With acute nutritional deficiency pushing toddlers to stunted growth and poor learning skills, Karnataka researchers have now found the nutritional benefit of pearl millet, a poor man’s crop, writes Kalyan Ray.
Researchers have found an iron-rich pearl millet variety – a naturally biofortified version of a coarse cereal consumed in Karnataka, Rajasthan and Maharashtra among other states – that can supply the requisite amount of iron and zinc to children who need these nutrients for their growth. Though not one of the world's most widely consumed grains, pearl millet is a staple food for millions in western India and Africa, where iron deficiency is widespread. In India, about 45-50 million people in Karnataka, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh rely upon pearl millet as a major dietary source.
Its tolerance to drought, heat and soil salinity and its high efficiency while using water makes it a climate-smart crop, which thrives in arid, hot environments in which other grains do not survive.
Scientists at International Crop Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), Hyderabad, created an extra iron-rich pearl millet variety (ICTP-8203Fe), which was cultivated in Maharashtra in 2012. Besides extra iron, the crop provides more zinc, is high yielding besides being disease and drought tolerant. While analysing the nutritional benefits of this pearl millet variety, researchers at Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College in Belgaum and University of Colorado, Denver, found that pearl millet (Sajje in Kannada) could be an important low-cost source of iron and zinc to children.
“The study shows that children get (from the new millet) iron and zinc required for their linear growth and for improving their head circumference which means improved cognitive ability,” Bhalchandra K Kodkany, a Belgaum-based doctor and lead author of the study told Deccan Herald. The findings were published recently in the Journal of Nutrition.
Lack of iron impairs mental development and increases fatigue. Severe anaemia, common in India, is often caused by iron deficiency. In the study, Indian children under the age of three years with an iron deficiency, who were given traditionally-prepared porridge (ksheera, upma) and roti made from iron-rich pearl millet flour, absorbed substantially more iron from it than from porridge made from ordinary pearl millet flour.
As an added bonus, it also contained more zinc, which was similarly absorbed in sufficient amounts. Lack of zinc in children can lead to stunting and impaired immune response against common infections. Forty-four iron-deficient children (21 male and 23 female), aged between 22 and 35 months, were recruited between February 2011 and January 2012 for the study. They were from the poor rural community of Kinaye, Belgaum. Besides their daily diet that includes buffalo milk, everyone was given close to 100 gm of pearl millet flour for a week. Their progress was followed up for 23 days to check how much iron and zinc was absorbed. The absorption of iron from test meals exceeded the physiological requirement of 0.54 mg per day for this age group. Similarly, zinc absorption too exceeded the estimated physiological requirement of 2.5 mg per day, which is “significantly and substantially” greater than that from identical meals prepared from the non-biofortified grain.
In places like Bijapur and Gulbarga, many mothers believe that pearl millet meals are difficult to digest and can cause an upset stomach in young children. They prefer giving it to children only in the winter. “But in our case, no child dropped out of the study because of indigestion. They digested it well,” said Kodkany.
“In the areas where pearl millet is the staple food, this study offers a serious, potentially important, strategy to battle malnutrition,” said Michael Hambidge, pediatrics professor emeritus at University of Colorado in Denver, who led the research team. The breeders at ICRISAT evaluated 18 varieties of pearl millet released in India so far by Indian Council of Agriculture Research's Central varietal committee to check if the crop's iron content varies among the varieties. Those with higher iron content were cross-bred with each other to get the desired variety.
“The crop we developed has 9 per cent more iron. The level of zinc too is high. It also increases the yield by 11 per cent. The crop was tested for two years in 42 locations before it was released to farmers in Maharashtra last year,” ICRISAT scientist Kedar Rai, who developed this variety, told Deccan Herald.
In April, the Maharashtra government released the seed for cultivation in 40,000 acres. As the crop takes 75-80 days to mature, this year's harvest can be seen only around October-November.
Encouraged by the crop's success, Mahatma Phule Krishi Vidyapeeth at Rahuri in Ahmednagar approached the ICAR for Central notification of the seed following which other agencies in the public sector could multiply and release the seed in other states, Rai said.