Adding A Booster Dose To Nutrition

By Ravinder Grover January 17, 2024

Biofortification, which involves enriching staple crops with essential micronutrients such as iron, zinc, and vitamin A, is a promising strategy in the fight against malnutrition

Adding A Booster Dose To Nutrition
In the fight against malnutrition, biofortification is a promising strategy that often goes unnoticed.

Imagine a silent revolution that doesn't make headlines but has the potential to transform the lives of millions. This revolution isn't fought with guns and swords, but with seeds and soil. It's the revolution of biofortification, and it's quietly unfolding in India, thanks to the pioneering efforts of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). In a nation where malnutrition remains a persistent challenge, biofortification holds the key to a brighter and healthier future.

The Malnutrition Dilemma in India

India is a land of diverse cultures, languages, and traditions. It's also a land of contrasts, where the rich tapestry of Indian cuisine often conceals a stark reality: widespread malnutrition.

Despite remarkable economic growth, India still bears the burden of undernutrition. The National Family Health Survey 5 (NFHS-5), conducted in 2019–21, reveals that 35 percent of children under 5 are stunted and over 50 percent of women of reproductive age are suffering from anaemia. This pervasive malnutrition impairs physical and cognitive development and predisposes individuals to a range of health problems. 

Nexus between agriculture, climate and nutrition

With the prevalence of monoculture, Punjab witnessed a dramatic rise in paddy and wheat cultivation, soaring from 32 percent in 1960 to 85 percent in 2019. This surge has led to significantly reduced cultivation of pulses, maize, bajra, chana, masur, mustard, sunflower, groundnut, sugarcane, etc.

Even within paddy, the diversity has plummeted from 1,10,000 varieties to 6,000 in the past 50 years. This includes the loss of many climate-friendly and iron- and protein-rich paddy varieties.

Improper agricultural practices have further exacerbated the issue, causing soil health degradation. Approximately 35 percent of the country's soil is deficient in zinc, and 11 percent is deficient in iron, contributing to malnutrition.

Climate change compounds this challenge of micronutrient deficiencies. Research led by the Harvard Chan School found that elevated CO2 levels predicted for 2050 will result in 3–17 percent lower concentrations of protein, iron, and zinc in crops. Meaning, an additional 50 million people in India could become zinc deficient, while an additional 502 million women and children under five could face anaemia.

The Promise of Biofortification

In the fight against malnutrition, biofortification is a promising strategy that often goes unnoticed. But what is biofortification, and how does it work?

Biofortification is a process that involves enriching staple crops with essential micronutrients, such as iron, zinc, and vitamin A.

What makes biofortification particularly powerful is that it addresses the problem at its source—the crops themselves. Through selective breeding of traditional varieties of crops that naturally contain higher levels of these essential micronutrients, biofortification ensures that the very foods people rely on for sustenance become a source of better nutrition.

For instance, imagine rice that's not just a source of carbohydrates but also packed with iron and zinc, or sweet potatoes that provide not only energy but also a significant dose of vitamin A.

Biofortification also allows for the development of crop varieties that are adapted to each region's specific conditions, from the humid plains of Kerala to the arid deserts of Rajasthan, ensuring a reliable source of nutritious food.

ICAR's Pioneering Role

The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) is at the forefront of the biofortification movement in India. Established in 1929, ICAR is the apex body responsible for coordinating agricultural research and education across the country. Over the years, it has played a pivotal role in shaping India's agriculture sector, ensuring food and nutrition security for a growing population.

The organisation has been working tirelessly to develop and promote biofortified crop varieties that are well-suited to India's diverse agro-climatic conditions. It has already developed and released 132 varieties of biofortified crops, encompassing staples like wheat, rice, millets, pulses and horticulture crops like pomegranate, cauliflower, etc.

In 2018, ICAR took the first step towards alleviating malnutrition and established minimum levels of 42 ppm iron and 32 ppm zinc to be bred into all varieties of pearl millet. 

In 2020, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi publicly endorsed biofortified crops, and ICAR announced that 10 percent of its Frontline Demonstrations (FLDs) of experimental crop varieties would include zinc-biofortified wheat and rice varieties.

Challenges and Opportunities

While biofortification offers immense promise, it's not without its challenges. Ensuring that biofortified crops reach the people who need them most requires coordinated efforts across various sectors, including agriculture, health, and education. Awareness campaigns, capacity building, and partnerships with non-governmental organisations are essential components of a successful biofortification strategy.

Additionally, farmers need access to biofortified seeds and support for cultivation practices. Research and development must continue to create new biofortified varieties that are resilient and high-yielding.


ICAR's pioneering work in biofortification is a testament to India's commitment to addressing malnutrition and improving the lives of its citizens. Biofortification offers a practical, sustainable, and cost-effective solution to the complex challenge of hidden hunger.

As India strives to achieve its Sustainable Development Goals, including the goal of zero hunger, biofortification is a powerful tool that can help the nation move closer to that vision. It's a silent revolution that has the potential to change the face of nutrition in India, one biofortified crop at a time.

The work of ICAR, in collaboration with various stakeholders, demonstrates that when science, agriculture, and nutrition come together, they can truly bring about a silent revolution that feeds not just the body but the hopes and dreams of millions.

(Ravinder Grover, Regional Coordinator, Asia, HarvestPlus.)