The effects of malnutrition are numerous: lowered IQ, stunting and blindness in children, lower resistance to disease, and increased risks for both mothers and infants during childbirth. Billions are affected each year.
Much of ICARDA’s work is about improving nutrition – a strong and sustained supply of nutritious and affordable food is, after all, the key to food and nutritional security for billions living in the developing world.
In addition, ICARDA is developing and promoting legume varieties with a high content of iron and zinc. Much of this work is in South Asia - home to about half of the world’s under-nourished people – where the improved varieties are being released to farmers in Bangladesh, India, and Nepal.
In Bangladesh, for instance, the government has launched a massive program to disseminate three ‘Barimasur’ lentil varieties with around 86 parts per million (ppm) and 59 – 63 ppm zinc. Production of these varieties has now spread to over 72,000 hectares, yielding around 93,000 tons per year.
In Nepal, farmers in the Terai are changing to varieties with 94 to 98 ppm iron and 58 to 64 ppm zinc.
In the north-east plains and central regions of India, farmers are growing ‘Pusa Valibhav,’ a variety containing 102 ppm zinc. Overall, the project reached an estimated total of 680 farmers with micronutrient-rich lentils, improving nutrition for more than 5500 people.
Low-Toxin, High-Yielding Grass Pea
When all other crops fail, grass pea often saves farming communities from starvation. However, when consumed in significant amounts, as during a famine, grass pea can transfer toxic amounts of neurotoxins, causing permanent paralysis in adults and brain damage in children.
ICARDA and Indian plant breeders developed new strains of grass pea that are tolerant to drought and water-logging but safe to eat. The impacts: low-toxin grass pea varieties distributed to almost 2000 farmers; yields up by an average 85 percent; over 3500 farmers trained in production technologies; and awareness campaigns have taught local women how to de-toxify grass pea before cooking.
Despite this potential, progress could also be severely constrained by low yields and poor cultivation practices prevalent on smallholder farms, which produce most crops. For this reason, ICARDA introduces its improved varieties alongside a package of interventions – including integrated pest management, supplemental irrigation, and conservation agriculture.