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How wheat can help in fight against ‘hidden hunger’

Fortified with zinc, iron the staple cereal can tackle issue of food lacking in nutrients, which causes stunting, wasting among children across india

Sep 15, 2019, 10.31 AM IST
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India has made impressive gains in overcoming hunger, but the fight against “hidden hunger” remains a huge challenge. Nearly three out of five children below age 5 and more than half (54%) of all pregnant women in the country are anaemic. Close to two out of five kids in the same age group are stunted and more than one in every five is wasted, which means they are too thin for their height.

The WHO describes hidden hunger as a lack of vitamins and minerals that occurs when the quality of food people eat does not meet their nutrient requirements. It’s a silent epidemic that cuts across gender and age divides in much of India’s heartland and beyond. The problem calls for persistent action on several fronts, but here is the good news. Researchers now say a potent weapon in this fight could be the humble wheat, a staple consumed across classes in the region.

It’s a potential game changer that the Modi government, which launched the Kuposhan Mukt Bharat (Malnutrition-free India) campaign last year, has begun to take note of.

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Breakthroughs in breeding have produced new varieties of the cereal, called biofortified wheat, containing significantly higher amounts of zinc and moderately raised levels of iron — two micronutrients WHO identifies as the most lacking in diets globally.

Around 10 years ago, researchers at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre in Mexico — better known by its Spanish acronym, Cimmyt, an institute set up by green revolution pioneer Norman Borlaug — began work on developing wheat with higher zinc and iron, under an initiative called HarvestPlus.

“We scanned our seed bank looking for traditional wheat varieties (called landraces) from around the world that had high zinc content. Through breeding techniques such as backcrossing, we succeeded in transferring the high zinc trait to elite wheat varieties that are also high-yielding and disease resistant,” says Velu Govindan, the main breeder of the programme at Cimmyt.

Over the past few years, Govindan’s team in Mexico has released a number of varieties that have 20-30% higher zinc content than other wheat, along with elevated iron levels. The success of the programme has now led to a more ambitious plan to transfer the high zinc and iron traits into all elite wheat varieties developed by Cimmyt. The project is key because Cimmyt, through its partner agencies, is a major source of new wheat varieties around the world, particularly India.

HarvestPlus ranks India at No. 3 out of 128 countries suitable for investing in zinc wheat. That’s not just because the country has the highest hidden hunger numbers but also since it is whole wheat grain that is consumed in India, mostly as chapattis, making it ideally suited to gain from zinc wheat as a good proportion of the nutrients lie in the outer layer of the grain — the bran — which is discarded in many countries.

Trials have been encouraging. A study among 6,005 women and children (aged 4 to 6) in Delhi, published in Nutrition Journal last year, said kids fed high-zinc wheat spent 17% fewer days with pneumonia and 39% fewer days vomiting compared to peers who were given conventional wheat. Women who took high-zinc wheat spent 9% fewer days with fever.

Eleven varieties of zinc wheat, adapted from Cimmyt’s strains by centres such as Punjab Agriculture University, Banaras Hindu University and private players, have been released in India so far. “The varieties are doing well. These have biofortified elements, the yields are high and the plants are disease-resistant. For this rabi season, the government has planned 300 to 400 frontline demonstrations for farmers, particularly for zinc wheat varieties,” says GK Singh, director of the government-run ICAR-Indian Institute of Wheat and Barley Research, Karnal.

Singh says the Centre aims to include zinc wheat in the mid-meal programmes. But before that, a market segregation mechanism needs to be developed. “We have to segregate these varieties for their premium quality and for better prices to incentivise farmers. The government is trying to implement a plan at the mandi-level. Discussions have started on how to roll it out,” Singh added.
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