A GROWTH rate of 1.2 per cent was estimated in the agriculture sector of the country during 2010-11 with a significant increase in staple food crops like wheat, maize and sugarcane.
These crops are grown to feed the country’s ever increasing population with little awareness about the hidden malnutrition. No real effort has been made to enrich crops with nutritional value required for improving human health.
Most farmers are illiterate and do not have knowledge about modern farming. This is a real challenge for the extension workers, breeders and researchers to create awareness among them. Farmers need to be encouraged to replace modern varieties periodically, as these lose their resistance to new evolving strains of disease.
In this respect, the role of plant breeders is very important and challenging. Plant breeding technology has great impact as breeding of micronutrient dense staple food crops can deliver most of the micronutrients. Micronutrient dense staple food crops can be introduced by using best traditional practices and biotechnology to achieve pro-vitamin A, zinc and iron concentrations.
Plant breeders can work with nutritionists to introduce high nutrient traits into agronomically superior varieties and to determine the quantity of a nutrient required in a crop to improve human nutrition. The loss of nutrients also occurs during harvesting, storage, processing, or cooking and these losses must be considered before determining breeding target levels.
International research organisations like Future Harvest Centers of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research have been working in the country to evaluate the feasibility of using modern breeding techniques to develop micronutrient-enriched new varieties of staple crops.
Another international organisation Harvest Plus is working in collaboration with the scientists of Aga Khan University, Pakistan Agriculture Research Council (PARC) and University of Agriculture, Faisalabad, to develop zinc-fed wheat crop. The scientists in these research organisations are working on the breeding strategy to incorporate high zinc and iron traits into wheat varieties resistant to new strains of yellow and stem rust but their efforts would not bear fruit until farmers realise the importance of bio-fortification of crops.
The enrichment of food crops with nutrients can also be achieved by adaptation of suitable agronomic practices. A recent research has shown that trace minerals also help plants to resist disease and biotic stresses. The survival of more seedlings will ensure rapid initial growth which ultimately results in higher yields particularly in trace mineral ‘deficient’ soils in arid regions.
This suggests the dual benefit of enrichment of crops with nutrients.
The extension workers can play a pivotal role in introducing new technology among farming communities. The best agronomic practices would help preserve and enhance nutrient balance of micronutrient dense seeds. In fact, biofortification would help increase farm productivity in an environmentally-beneficial way.
It is time that agriculture and nutrition disciplines collaborate to improve human nutrition. A multidisciplinary research team of scientists from different disciplines should be made to work in this direction.
Plant breeders should be encouraged to include micronutrients in their breeding portfolios along with higher yield, disease resistance and other agronomic traits. Public health officials must understand the importance of micronutrients consumption in food and help end micronutrient malnutrition.
The biofortification of crops would get support among farmers, research scientists, health professionals, and policymakers, once it is proven a viable, cost-efficient and effective solution for combating micronutrient malnutrition.