Md Alamgir Hossain, Principal Scientific Officer at the plant breeding division of the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI), right, along with a number of other breeders and agriculture extension workers inspects a trial field of zinc-enriched rice in Habiganj. The rice variety is expected to get approval tomorrow. Photo: Courtesy of BRRI
Bangladesh is all set to release the world’s first zinc-enriched rice variety, capable of fighting diarrhoea and pneumonia-induced childhood deaths and stunting.
The hi-zinc rice will also be the most early-mature variety to be grown in Aman season in the country.
The National Seed Board (NSB), the authority to approve new crop varieties, is due to give its approval of the country’s first biologically fortified (biofortified) rice variety at a meeting tomorrow , Anwar Faruque, additional secretary and director general (seed) of the agriculture ministry, told The Daily Star yesterday.
Zinc, iron and vitamin-A are the three most vital micronutrients, deficiency of which hampers children’s natural growth and decrease their disease prevention capacity. In Bangladesh, over 40 percent children under five are stunted while an estimated 44 percent children of the same age group are at risk of zinc deficiency.
Dr Md Alamgir Hossain, the breeder behind the hi-zinc rice, said, “Once we get the NSB nod, the rice variety enriched with the vital micronutrient — zinc– will be available to farmers for growing it in the next Aman season (June-November 2014),”
Alamgir, a principal scientific officer at the plant breeding division of Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI), led the long and arduous process of zinc biofortification in rice since 2003.
Success came in his efforts when he and his team at the BRRI managed to identify some of the indigenous rice varieties with unique features of naturally having high zinc concentration. “Then we continued to crossbreed different varieties to get that agronomic trait of zinc and developed a high yielding rice variety that contains more zinc than all other varieties being grown in farmers’ fields.”
Rice varieties, being cultivated in different countries of the world, have a maximum average zinc content of 14 to 16 parts per million (ppm), while the one bred by the BRRI scientists has 20 to 22 ppm.
“Besides, we’ve just successfully completed field trial of another biofortified rice variety — fit for Boro season cultivation — which has 24 ppm zinc content. Soon we’re going to apply for approval of this Boro season zinc rice too,” said Alamgir, also a post-doctoral fellow of the Manila-bases International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).
The BRRI breeders identified the hi-zinc traits in indigenous varieties like Kaloshail, Jira Katari, Luxidigha etc, which are rarely seen in farmers’ fields these days for their comparative disadvantage of low-productivity. But Alamgir and his team manipulated that valuable trait to achieve the new high yielding variety rich with zinc.
Alamgir, however, regrets that they could not attain the cent percent target of achieving 24 ppm zinc in this Aman variety but claimed happily that “The zinc-enriched rice variety we developed outpaced two of the country’s best performing Aman season early-mature varieties — Bina dhan-7 and Brri dhan-33.”
Crop duration from seed to seed is 110-120 days for Bina dhan-7 and Brri dhan-33 while the maturity period of biofortified rice is 100 days. This early maturing feature of the variety means that lands would be released early enabling the farmers to cultivate potato, mustard etc before planting Boro.
Scientists say although fruits, vegetables and animal products are rich in micronutrients, these are often not available to the poor in Bangladesh as well as in many other Asian countries where the poor’s daily diet consists mostly of relatively much inexpensive low-zinc staple, rice.
The BRRI breeders developed the hi-zinc rice with support from HarvestPlus, which is a global biofortification mission launched back in 2004 under the Washington-based global agro-science coordinating body — Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). HarvestPlus is the first recipient of funding for biofortification research granted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The HarvestPlus programme, coordinated by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), provided assistance to both Bangladesh and India for pursuing the breeding work for developing zinc-enriched rice.
India lags behind as Bangladeshi breeders succeeded in making ready-for-release at least two hi-zinc rice varieties — one for Aman season and the other for Boro.
Once released in Bangladesh, the zinc-enriched rice variety would expand to Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam as per the mandate of the international collaboration, while India will continue efforts to develop a biofortified zinc variety of its own.
Nearly half a million children die each year in the world due to zinc deficiency. Over 17 percent of the global population is at risk of inadequate zinc intake while the regional estimated prevalence of inadequate zinc intake ranges from 7.5 percent in high-income regions to 30 percent in South Asia.
The role of zinc in human body includes helping normal growth and development, maintenance of body tissues, vision, sexual function, and the immune system. Zinc deficiency causes stunting while zinc supplementation can reduce the severity of morbidity from a number of common childhood diseases including diarrhoea and pneumonia.