KARACHI: Around 13 million farming families are now consuming zinc-enriched wheat after Pakistani farmers ramped up the production of high yielding biofortified wheat seed in 2022, agricultural experts said on Saturday.

“Around 2.1 million farmers planted the zinc-enriched seed in Pakistan last year, which is feeding around 13 million people with the nutrient-enriched wheat to overcome food insecurity and hidden hunger.

A farmer harvests wheat crops in a field in Peshawar. — AFP/File
A farmer harvests wheat crops in a field in Peshawar. — AFP/File

These are conservative estimates and in addition, millions of people are consuming zinc-enriched wheat purchased from the market. More than 90,000 metric tonnes of certified zinc-enriched wheat seed was available for the 2023-24 planting season in Pakistan,” Yaqub Mujahid, HarvestPlus Country Manager said.

Biofortification has been declared as an easy, cost effective and sustainable strategy by agriculture sector experts to deal with micronutrient deficiency, commonly known as “hidden hunger”. In Pakistan, more than 22 percent of women of reproductive age are zinc deficient. Punjab province with 24.1 percent has the highest proportion of women with zinc deficiency. Similarly, around 18.6 percent of Pakistani children under the age of five have inadequate zinc intake, which is linked to stunting, impaired brain development and poor immune function in the body.

Wheat is the main staple crop in Pakistan, with average per capita annual consumption of 87 kilograms, one of the highest in the world.

“Maintaining the scale is driven by market demand and promotion of biofortified wheat seed to farmers, grain, and nutritious foods to consumers in the marketplace. This includes several innovative activities like farmer field days, product launch events, seed promotion, value chain actor’s seminars and use of digital technologies like social media platforms for demand creation,” he said.

The progress will further help in overcoming the malnutrition in rural and urban areas of Pakistan, Mujahid added.

In the 20 years journey, over 293 nutrient-enriched biofortified crop varieties have been released. More than 20 million farmers in over 30 countries are cultivating these climate smart varieties, enabling over 100 million farming household to eat nutritious foods. Scaling up of climate smart, nutrient enriched crops is a sustainable strategy to transform the food systems. In Pakistan alone, so far five biofortified zinc wheat varieties have been released, which include Zincol 2016, Akbar 2019, Nawab 2021, Tarnab Rehbar, and Tarnab Gandum 1. Several other varieties are in the pipeline or testing.

Dr. Khawaja Masuood Ahmed, National Coordinator Nutrition and National Fortification Alliance at Federal Ministry of National Health Services, Regulation, and Coordination believes that in a country where malnutrition costs Pakistan $7.6 billion a year, growing biofortified crops is the cost effective and feasible solution for nutritious and affordable diet for most of the population.

According to FAO, one-third of the population in the world, mostly in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, cannot afford a nourishing, diverse diet that provides enough vitamins and minerals (micronutrients). Its consequences are dire. A staggering two billion people get so little essential micronutrients from their diets that they suffer from “hidden hunger”, the often-invisible scourge of micronutrient malnutrition.

Biofortification is the process of increasing the density of micronutrients in widely consumed staple crops through methods including conventional plant breeding and agronomic practices. Biofortified varieties are not only nutritious, but are also high yielding, as well as biotic and abiotic stress tolerant, delivering socio-economic benefits in South Asia, Africa and other parts of the world.

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