Depletion of Nutrition in Rice and Wheat

News: A recent study notes the depleting trends of essential nutrients in rice and wheat cultivated in India.

Details:

  • The study notes that the currently produced rice and wheat grains as not having the same density of essential nutrients as those cultivated 50 years ago. There has been a depleting trend in grain density of zinc and iron in rice and wheat cultivated in India over the years.
  • ‘Dilution effect’ is caused by decreased nutrient concentration in response to higher grain yield. This is due to the fact that the rate of yield increase is not compensated by the rate of nutrient take-up by the plants.
  • The increasing use of monoculture cropping patterns and intensive agricultural practices could have resulted in a scenario where the soils supporting plants could be low in plant-available nutrients.

Concerns:

  • The lack of essential micronutrients like Zinc and iron in Rice and Wheat could adversely affect the nutritional security of billions of people globally. Rice and wheat constitute the staple food for over half of the global population.
  • Counties like India which continue to battle micronutrient deficiency have diets composed mainly of rice, wheat, corn, and barley. The growing of newer cultivars of rice and wheat cannot be a sustainable option to alleviate zinc and iron malnutrition in Indian population.

Solutions:

  • Apart from the initiatives such as providing micro nutrient supplementation pills to school children, there is also the need to concentrate options like biofortification.
  • Fortification is the practice of deliberately increasing the content of an essential micronutrient, i.e. vitamins and minerals (including trace elements) in a food, so as to improve the nutritional quality of the food supply and provide a public health benefit with minimal risk to health.
  • Biofortification is the process by which the nutritional quality of food crops is improved through agronomic practices, conventional plant breeding, or modern biotechnology. It involves the breeding of food crops that are rich in micronutrients.
  • Biofortification differs from conventional fortification in that biofortification aims to increase nutrient levels in crops during plant growth rather than through manual means during processing of the crops.
  • Examples of biofortification projects include
  • iron-biofortification of rice, beans, sweet potato, cassava and legumes;
  • zinc-biofortification of wheat, rice, beans, sweet potato and maize;
  • provitamin A carotenoid-biofortification of sweet potato, maize and cassava; and
  • amino acid and protein-biofortification of sourghum and cassava.
  • The future breeding programmes of new cultivars should focus on improving the grain ionome (nutritional make-up) as a remedy to the observed trend of depleting micronutrient levels.
  • Given the ill effects of mono culture practices and intensive agricultural practices backed by intensive fertilizer usage, there is the need for moving towards more sustainable agricultural practices like organic farming, multi cropping and permanent agriculture which accord the necessary attention towards the overall health of the soil.