Micro-nutrient deficiency affects more than two billion people worldwide and often goes unnoticed even in the developed countries. Commonly known as “hidden hunger”, it causes low birth weight, anemia, learning disabilities, increased morbidity and mortality rates, and low work productivity. Deficiency of zinc, iron and vitamin A is particularly acute in South Asia where poverty is high and undernourishment rife among women and children, posing a serious developmental problem.
Micronutrient malnutrition can be addressed through food diversification and nutrient supplementation but these measures are beyond the reach of the poor. To address this challenge in South Asia, ICARDA has adopted a new approach under CGIAR’s HarvestPlus Program to biofortify a staple food consumed daily by the rural people – lentil. Lentil is typically eaten with rice in South Asia – a simple meal especially popular with the low-income people of Bangladesh, Nepal and eastern Indian states.
ICARDA’s scientists have been working with national programs in India, Bangladesh and Nepal to breed lentil crop varieties with higher iron and zinc concentration and developing the related production technologies to ensure greater and stable yields on farmers’ fields. More than 1700 accessions of lentil germplasm, breeding lines, cultivars already released, and wild relatives were analyzed for their micronutrient content. The iron content was found to vary hugely from 43 to 132 parts per million (ppm) and the zinc content from 22 to 96 ppm (read Science Matters). Select lentils with the highest levels of iron and zinc were made available to national programs in Bangladesh, India, and Nepal for release to the farmers.
In early 2015, ICARDA’s research partnership with the Pulses Research Centre of the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) led to release of a micronutrient-dense variety – Barimasur-8, which achieved iron and zinc contents as high as 72-75 ppm and 58-60 ppm respectively, compared to 55-62 ppm of iron and 32-41 ppm of zinc in local varieties. Prior to this, four Barimasur varieties were released. Receiving support by Bangladesh government, the micronutrient-rich varieties have reached about 820,000 farmers in the country.
In Nepal, new lentil varieties like ‘Shekhar’, ‘Khajurah-1’, ‘Khajurah-2’, ‘Sisir’ and ‘Shital’ with 81-98 ppm iron and >54 ppm zinc are rapidly replacing traditional varieties with 400,000 farmers adopting them thus far. Similarly, ‘Pusa Vaibhav’ variety of lentil, containing 102 ppm iron, is contributing to bridging iron-deficiency in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh states of India.
The project is now focusing on fast-tracking seed multiplication and dissemination to bring the benefits to more and more farmer families in the region. In 2015, 17 tonnes (t) of seeds were produced in Bangladesh, 9 t in India and 13 t in Nepal.
The high iron and zinc lentils have turned the staple rice-lentil dish in South Asia region into a powerhouse of essential nutrients – with both macro and micronutrients – effectively targeting the hidden hunger.
(See ICARDA’s South Asia and China Regional Program)
- The improved lentil varieties developed are offering multiple benefits:
- Increasing micronutrients intake with the same diet, e.g., 25% more of iron and 60% more of zinc with ‘Barimasur-8’ variety in Bangladesh
- Providing higher yield average of 1.3 t/ha compared to <1.0 t produced by local varieties
- Mature early (110-115 days) to fit well with the farmers’ existing cropping system
- The fortified lentils have reached 820,000 farmers in Bangladesh and 400,000 farmers in Nepal
- In Bangladesh, boosted by government program, the improved lentil varieties have spread to 85% of lentil growing area in the country.