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Only fortified crops offer sustainable food security, better nutrition in Pakistan: experts

Amid fears of considerable decline in the wheat production due to effects of climate change for the 2022-2023 season, biofortified crops, especially Zinc-enriched wheat, has the potential to help bring food security to Pakistan and overcome widespread and preventable zinc deficiency in the larger population, food and agriculture experts said on Saturday.

Pakistan faces serious challenges of food insecurity and malnutrition, especially among women and children. Nearly one in every five children under five years old and over 20 per cent of women are zinc deficient. Climatic changes, including extreme flooding, have further deteriorated the situation. Economists believe that malnutrition costs Pakistan $7.6 billion every year due to lost labour, healthcare expenses, and lower productivity of human capital.

Authorities in Pakistan anticipate considerable climate-related decline in wheat production for the 2022-2023 season, and yet food and agriculture experts are hopeful that production of zinc-enriched biofortified wheat will rapidly increase to approximately 5.4 million metric tonnes (MT) in the wheat cropping season of 2023, up from 3.5 MT in 2022.

The warming climate is a direct nutritional and economic threat to billions of smallholder farmers in Pakistan who rely on staple food crops for much of their diet and income.

“Pakistan is leading the way globally when it comes to scaling zinc wheat production,” said Jenny Walton, HarvestPlus Head of Commercialization and Scaling, following a recent visit to Pakistan during which she inaugurated zinc wheat flour production at a chakki mill in Faisalabad. “Zinc wheat has commercial benefit for all supply chain players and results in a nutritious product that consumers need and want,” she added.

The owner of a chakki mill in Faisalabad, Mahboob Ahmed, echoed this sentiment, “At my mill there is a no difference in the price of the whole grain wheat flour made from zinc-enriched varieties compared to conventional wheat varieties. My income has increased as more people are coming to my shop to buy zinc wheat flour.”

He added, “I am thankful to HarvestPlus for building my capacity to supply people of my area with zinc wheat flour, which is good for their health and supports their immunity against diseases.”

To date, three varieties of biofortified zinc wheat —Zincol 2016, Akbar 2019, and Nawab 2022 — have been developed by the national and provincial wheat programmes with the support of international scientific organisations. These varieties are available for production and consumption in Pakistan.

“It is encouraging that millions of farmers have cultivated these zinc-enriched varieties due to their ability to provide high yield, resistance against diseases, and better zinc nutrition,” said Muhammad Anjum Ali Buttar, director general of extension and adaptive research at the Agriculture Department, Government of Punjab. “There is need to keep the momentum going for the production of zinc wheat varieties so that micronutrient deficiencies of a sizeable population can be overcome,” he said.

“According to a recent World Bank report, rising temperatures may cause a 3-17 per cent depletion of protein and nutrient content of crops, especially of iron and zinc. Crops may lose 8-10 per cent of yield with rising temperatures,” said Munawar Hussain, an advisor to HarvestPlus in Pakistan.

Hussain maintained that through conventional breeding, the increase in micronutrients in crops from biofortification can help compensate for expected nutritional losses amid climate change.

A renowned agriculture scientist and member of Plant Sciences Division at Pakistan Agricultural Research Council, Dr Imtiaz Hussain, said that Pakistan has missed its wheat production target for the last three out of four years due to effects of climate change. He asserted that extraordinarily high 2022 temperatures in the months of March and April damaged the wheat crop at the time of grain formation, while in 2018-19 and 2019-20, the weather was cold and conducive for wheat rust, a disease which resulted in low-yields.

Wheat is consumed by 98 per cent of the population of Pakistan daily. Hussain suggests the country will have to adopt rust resistant and heat and drought tolerant varieties of wheat to meet the growing food demands of the country. Specifically, Hussain recommends the cultivation of biofortified zinc wheat to address zinc deficiency among the people of Pakistan.

“Research institutions in Pakistan have developed rust-resistant varieties of wheat that are also helpful in overcoming micronutrient deficiencies as they are zinc biofortified. There is a need to continue creating awareness among our wheat growers and farmers to switch to the biofortified zinc wheat varieties that better withstand the effects of climate change and provide better nutrition to our people,” said Hussain.

The Government of Pakistan’s Ministry of National Health Services, Regulations and Coordination believe adoption of zinc wheat is imperative to public health. “Providing added zinc to the population by growing indigenously developed zinc wheat varieties is an easy, cost-effective, and sustainable strategy to address zinc deficiency. Dietary zinc plays a crucial role improving immunity against diseases and contributes to the physical and mental growth of children,” said Dr Baseer Achakzai, director of health programmes and regulations.

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