Biofortification: An Essential Investment in Climate-Proofing the Food Systems

Iron Pearl Millet
Iron Pearl Millet

All eyes are on Glasgow this week, where world leaders have gathered to solve the complex net-zero climate change equation at the 26th Conference of Parties (COP 26).  Urgency is apparent as the world realizes it may be too late to solve this imminent crisis if we fail to act now.

India’s aggressive commitments made news, particularly the net-zero emissions promise of eliminating all carbon dioxide production by 2070. Another hot topic, earlier this year, was India’s slip to 101st on the Global Hunger Index. These seemingly unrelated problems are well connected.

Food systems significantly contribute to GHG emissions and are most impacted by climate change. Climate change will create a hotter, drier world and impact crop productivity. As a developing country, India and its primarily agrarian economy face a higher risk, located in a warmer climate. Climate change will cause yield losses between 1 and 8% for wheat, a key diet staple in India. The irrigation limitation increases yields losses further, between 4% and 36%.

Climate change also affects micronutrient density and crop protein content, which further impacts nutritional insecurity in countries with large-scale hunger and malnutrition. Studies show elevated CO2 levels lead to 3-17% lower crop concentrations of protein, iron, and zinc. A 2018 Nature study published projected such climate-induced micronutrient and protein reductions in food crops would decrease dietary iron intake by 4% for children under 5 and women of childbearing age. A warming climate poses a direct nutritional threat to billions of people who rely largely on staple food crops.

India, while continuing to deliver on its ambitious emission reduction targets must also prepare its food systems for the worst-case scenario. Technology interventions can play a large role in offsetting yield and nutritional losses and are most important for key staples, which contribute to 65% of calorie intake. The focus must be on introducing nutrient-dense, climate-smart staples, in addition to targeting higher yield. Biofortification could be one of the solutions to climate-proof our systems.

What is Biofortification and how can it help?

Biofortification is the process by which a food crop’s nutritional quality is improved through agronomic practices, conventional plant breeding, or modern biotechnology.

Nearly all biofortified crops are developed through conventional breeding and include climate-smart traits like resilience to drought, heat, and soil salinity, among other abiotic factors. These crops are stress-tested under simulated climate conditions before commercial release.

Biofortified Iron Pearl Millet is an excellent example. It was developed by HarvestPlus, in partnership with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). This biofortified crop has high-temperature tolerance (42°C) and low water requirements (<400 mm annual rainfall) and provides 80% of a person’s average daily iron need. It matures more quickly than traditional varieties, has enormous potential to reduce iron deficiencies in West Africa and India, and it reduces the effects of climate change.

Biofortification Progress in India

The Government of India (GoI) is promoting biofortification, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent endorsement of regionally cultivated crops as a long-term, cost-effective solution to malnutrition.

Several biofortified crops like iron pearl millet, zinc wheat, zinc rice, zinc sorghum, and iron/zinc lentils are already available in India, aiding micronutrient shortages by increasing dietary iron and zinc levels.  As per a report by HarvestPlus, zinc wheat was grown by 442,000 Indian households and iron pearl millet was grown by 238,000 households in 2019. Additionally, zinc wheat was consumed by an estimated 2.2 million people and iron pearl millet was consumed by almost 1.2 million people in the same year.

There are numerous evidence-based studies and ongoing programs that demonstrate the effectiveness of the technology; however, scale-up is slow due to a lack of awareness by farmers and consumers, limited private sector participation, and a lack of a strong policy push.

The incorporation of biofortified crops for public distribution and school feeding programs could boost adoption by incentivizing farmers to grow these crops and provide a ready market for their produce. This initiative would also result in making nutritious crops available to vulnerable populations. Government and private partners could create a market for biofortified produce by purchasing directly from farmers and appropriately marketing these products to increase consumer awareness and acceptance. A robust, value-chain network of seed multiplication centers and sellers, farmers, and processors is imperative to ensure availability and last-mile delivery.

Way Forward

Combatting the climate crisis is not a choice but a compulsion to ensure India’s food and nutritional security. The focus must be on fast-tracking the research, dissemination, and commercialization of technologies to offset the impact of climate change on the yield and nutrition of staples.

Biofortification, being a well-tested technology, can effectively address hunger and climate change. A strong policy push and aggressive targets are needed to replace analogue staple varieties with nutrient-dense and climate-smart substitutes. India has a head start but must act fast. The clock is ticking.

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