect billions of people. These can lead to, amongst other symptoms, a higher incidence of blindness, a weaker immune system and stunted growth. The poor, particularly the rural poor, tend to subsist on a diet of staple crops such as rice, wheat and maize, which are low in these micronutrients, and most cannot afford or efficiently cultivate enough fruits, vegetables or meat products that are necessary to obtain healthy levels of these nutrients. As such, increasing the micronutrient levels in staple crops can help prevent and reduce the micronutrient deficiencies. However, technologies to combat these issues of food and nutritional insecurity are in place. Bio-fortification is one of the highly effective new alternative technological approach to alleviate hunger and malnutrition.
Crop Biofortification or Biological fortification refers to the nutritional enrichment of the food, feed and fodder crops with the increased bioavailability of these enriched nutrients to the human and livestock population. In simple terms, Biofortification is the process by which the nutritional value of the crops is enhanced. This is done by using modern biotechnological techniques, conventional plant breeding methods and agronomic interventions. Crop biofortification differs from ordinary commercial food fortification because it focuses on the improvement in the nutritional value of crops during the plant growth stage, i.e., nutritional micronutrient content is filled in the crop being grown rather than having nutrients added to the harvested food stuffs and being processed. The most common examples of commercial biofortification are iron fortified infant cereals, fortification of wheat flour with folic acid, addition of methionine in poultry feed stuff etc. However, crop biofortification is important improvement over ordinary fortification when it comes to providing nutrients for the rural poor, who rarely have access to commercially fortified foods as they are the costly option.
Benefits of Biofortification- The Green Revolution and related movements in India were focused on eradicating hunger from the country. As a result of the Green Revolution, the country has increased the production of food grains and is largely self-sufficient. There are various schemes and measures undertaken by the government to ensure that the population gets enough food intake in terms of the calorific value. However, hidden hunger still prevails. Problem of hidden hunger or wet malnutrition can be solved by biofortifying food crops.
The Meeting of Agricultural Chief Scientists (MACS) of G20 nations on Sustainable Agriculture and Food System for Healthy People and Planet chaired by Director General (ICAR) & Secretary (DARE) for three days (17-19 April 2023) where in discussions were focused on Innovations and Technological Interventions for Agri-Food Systems Transformation. This meeting emphasized the need for biofortification in food crops for enhancing nutritional value.
Fortification of food with mineral micronutrients and micronutrient supplementation occupied the center stage during the two-year-long Corona Pandemic, highlighting the urgent need to focus on micronutrition. Focus has also been intensified on the biofortification (natural assimilation) of mineral micronutrients into food crops using various techniques like agronomic, genetic, or transgenic. Agronomic biofortification is a time-tested method and has been found useful in the fortification of several nutrients in crops, yet the nutrient use and uptake efficiency of crops has been found to vary due to different growing conditions like soil type, crop management, fertilizer type etc. Agronomic biofortification can be an important tool in achieving nutritional security and its importance has recently increased because of climate change related issues, and pandemics such as COVID-19. The introduction of high specialty fertilizers like nano-fertilizers, chelated fertilizers, and water-soluble fertilizers that have high nutrient uptake efficiency and better nutrient translocation to the consumable parts of a crop plant has further improved the effectiveness of agronomic biofortification. Several new agronomic biofortification techniques like nutripriming, foliar application, soilless activation, and mechanized application techniques have further increased the relevance of agronomic biofortification. These new technological advances, along with an increased realization of mineral micronutrient nutrition have reinforced the significance of agronomic biofortification for global food and nutritional security.
Crop Biofortification helps in achieving overall health improvement. Biofortified crops are more resilient to diseases, pests, droughts etc. and provide better crop yields. It offers a food-based, sustainable and low-dose alternative to iron, calcium and multivitamin supplements. It has the potential to reach the poorest section of the society (who cannot afford food supplements) besides it will be beneficial to farmers as it enhances crop productivity and also serves the purpose of value addition. It is highly cost-effective since once the initial research is done, the process can be easily replicated and scaled. In a country like India, that faces huge nutritional challenges, biofortification is a sustainable, cost-effective remedy that can help resolve the issue of food and nutritional security.
(The author is Professor of Agronomy at FVSc. & A. H, SKUAST, Jammu)