Revolution in the fields

Nearly a third of all humanity is undernourished. Monkombu Swaminathan is fighting to change that. He cultivates nutrient-rich plants with the aim of not only feeding the Indian population, but also improving their health.

Flat bread, just flat bread, seven days a week – that is what most Indian peasant families have to eat. They knead the dough for their staple from millet flour and water every day. It is cheap and fills stomachs. But it is not a balanced diet. Essential vitamins, zinc, iron and iodine are lacking.

An unbalanced diet is a big problem in India. Half of the women there suffer from an iron deficiency, as do 50 to 70 percent of the children. Almost half of the children are physically underdeveloped or even crippled: for far too long they haven’t received sufficient nutrients; they are more susceptible to infections and learn slowly because their brains do not have the chance to develop properly. “These children are deprived of a future from the day they are born,” says Monkombu Swaminathan.

Swaminathan is an agricultural scientist in India and wants to give those children their future back. He wants to solve the hunger problem with the aid of nature alone, by researching new kinds of plants. He looks for plants that are particularly rich in nutrients, and that can not only fill the stomachs of the Indian population, but also make them healthy. His NGO, the “M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation” (MSSRF), conducts experiments with a wide range of different plants.

Its researchers are currently working on a form of rice with a very high zinc content. They evaluated thousands of rice varieties, until twelve particularly zinc-rich types were left over. They now want to hybridize these – without genetic engineering – with high-yield rice varieties, with the goal of creating a rice that grows quickly, ensures good harvests and provides enough nutrients for a balanced diet. It may well be the salvation for innumerable undernourished and malnourished people around the world.

A similar experiment has already been successful. Indian researchers have cultivated a grain type that contains large amounts of iron and zinc: “Dhanshakti” millet. Harvest Plus, the nutritional aid organization behind the project, now sells this grain to farmers in the west of India. 30,000 smallholder farmers are already planting this highly-nutritional Dhanshakti millet. This means that their harvest will now provide them not only with enough calories, but also with adequate nutrients. “The grain is delicious,” says one farmer in the province of Maharashtra. “Since we started eating this millet, the children have been sick less often.”

That is exactly what Swaminathan envisioned. Aged 88, he has occupied himself intensely with the under- and malnourishment of the Indian people for 60 years now. He has created new types of rice and wheat that are smaller, take up less space in the paddock and are therefore higher yield than the plant varieties known to-date. In 1987, Swaminathan was awarded the UNO World Food Prize. With the money that came with the award he founded his MSSRF Foundation.

He has helped ensure that the Indian populace has more crops to harvest, but the Indians still suffer from the effects of iron, zinc and vitamin deficiencies. So the next challenge for Swaminathan is: “We have to marry agriculture with nutrition. The two have been separated for far too long.” He and his scientists are working on this, so that one day the Indian people get the nutrients they need.

Picture: jzo CC BY-SA 2.0

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1 comment

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