Pearl millet has the potential to fight iron deficiency, the highest nutrient deficiency in the world especially prevalent among women and children across India and sub-Saharan Africa. Recent studies have shown that the bioavailability (absorption) of iron in pearl millet is high enough to provide more than 50% of the daily requirement for children or adult males. One meal of bio-fortified high-iron variety of pearl millet can meet approximately 50-100% of the daily allowance for iron helping combat iron deficiency for women, men and children1.

Three studies that covered different age groups in different countries – young women in Benin, teenagers in Maharashtra, India, and very young children in Karnataka, India – have shown that the bioavailability of pearl millet is estimated at 7.4% for regular pearl millet as well as bio-fortified high-iron pearl millet. As a result, when the iron in pearl millet is higher, more iron is absorbed.

The study released this week, based in Maharashtra, India, with children aged between 12 to 16 years has found that among children who were iron deficient at the beginning of the study, 40% of the children consuming regular pearl millet and 64% of the children consuming high-iron pearl millet were iron replete at the end of the study. The study was reported in the Journal of Nutrition and funded by HarvestPlus.

During the study, one group of children ate bhakri (flat unleavened bread) made of high-iron pearl millet for their midday and evening meals while the other group ate bhakri made of regular pearl millet. The children also consumed a savory snack made of pearl millet through the day.

One study in Benin (2013) with young women aged around 20 years and another study in India (2013) with very young children (aged around 2.5 years) – have found that bio-fortification of pearl millet is highly effective in combating iron deficiency in millet-consuming populations.

According to WHO2, anemia affects 1.62 billion people (24.8% of the population) globally. The highest prevalence is in preschool-age children (47.4%) and non-pregnant women (468.4 million). A staggering 2 billion people suffer from hidden hunger (lack of vitamins and micronutrients), according to the 2014 Global Hunger Index3.

Lack of bioavailability studies for other millets, such as calcium for finger millet, are a constraining factor to widespread promotion of these healthy alternatives.

All three studies used the ICRISAT-developed high-iron bio-fortified pearl millet variety ICTP 8203 Fe. This variety was released as Dhanshakti in Maharashtra, India, in 2013 and for all-India cultivation in 2014. Dhanshakti is the first iron bio-fortified crop cultivar to be officially released in India. It has been included in the Nutri-Farm Pilot Program launched by the Indian government. The multi-location yield trials were conducted in collaboration with national partners Mahatma Phule Krishi Vidyapeeth, Dhule and All India Coordinated Pearl Millet Improvement Project, Mandor.

Pearl millet is a hardy, drought-tolerant crop, often the only crop, that can grow in the arid degraded soils across the drylands of the world. It is a staple grain across many states of India and across large parts of sub-Saharan Africa. It is a significant source of iron and zinc and has been shown to account for 19-63% of the total iron and 16-56% of total zinc intake from all food sources in pearl millet growing states of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan in India4. It is also the cheapest source of these micronutrients as compared to other cereals and vegetables. Thus pearl millet biofortification opens up the possibility of a cost-effective strategy to beat malnutrition in women and children while simultaneously providing smallholder farmers a climate-ready crop to face the vagaries of climate change.

ICRISAT’s work in pearl millet biofortification is supported by HarvestPlus.

The pearl millet bio-fortification activity is part of the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health.

Adapted from ICRISAT Happenings