Miracle Crop: India's Quest to End World Hunger
Over one third of humanity is undernourished. Now a group of scientists are experimenting with specially-bred crops, and hoping to launch a new Green Revolution -- but controversy is brewing.
It may not make his family wealthy, but Devran Mankar is still grateful for the pearl millet variety called Dhanshakti (meaning "prosperity and strength") he has recently begun growing in his small field in the state of Maharashtra, in western India. "Since eating this pearl millet, the children are rarely ill," raves Mankar, a slim man with a gray beard, worn clothing and gold-rimmed glasses.
Mankar and his family are participating in a large-scale nutrition experiment. He is one of about 30,000 small farmers growing the variety, which has unusually high levels of iron and zinc -- Indian researchers bred the plant to contain large amounts of these elements in a process they call "biofortification." The grain is very nutritional," says the Indian farmer, as his granddaughter Kavya jumps up and down in his lap. It's also delicious, he adds. "Even the cattle like the pearl millet."
Mankar's field on the outskirts of the village of Vadgaon Kashimbe is barely 100 meters (328 feet) wide and 40 meters long. The grain will be ripe in a month, and unless there is a hailstorm -- may Ganesha, the elephant god, prevent that from happening -- he will harvest about 350 kilograms of pearl millet, says the farmer. It's enough for half a year.
The goal of the project, initiated by the food aid organization Harvest Plus, is to prevent farmers like Mankar and their families from going hungry in the future. In fact, the Dhanshakti pearl millet is part of a new "Green Revolution" with which biologists and nutrition experts hope to liberate the world from hunger and malnutrition.
Today some 870 million people worldwide still lack enough food to eat, and almost a third of humanity suffers from an affliction known as hidden famine, a deficiency in vitamins and trace elements like zinc, iron and iodine. The consequences are especially dramatic for mothers and children: Women with iron deficiencies are more likely to die in childbirth, and they have a higher rate of premature births and menstruation problems. Malnourished children can go blind or suffer from growth disorders. Throughout their lives, they are more susceptible to infection and suffer from learning disorders, because their brains have not developed properly.
"These children are deprived of their future from birth," says Indian agronomist Monkombu Swaminathan, who has campaigned for the "fundamental human right" of satiety for more than 60 years. To solve the problem of hunger once and for all, Swaminathan and other nutrition experts are calling for a dramatic shift in our approach to agriculture. They argue that instead of industrial-scale, high-tech agriculture, farming should become closer to nature -- and involve intelligent plant breeding and a return to old varieties.
The world has enough to eat. The only problem is that the poor, whose diet consists primarily of grain, are eating the wrong food. Corn, wheat and rice - the grain varieties that dominate factory farming -- are bred primarily for yield and not for their nutritional content. They cannot adequately feed the poorest of the poor -- nutrients and trace elements are at least as important as calories.
Food safety is tied to variety, says Swaminathan, who calls for a sustainable "evergreen" revolution. He advocates the development of new, more nutritional grain varieties better adapted to climatic conditions. "We must re-marry agriculture and nutrition -- the two have been too far away from each other for a long time," says the scientist.
The First Revolution
Swaminathan, 88, is considered the father of India's 1960s Green Revolution. He created rice and wheat varieties that were smaller than normal but with substantial higher yields than existing varieties. He also worked with heterozygous plants, so-called hybrids, which are up to twice as productive as their parent generation. The walls of his office in the city of Chennai on the east coast of India are covered with tributes and certificates -- one reads: "India's Greatest Global Living Legend" -- and in 1987, he received the United Nations World Food Prize.
"The Green Revolution was a tremendous success," says Swaminathan. As an adolescent, he lived through the "Great Bengal Famine" that killed millions of Indians in the mid-1940s. "Back then we used to get less than one ton of wheat per hectare (2.5 acres)," says Swaminathan, adding that the yield per hectare has more than tripled since then.
But at what price? Although new high-performance varieties guaranteed high yields, they depleted the soil and consumed far too much water. More and more fertilizer and pesticides were needed. Many small farmers lost everything when they invested in seed grain and were unable to sell their harvest at a profit. Meanwhile, they neglected to grow traditional bread cereals.
"Formerly, the farmers were depending on 200 to 300 crops for food and health security," says Swaminathan, whereas today there are only " "but gradually we have come to the stage of four or five important crops, wheat, corn, rice and soy bean." "The Green Revolution," says the scientist, " did not eliminate hunger and malnutrition."
Springtime in Maharashtra
In India, where about 250 million people, or a fifth of the population, are undernourished, the problem is urgent. Some 50 to 70 percent of children under the age of five and half of all women suffer from an iron deficiency. Almost half of all children are physically underdeveloped or even crippled because they are chronically undernourished or malnourished.
The situation is especially precarious in Maharashtra. In the early morning, we travel out to the countryside with Bushana Karandikar, an economist from the city of Pune (formerly Poona). Karandikar manages the Dhanshakti Project for Harvest Plus. "Malnutrition is the sad part of the Indian growth story," she says during the trip. "It is very surprising, but India is almost in the same league as sub-Saharan African countries, which have much, much lower per capita income."
It is spring, and Maharashtra is green -- the land looks fertile, with its lush fields and fruit plantations lining the road. But as scientist Swaminathan puts it, this is part of "India's enigma": "green mountains and hungry millions."
In the town of Ghodegaon, the problems quickly become apparent. Men, children and, most of all, young women in colorful saris are waiting on an unpaved street outside the town's 15-bed clinic. They remove their shoes at the door to the building, where the walls are decorated with portraits of the gods adorned with garlands of flowers.
Dr. Rajneesh Potnis greets us on the second floor, where we are served sweets and aromatic coffee. Potnis has been working in this clinic for 25 years. His fellow medical students told him he was crazy when he went to Ghodegaon, but Potnis was determined to help people. Today he provides advice to nursing mothers, helps women give birth, and treats conditions like rickets, night blindness and anemia.
"The women are the worst off," says the doctor. "They work the hardest, and yet they eat what's left over." As a result, he explains, they frequently suffer from premature deliveries and stillbirths, infections and sudden attacks of faintness. The tribal people, ethnic minorities which live on the margins of society, are in the worst position. "They only come when they have no other choice."
Potnis hands out mineral and vitamin pills subsidized by the Indian government. He also advises families to eat a varied diet, but his efforts are often futile, he explains. "It's so easy to say to people: Eat more pulses, more vegetables and eggs -- but most of them can't afford any of that."
The Millet Solution
This is where biofortified pearl millet comes into play. Farmers in the region have always grown pearl millet. So why not simply replace the traditional variety with Dhanshakti? "Then people will get their minerals from the bread they eat every day, anyway," says Potnis.
Ramu Dahine's five-person family, in the nearby village of Vadgaon Kashimbe, is a case in point. Daughter-in-law Meena is baking bhakri, a traditional round, unleavened flatbread made from pearl-millet flour. Dressed in a red sari, she crouches on the floor in front of a small stone building with a corrugated metal roof. She combines pearl-millet flour and water, kneads the dough, places the flatbread into a pan and blows through a long tube onto the coals of a small wood fire until flames begin to flicker.
The Dahines eat the bread, and hardly anything else, twice a day. The seed dealer recommended the pearl millet, says the farmer. He doesn't even know that the grain has a high iron content, but he did notice that his family was healthier than usual by the end of the last rainy season. The variety also has another benefit: Because it isn't a hybrid, Dahine can use a portion of his harvest as seed for the next season.
"For the real poor, this pearl millet is a great hope," says Karandikar. Swiss scientists have shown that the consumption of Dhanshakti millet significantly increased iron levels in the blood of local women. And Indian researchers showed that a daily serving of only 100 grams of the pearl millet could completely satisfy the iron requirements of children.
- Part 1: India's Quest to End World Hunger
- Part 2: Can a New Revolution Take Root?
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