The city-based agricultural research organisation MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) has reached a major milestone towards the development of iron and zinc biofortified rice, said a senior official.
"After systematic and elaborate screening of the landraces, we have identified nine varieties that have much higher composition of iron or zinc compared to conventional rice," Rajalakshmi Swaminathan, Principal Coordinator for Biotechnology, MSSRF, told IANS.
According to her, the next step is to cross these varieties with 4-5 local high yielding rice varieties. Post harvest, the rice will be checked for iron and zinc content and also other agronomic characteristics, she added.
Biofortification is a means of deliberately increasing the nutrient quality of crops during growth for enhancing the nutrition and health of the population it serves.
This is particularly important for micronutrient deficiencies (Vitamin A, iron and zinc), estimated to affect over half the population in the world and is significant in India with the largest number of stunted children in the world, Swaminathan said.
Biofortification addresses all three major dimensions of hunger -- calorific, protein and vitamin/mineral deficiencies, and can be done through natural selection, conventional breeding or biotechnology approaches.
Through biofortification, communities can continue with their usual diet but receive additional nutrients through consuming varieties that are much more nutritious. They are protected from preventable conditions like anaemia, stunting and infectious diseases.
"However, selecting, analysing and facilitating these breeding approaches are long drawn out and laborious processes that take several years to facilitate and make available for cultivation and consumption. In this context, the nine varieties of rice with higher iron and zinc content signals hope," Swaminathan said.
Under the research project funded by the central government's Department of Biotechnology, the team at MSSRF screened 160 rice varieties from Odisha, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh and zeroed in on nine varieties that have high iron and zinc content.
"For three rabi seasons since 2013 we have raised the nine varieties and found the iron and zinc content on the higher side. The crops were raised in the fields in Kalpakkam near here," Swaminathan said.
"The crops showed promising results in terms of their potential to serve as a significant tool against malnutrition. There is no genetic modification involved," Swaminathan added.
She said normal rice has iron concentration of about 6-8 ppm, some of the varieties screened have a high as 21 ppm iron concentration.
Similarly for zinc, normal rice has zinc concentration of about 14 ppm while some of the identified varieties have concentration as high as 35 ppm.
According to Swaminathan, the next phase will be in association with other public research institutes.
"By the end of the year we will proceed with the collaborative approach with the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU), Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu," she added.