Newsroom  Press releases  2002

2) Golden Millet, Naturally!, 6 July, 2002

An exciting finding has revealed that some of ICRISAT's pearl millet genotypes with yellow endosperm appear to have beta-carotene levels comparable to those of "Golden Rice".

Beta-carotene, also known as provitamin A, is a substance found in food that we must take into our bodies to make vitamin A. There are several such substances, called precursors, but the best is beta-carotene, because our bodies can make two molecules of vitamin A (retinol) from each molecule of beta-carotene.

"The "golden millet" is an exciting new alternative that deserves further development, keeping in mind that it would reduce but not eliminate the need for vegetables and other sources of pro-vitamin A," says Dr William D Dar, Director General of ICRISAT. Dr Dar adds, "golden millet is an important substitute to golden rice where rice production is not possible."

"To have a staple food with a natural high content of beta-carotene would be the easiest way to alleviate vitamin A deficiency, which is one of the most important nutritional problems in developing countries," stated Juergen Erhardt, a researcher from the University of Hohenheim, who helped analyze the beta-carotene content of some of ICRISAT's millet genotypes.

Vitamin A deficiency causes hundreds of thousands of cases of irreversible blindness every year, especially among children in developing countries. There have been many studies examining the possibility of using foods naturally rich in vitamin A or provitamin A to combat vitamin A deficiency in developing countries. The results of Dr Erhardt's analysis are quite close to what ICRISAT scientists had earlier found using different extraction methods. Although excited about the finding, Dr CT Hash, ICRISAT Millet Breeder, said, "Dr Erhardt and I feel that some more time is needed to optimize the extraction procedure and analyze the isomers to more accurately calculate the potential intake of retinolequivalents from pearl millet grain."

Dr Hash also added that millet grains containing a substantial amount of pro-vitamin A would be acceptable to farmers "if this higher nutritional value can be delivered in locally-adapted, pest- and disease-resistant cultivars that have reasonable yield potential."

Thus development of these breeding lines was relatively simple and low cost, but slow. Several additional years of research, at very modest levels of funding support, have brought us to the current position where ICRISAT's collaborators at the University of Hohenheim are just completing studies that will show the range of genetic variation that is available in cultivated pearl millet germplasm, and should serve as the basis for a follow-up research funding proposal.

"Golden millet is the ideal show-case to demonstrate what global research, development and extension teams can do by effectively linking conventional plant breeding, participatory research methods, and the tools of molecular biology to address a major health issue of the world's poorest people using naturally occurring crop genetic variation," Dr Dar adds.

Pearl millet is the most important staple food grain in the SAT where no other grain crop can as reliably contribute to household food security. People living there have yet to benefit from the "biotechnology revolution", or even the "green revolution" that dramatically increased food grain production on irrigated lands over a generation ago. Here is something we can do for those people--the question is whether there is the political will in the donor and research communities to make a reasonable attempt to do so.

by ICRISAT. All rights reserved.