OPINION: How biofortification is emerging as a powerful ally in battle for children’s health

The health and prosperity of India's future generations stand at stake

food-vitamina-nutrients-food-vitamin-shut Representative image | PTI

In our relentless pursuit of a brighter, stronger world, there is no mission more profound than protecting the very heartbeats of our society – our children. In India today, we confront a formidable foe: malnutrition, silently stealing away the dreams of our youngest generation, as the latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS) data so painfully reveals.

Peering into these numbers, we find that 34.7% of children under five years old bear the weight of stunted growth, while 17.3% suffer from wasting. Anemia, like a relentless shadow, grips 58.6% of children aged 6-59 months, while 22.9% battle the darkness of Vitamin A deficiency. These statistics etch a stark portrait of a silent crisis, robbing countless young lives of their potential and vitality.

The health and prosperity of India's future generations stand at stake. It is in this crucible of need that biofortification emerges as a powerful and compassionate ally in the battle for our children's nutrition.

Early childhood nutrition is important

Early childhood nutrition is the foundation upon which a child's future is built. It shapes their physical and cognitive development, impacts their lifelong health, and sets the stage for a successful and thriving life.

Everyday diets, if rich in essential nutrients, can offer a lifeline for development, lighting the way to improved learning outcomes and a brighter future. However, despite the aspiration for dietary diversification, about 51% of urban and 65% of rural calorie intake in India still relies on staples, but their nutritional value has been declining. Research from various Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) institutes revealed a 20% drop in zinc and iron concentrations in rice and wheat over the last 50 years.

Restoring nutrition in these crops is crucial, and one sustainable solution is biofortification. Biofortification enhances staple crop nutrition by breeding varieties with higher vitamin and mineral levels. India's ICAR-led National Agricultural Research System (NARS) has developed and released 87 nutrient-rich crop cultivars, including wheat, rice, maize, and millets, using conventional breeding techniques. These non-genetically modified biofortified crops are now consumed by 7 million people, with high-zinc wheat and high-iron pearl millet being the most popular. They provide up to 50% of the Estimated Average Requirement (EAR) for zinc and 80% for iron.

Consider the astounding results from a study involving iron-deficient adolescents consuming biofortified Pearl Millet. After six months, they were 64% more likely to resolve their deficiency, experiencing notable improvements in perception, memory, and attention. Similarly, in New Delhi, over 3,000 preschool children consuming biofortified wheat spent fewer days ill and saw a significant reduction in fever among their mothers.

Advantages of Biofortification

The economic weight of malnutrition, with its toll on healthcare costs and diminished productivity, is crushing. Biofortification stands as a guardian, bolstering young immune systems, fortifying children against the relentless tide of infections and illnesses, especially in underserved regions.

They are crafted to be nutrient-packed, offering biofortified wheat and millet varieties teeming with elevated iron and zinc levels, tackling deficiencies that stunt growth and cause underweight conditions.

They combat micronutrient deficiencies with tailored precision, addressing anemia with iron-rich crops and promoting better vision and overall health with vitamin A-enhanced foods. Biofortified crops honour local dietary preferences and farming practices, making improved nutrition accessible to all.

Way forward: A golden opportunity

Schools, the nurturing grounds of knowledge and habits, hold a pivotal role. Integrating nutrition education into the curriculum and championing biofortified foods through schemes like the Midday Meal Scheme can instill crucial knowledge and ensure children receive the nutrients they need during their formative years. This knowledge, like ripples in a pond, extends to the community, sparking awareness and transformation.

The Midday Meal Scheme, serving 120 million children, stands as the world's largest of its kind. Schools can become the catalysts for positive change, arming children with the knowledge and access to nourishing foods, paving the way for a healthier, more vibrant generation.

As the Union Agriculture Minister, Narendra Singh Tomar, aptly emphasised, it's time to shift our focus from mere calories to a diverse, nourishing food basket, one that includes biofortified crops. These crops, enriched through local insights, have the potential to transform the Indian thali into a nutri-thali, brimming with life-enhancing nutrition.

To achieve this vision, India must forge a comprehensive plan, scaling up the development and consumption of biofortified crops, ensuring nutrition security for all. An integrated approach is the bedrock upon which a thriving biofortification ecosystem can flourish.

Investing in biofortified crops is investing in the heartbeats of our nation, our children. It is a pledge to ensure every child can thrive, unburdened by the shadows of malnutrition. The power of biofortification is the promise of a brighter, healthier, and more prosperous future for our most cherished resource: our children.

The author is an expert in agriculture and the Asia Regional Coordinator for Harvest Plus

Views expressed in the column belong to the author and not the organization

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