A woman winnows high-iron Dhanashakti pearl millet in Andhra Pradesh, India.
Photo: © Alina Paul-Bossuet (ICRISAT)

Iron-rich pearl millet to counter iron deficiency?

Its iron-rich pearl millet ICTP-8203Fe reverses iron deficiency in children, reports HarvestPlus. Tens of thousands of farmers cultivate this pearl millet. Critics fear that excessive dependency on a single foodstuff could lead to new problems.

A new study has found that pearl millet bred to be richer in iron was able to reverse iron deficiency in school-aged Indian children in six months, reported HarvestPlus in May 2015. In just four months, iron levels improved significantly.

Previously, the same iron-rich pearl millet had been shown to provide iron-deficient Indian children under the age of three with enough iron to meet their daily needs, and adult women in Benin with more than 70 percent of their daily needs.

Pearl millet is eaten daily by more than 50 million people in the semi-arid regions of India and by millions of people in Sahelian Africa. The iron-rich pearl millet variety used in this study was developed in partnership with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in India.

In the study just published, school children aged 12 to 16 years, many of whom were iron deficient, ate iron-rich pearl millet in the form of bhakhri (a flat, unleavened bread) at midday and evening meals. Eating iron-rich pearl millet significantly improved their iron status in four months compared with ordinary pearl millet. Those children who were iron deficient at the start and ate iron-rich pearl millet bhakhri were 1.6 times more likely to have resolved their iron deficiency compared with those who ate bhakhri made from the ordinary pearl millet.

These results are consistent with a previous efficacy trial also funded by HarvestPlus in the Philippines in which iron levels improved for women who ate iron-rich rice.

Dhanashakti is planted by tens of thousands of farmers

The iron-rich pearl millet variety used in this study, ICTP-8203Fe, is commonly known as Dhanashakti, which means prosperity and strength, and was commercialised in 2012 in Maharashtra, India, by the HarvestPlus partner Nirmal Seeds. Tens of thousands of farmers have planted the new iron-rich variety that also provides more zinc, is high yielding, and disease and drought tolerant.

Biofortification can contribute to lowering the supply of micronutrients. But critics warn against the dependence trap that could threaten small farmers. They are suddenly reliant on seed from outside, and on prices they have no influence over. Another criticism put forward is that the goal should be to feed the population with diversified foodstuffs from their own region. There is concern that biofortification of individual food crops will lead to this goal being watered down.


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