Investing in advocacy for biofortified pearl millet which has the potential to address prevailing high levels of malnutrition across India and Africa, was identified as a key action point at a recent review and planning meeting. The other action points included institutional commitments on mainstreaming, strengthening germplasm screening facilities and fast-tracking introgression of high-nutrient genes into popular varieties. About 50 scientists from public, private and national systems together with HarvestPlus and ICRISAT participated. The group deliberated on trial results from locations across India, identified major concerns, reviewed new materials and finalized the 2019 trials and nurseries.
Despite pearl millet’s high nutritive value compared to other staple cereals like wheat and rice (see graph) it struggles for uptake in markets. Even biofortified varieties/hybrids face an uphill task in finding favor with seed companies and farmers outside the traditional growing areas. Hence, developing an advocacy strategy to raise awareness among decision-makers in private and public sector seed companies was identified as a key action point.
To drive home the point on the need for advocacy on a bigger scale and for promoting biofortified pearl millet along the value chain, Dr Wolfgang Pfeiffer, Director of Research and Development, HarvestPlus, in his presentation, posed these questions – Could high-iron pearl millet be the next superfood in India – the next ‘quinoa’ for the westernized markets? He said this was an opportune time to pursue it as current policies in India favor biofortified pearl millet and that there could be a move to initially subsidize seed of biofortified crops to accelerate scaling. He said that the Government of India’s midday meal scheme for school children and the food and grocery business that’s estimated at US$380 billion, provide opportunities for innovative solutions. He also mentioned the establishment of a new entity HarvestPlus Solutions, a social enterprise to drive the market, fill gaps in the value chain and generate revenue for biofortification programs.
Dr M Govindaraj, Senior Scientist (Pearl Millet breeding), ICRISAT, said that yield and nutrition should be the central goal of plant breeding. He said that biofortification carries no yield penalty and does not affect the protein content. He pointed out that in view of climate change and rising CO2 levels, there will be further significant nutrient loss in staple cereals and vegetable crops. However, pearl millet is one of the least affected. He also presented information on ICRISAT’s diversified materials with higher micronutrients and promising hybrids for various zones and the high-iron core germplasm collection identified in Africa and India.
National-level progress on pearl millet biofortification was detailed by National Agricultural Research System partners. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research’s encouragement for a focus on mainstreaming iron and zinc in pearl millet in the All India Coordinated Research Project on Pearl Millet (AICRP-PM) centers was also mentioned.
Mr Binu Cherian, Country Manager for India, HarvestPlus, in his presentation said that the HarvestPlus initiative for Scaling up Biofortified Pearl Millet Cultivars sustains on partnerships. He said that the objective of HarvestPlus is to create a sustainable demand for biofortified pearl millet. The initial focus of the program has been to create seed demand for biofortified cultivars and grain demand for household nutrition security, while plans to develop food partnership for value-added products and retail are in process. The Government’s inclusion of millets in the public food distribution system will help to trigger demand for biofortified millets and to meet the food and nutrition security. Updates on the impact of Dhanashakti (high-iron variety with 71 mg/kg) showed about 94,000 households were reached in 2018.
During the discussions, concerns were raised on the increasing Blast epidemics and the need for collective breeding and management efforts to control it – similar to what was done for Downy mildew incidence in the past. Participants were also keen on knowing the fodder value of biofortified crops. During the inaugural session, Dr Pooran Gaur, Research Program Director-Asia, ICRISAT, said that all of ICRISAT’s mandate crops should be biofortified through mainstream breeding.
Summing up the review meeting, Dr SK Gupta, Principal Scientist, Pearl Millet Breeding, ICRISAT, reiterated the key breeding action points and called for a joint draft for a mainstreaming strategy which can be shared on a common platform.
The HarvestPlus Pearl Millet Biofortification Review and Planning Meeting was held on 25 February at ICRISAT headquarters.
More on ICRISAT’s work on pearl millet Click here