Food secretary calls for release and promotion of biofortified crops
In recent years, crop scientists in Bangladesh have developed a range of biofortified rice varieties rich with micronutrients such as zinc, iron and Vitamin-A, considered crucial for saving mothers from acute anemia and underaged children from stunting and wasting.
But regulatory tardiness is failing the science’ benefits to reach out to millions of malnourished people, who, can’t afford other high-value sources of nutrition (egg, meat, fish, fruits etc.), and are badly in need to access the life-saving crucial micronutrients from rice. Rice provides up to 70% of the total caloric and 58% of protein in average Bangladeshis’ daily diet.
Speakers at a virtual roundtable in Dhaka yesterday warned that cost of delay in releasing biofortified crops can be deadly as danger of more children getting stunted and wasted looms large due to emergence of huge numbers of new poor amid a protracted Covid-19 pandemic.
Scientists at Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) informed the roundtable that they have developed a Bangladeshi breed of Golden Rice, rich with Vitamin-A but it's been lying with biosafety regulators for the past three years.
Such delay in product release acting as a disincentive for BRRI scientists, who are also successfully working on developing rice varieties rich with both iron and zinc employing both conventional breeding and genetic engineering techniques.
Though they have successfully developed some eight varieties of hi-zinc rice through conventional breeding techniques over the past seven years, so far little move has been taken from the government’s part to make those zinc rice varieties available to the consumers.
The speakers said the government is spending money on importing six key micronutrients in chemical forms from abroad, turning those into micronutrient kernels in factories, mixing those up with rice and then distributing the industrially fortified rice to the poor and the vulnerable. Whereas, they say, if promoted and released in the right time homegrown biofortified rice could have been a much better and cheaper alternative for the nutrition-starved population.
Fortification is the practice of deliberately increasing the content of an essential micronutrient, i.e., vitamins and minerals in a food, so as to improve the nutritional quality of the food supply while biofortification is the process by which the nutritional quality of food crops is improved through agronomic practices, conventional plant breeding, or modern biotechnology.
The roundtable participants say while fortified rice can potentially lose nutrient values during the washing and cooking process of rice, the biofortified ones are far superior as they don’t lose the micronutrients in any stages of the food preparation process.
Taking part in the IRRI Healthier Rice Program-organized roundtable on – Rice and Nutrition – Secretary of the Ministry of Food, Dr. Mosammat Nazmanara Khanum, assured of taking steps so that biofortified zinc rice are included in the government’s all food distribution programs.
She also urged the regulators concerned to release all promising biofortified crops such as Golden Rice so that consumers get more nutritious food. She said a conservative mindset in biosafety regulation would rather hinder the progress of science.
Dr Md Abdul Kader, a BRRI scientist overseeing the biotech-derived nutrient rich rice varieties, also called for expediting the regulatory process as his institution had submitted application for Golden Rice for nearly three years now.
Presenting a paper at the roundtable, a nutrition expert of the International Rice Research Institute’s (IRRI), Syada Munia Hoque, showed how Bangladesh succeeded lowering its child (under-5 years of age) stunting percentage from 43 to 31 in between 2007 to 2018 and child wasting (low weight for height) from 17 to 8 during the same period.
Given the current status of micronutrient deficiencies among a high percentage of population, Munia feared if not intervened adequately the danger of falling back from the achieved gains in the nutrition sector is there due to pandemic-induced economic stress.
Presenting another paper, BRRI’s Head of Grain Quality and Nutrition Division, Dr. Muhammad Ali Siddique, showed the huge potential of biofortified rice (Golden Rice, High Zinc and High Iron Rice) in meeting up half of the daily requirements of key micronutrients for those, who can ill-afford fruits, fish, meat etc., in their food basket.
Vice-Chancellor of Bangladesh Agricultural University, Dr. Lutful Hassan, who chaired the event, urged the government to develop a ‘milling guideline’ for rice milling as many key nutrients get wasted in the process of milling and polishing rice.
Dr. Ibrahim Saiyed, Country Manager, BangladeshHealthier Rice Program, IRRI; Dr. Md. Khairul Bashar, Country Manager of Harvest Plus; Dr. Shaikh Mohammad Bakhtiar, Executive Chairman of Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council (BARC); Sheikh Muzibar Rahman, Director General Directorate of Food; Dr. Md. Shahjahan Kabir, Director General of BRRI; Dr. F. H. Ansarey, MD and CEO of ACI; Aminuzzaman Talukder Country Director of HKI Bangladesh, Dr. Rudaba Khondker, Country Director of Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), Saiqa Siraj, Country Director of Nutrition International, Rezaul Karim Head, Policies and Programs of the World Food Program (WFP); Rezaul Karim Siddique of BSafe Foundation, Dr. Md. Khalilur Rahman, Director General of Bangladesh National Nutrition Council (BNNC); and Dr. S M Mustafizur Rahman, a director of Institute of Public Health Nutrition (IPHN); participated, among others, at the roundtable.