Scientists at a leading global grains research institute expect to sharply ramp up new wheat varieties enriched with zinc that can boost the essential mineral for millions of poor people with deficient diets, International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center director-general Martin Kropff said.
The newly developed high-zinc wheat is expected to make up at least 80 percent of varieties distributed worldwide over the next 10 years, up from about 9 percent currently, Kropff said.
The Mexico-based institute’s research focuses on boosting yields and livelihoods of the world’s poorest farmers, while also addressing specific challenges posed by high temperatures, low rainfall and plant diseases.
The improved varieties of so-called biofortified wheat are being rolled out with the help of seed company partners in countries including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Mexico and Bolivia.
China this year might also begin adopting the fortified wheat varieties, Kropff said.
Over the next decade, he expects nearly all newly deployed wheat varieties to be nutritionally improved, he said, adding that the high-zinc varieties were developed by traditional breeding techniques instead of research based on genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
“This is something that is really starting in a big way this year,” said Kropff, who also pointed to zinc-enhanced corn introduced in Colombia over the past two years after being developed by the institute.
“I’m super proud of this,” he said, touting the seeds’ ability to dent malnutrition via one of the world’s grains staples.
The dramatic expansion of the new wheat varieties holds the promise of improving diets that lack essential minerals like zinc and iron, used to fight off viruses and move oxygen throughout the body.
Zinc deficiency, in particular, is one of the main causes of malnutrition globally and estimated to afflict more than 2 billion people.
Scientists from the institute, with a research budget last year of US$120 million, have developed about 70 percent of wheat varieties planted globally, as well as about half of the world’s corn, or maize, varieties.
The vast majority of its research is non-GMO.
The institute was founded by 1970 Nobel Peace Prize laurete Norman Borlaug and runs research projects in about 50 countries.
It has attracted funding from the US and British governments, among others, as well as billionaires such as Bill Gates and Carlos Slim.
Kropff also cited three recently-developed corn varieties that are resistant to fall armyworm, which have caused major damage to crops in Africa and Asia.
The varieties were bred in Kenya with the help of the institute’s maize seed bank in Mexico, the world’s largest.
“Like people, [the worms] like maize as well, but they eat the leaves and also the grains, and it’s really terrible,” Kropff said.
The new varieties are to be distributed over the next few months for performance trials in Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, South Africa, South Sudan, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe, institute officials said.
Kropff, a 64-year-old Dutch scientist, said that the fall armyworm-resistant corn varieties are the first of their kind and have already been picked for trials in east African nations ahead of similar trails expected in southern Africa later in the year.
He said the institute, which in a typical year develops and deploys about 35 improved wheat varieties globally, fills a space that the biggest profit-maximizing seed companies, such as Germany’s Bayer AG or US-based Corteva Inc, tend to avoid.
“We specifically breed varieties for those environments where the private sector cannot make much money,” he said, adding that the poorest farmers must also regularly adopt new varieties that can thrive in a world where pests and disease are constantly changing.
“The small-holder farmers rely on us,” he said.
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