PUNE, INDIA — In western India, farmers like Popat Pokharkar are among the first in the country to harvest crops that are fortified with key nutrients to combat what is being called the country's hidden hunger.
Pokharkar, a fourth-generation farmer, is just getting ready to harvest this year’s pearl millet crop. The grain — a staple in India and in parts of Africa — helps feed his family and livestock at a time when much of his home state of Maharashtra is experiencing a drought.
“In the summer season, it’s the best crop when there is limited water and it is more nutritious for the children,” he says, explaining that this particular pearl millet, unlike varieties grown by his forefathers, is enriched with iron.
As part of a program run by Washington-based non-governmental organization HarvestPlus, farmers in this village outside the city of Pune are spearheading biofortification efforts to address micronutrient deficiency in a country where one in three children is said to be malnourished.
“Villagers and tribal people are malnutritioned, so this is the only way — a cheap way with less cost — to increase their vitamins [and] irons, all these micronutrients that are needed for the health of the body," said Sunil Gandham of Nirmal Seeds, who partnered with HarvestPlus to provide iron-fortified seeds in what he calls the new direction of agriculture.
“Programs like this are crucial in a country where more than 60 percent of women are iron deficient or anemic, leading to problems in pregnancy, childbirth and in the growth and development of young children.”
Some 20 percent of maternal deaths in India are caused by anemia, a decrease in red blood cells that is often caused by iron and vitamin deficiency.
Parwath Pokharkar has seen the effects of anemia in her village.
“A lot of women experience heavy bleeding, tiredness, and you cannot sustain, you cannot do work,” she said.
She and others welcome efforts to fortify staple crops. In the case of pearl millet or bajra, the grain is made into a flat bread, or roti, which is eaten everyday by families in Maharashtra.
The biofortified millet can provide 30 percent of the mean daily iron requirement of women and children.
Farmer Dhanesh Pokharkar says the benefit will be widespread.
“This will help not only to my family but also the laborers who harvest the millet, they eat the same grain,” he said.
HarvestPlus has already introduced Vitamin A-enriched sweet potato and cassava seeds in Africa. Here in India, the organization plans to launch high-zinc rice and wheat in parts of the country later this year.