PHOTO-BLOG: High-iron pearl millet helps fight hidden hunger in rural India

ICRISAT - Tue, 9 Apr 2013 10:45 GMT
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Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

By Alina Paul-Bossuet, communications specialist, International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT)

India has some of the world’s worst malnutrition rates. A big part of this is “hidden hunger”, which is due to a lack of essential vitamins and minerals in the diet. This affects the survival and development of women and children in particular. About three quarters of children under three and half of women suffer from anemia, mostly caused by iron deficiency.

Pearl millet is a nutritious but under-utilised staple crop, eaten by 50 million people in dry rural areas of India. As well as being rich in B vitamins, calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium and zinc, it is well adapted to drought, poor soils and high temperatures. It is much higher in iron than wheat, rice or maize. In a global effort to improve nutrition for millions of children, donors such as the UK government and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, are funding research to develop drought-tolerant pearl millet varieties with even higher levels of iron. As part of this biofortification initiative, HarvestPlus and ICRISAT, members of the CGIAR agricultural research consortium, have partnered with Nirmal Seeds in India to develop and distribute a new variety called dhanshakti (meaning prosperity and strength).

Bred using traditional methods, dhanshakti not only yields more, but also contains more iron. In regions where people suffer from severe anaemia, such varieties can help reduce iron and zinc deficiency, says Kedar Rai, director of the HarvestPlus Indian research programme and principal scientist at ICRISAT. Since May 2012, over 25,000 farmers have bought and are growing dhanshakti seed. Dhyandev Gade is one farmer who harvested dhanshakti in November last year and will be sowing it again this year.

Gade says he harvested 100 kg more from his 1 acre plot than when he was growing non-biofortified pearl millet. He stored enough for his household to eat and sold the rest at the market, where he says it fetches a good price.

“We wanted to try this new millet as our children were often getting ill and we hope this will make them stronger,” Gade said. The family uses dhanshakti flour to make a traditional flatbread known as bhakri, which is prepared and eaten at home every day.

A feeding trial to test the impact of the high-iron pearl millet was conducted at a village school in Maharashtra, where around 40 percent of children were malnourished.

Children ate the higher-iron millet as bhakri for lunch, as well as vermicelli-style noodles for breakfast.

Researchers measured iron levels in the students and also tested their cognitive and physical abilities to see if they improved from eating the biofortified pearl millet. It is hoped that the results of the trial will be published in 2014.

Professor M.S. Swaminathan, World Food Prize winner and father of India’s green revolution, sees mainstreaming nutrition in agriculture as a very effective method of tackling hidden hunger. India’s budget for 2013-2014 outlines a plan to develop nutri-farms, where biofortified crops will be grown. They will be piloted in the 200 districts most affected by malnutrition. “We should also aim to train one woman and one man in every village in nutrition literacy to serve as Community Hunger Fighters,” Swaminathan adds.

Diversifying diets is also a key to improving nutrition. “Foods rich in micronutrients, such as spinach and lentils, can be grown in backyard gardens,” says Gordon Conway, professor of international development at Imperial College, London. Families can also rear chickens and goats, and keep fishponds to help prevent malnutrition.

U.N. experts recommend a food security floor to eliminate chronic childhood hunger. This is a holistic approach including nutrition, literacy, clean drinking water, sanitation and primary health care. Swaminathan is a strong backer, and argues that greater priority should be given to supporting the health and social workers who promote nutrition, health and hygiene in rural India.