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From the lab- Coming soon: a zinc-rich variety of wheat

Wheat is the staple diet in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The farmers here typically have very small landholdings and consume about 70 per cent of what they produce.


Updated: April 3, 2016 10:43:02 am
wheat harvesting pics A farmer feeds harvested wheat crop into a thresher as a woman collects de-husked wheat in a field at Kunwarpur village, Allahabad.

By V K Mishra, Ramesh Chand and Arun Kumar Joshi

One of the side-effects of the Green Revolution has been a change in the cropping pattern in many parts of the country. Farmers have shifted to crops with higher yields. In the Indo-Gangetic plains, for example, rice and wheat have replaced many other crops. This has reduced crop diversity, affected dietary patterns, and led to malnutrition due to poor supply of proteins, vitamins, iron and zinc.

Wheat is the staple diet in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The farmers here typically have very small landholdings and consume about 70 per cent of what they produce. One of the essential minerals missing from their diet has been found to be zinc. The deficiency of zinc leads to malfunctioning of several proteins and enzymes, and manifests itself in a variety of diseases, including diarrhoea, and skin and respiratory disorders.

One way of making up for this kind of deficiency is to provide fortification, that is add the missing nutrients to the food items. But this has several complexities, including increase in prices, problem of quality control, and possibility of adulteration.

We tested the genetic bio-fortification technology for enhancing the zinc content in wheat crops under the HarvestPlus Project of the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture, and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Bio-fortification is a seed-driven technology that enables crops to extract higher amount of zinc from the soil and store it in the edible parts.

Through cross-breeding, we produced several thousand wheat genotypes and screened them for high zinc content and high yield. In India, a new variety would not be acceptable if it doesn’t deliver a higher yield than the variety already under cultivation. We isolated several of these cross-bred varieties that had both high zinc and high yield, and put them through field trials. The existing varieties of wheat crop had 29 ppm of zinc and the varieties we selected had 40-45 ppm of zinc.

These field trials were conducted at 70 different locations. Two specific varieties of wheat were then distributed to about 5000 farmers for cultivation.

The next stage is national trials, to be conducted by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). The first thing that ICAR does is to put the recommended varieties to disease trial. The ICAR tests take about three years. One of the varieties, BHU-35, has recently cleared the disease-testing stage and is ready to be released in Uttar Pradesh for cultivation, after a few more regulatory clearances.

Seven other varieties are currently undergoing disease testing, and in the next few years, many other zinc-rich wheat crops would be ready for cultivation.

 

For your research to be considered for this column, write to Senior Editor Amitabh Sinha at amitabh.sinha@expressindia.com

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