KARACHI: Fearing an unprecedented increase in malnutrition and widespread ‘hidden hunger’ due to food shortages following devastating floods, growing zinc-enriched wheat can help Pakistan avert the nutrition crisis as it is the proven, affordable and sustainable way of improving zinc intake through a staple food, officials and experts have said.

More than 50 million people in the country are deficient in zinc. The National Nutrition Survey 2018 confirmed that more than one-fifth (22.1 percent) of women of reproductive age and 18.6 percent of children between six months and five years of age are zinc-deficient, with similar prevalence for boys and girls.

“Sufficient zinc intake is important for maintaining strong immune systems, and for the proper mental and physical development of children,” said Dr Khawaja Masuood Ahmed, the national coordinator for nutrition and NFA at the Ministry of National Health Services, Regulations and Coordination. Adequate zinc intake is critical for proper growth during childhood, adolescence, and pregnancy. Zinc deficiency is a leading cause of morbidity throughout the life cycle and a contributor to childhood stunting.

“But for many Pakistanis, foods rich in zinc such as meat, fish, vegetables, and dairy, are not always available or affordable. Zinc-enriched wheat is a proven, affordable, and sustainable way of improving zinc intake through a common staple food,” said Dr Javed Ahmed, chief scientist and director at the Wheat Research Institute in Faisalabad.

Zinc wheat is developed through the process of biofortification: the content of zinc is increased through conventional (non-transgenic) crop breeding. Biofortification was initiated by the CGIAR’s HarvestPlus programme about 20 years ago, and has become a key element in strategies to address malnutrition in low- and middle-income countries. Nearly 400 biofortified varieties of 11 staple crops have been released in 40 countries.

In Pakistan, HarvestPlus has collaborated closely with national partners to apply a time-tested scaling model for zinc wheat. Dr M. Yaqub Mujahid, country manager in Pakistan for HarvestPlus, said that 1.4 million small farming households (comprising 7 million people) were growing, consuming, and selling zinc wheat by the end of the 2021-22 cropping season, only six years since the first zinc wheat variety was introduced. (Three varieties are currently available: Zincol-2016, Akbar-2019, and Nawab-2021).

These farms produced more than 3.5 million metric tons of zinc wheat grain during the 2021/22 harvesting season, which is 13 percent of the total wheat grain produced in the country. In addition, more than 65,000 tons of zinc wheat seed was produced, which was 20 percent of the certified wheat seed market.

Dr Mujahid said the addition of farm-saved seed further increases this number. “I am growing zinc wheat for the last two years, because it gives me better per-hectare yield and has better zinc nutrition, which is good for the health of my family. It also has better resistance against [crop] diseases,” Rana Muhammad Khan, general secretary at the Farmers Association of Faisalabad, said.

According to Dr Mujahid, biofortification is being used to help address a malnutrition problem that costs Pakistan nearly $3 billion in GDP annually. Given that wheat flour accounts for 72 percent of Pakistanis’ daily caloric intake, he noted that zinc-biofortified wheat flour is a prime vehicle to tackle zinc deficiency.

Work on development of zinc wheat varieties for Pakistan began in 2004, through collaboration between HarvestPlus, CIMMYT, and Pakistan’s national agricultural research system. The first zinc wheat line was introduced for field testing in 2010, while Zincol-2016 was the first variety released in 2016.

Dr Mujahid said that during this first phase of scaling, government has taken a leadership role in promoting zinc wheat breeding and release. At this point, he said, “zinc wheat should be fully embedded in the food system. We estimate that zinc-biofortified seed can reach 50 percent market share by 2030, given sufficient donor support. Without it, the current growth of market share of zinc wheat could potentially become challenging to maintain”.

In order to further incentive farmers to grow zinc wheat, HarvestPlus has been working with food sector partners to produce items made with zinc wheat. The government is also promoting more activity in zinc wheat value chains, notably through its endorsement of a new global standard for zinc wheat grains.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2022

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