A Telangana-based agriculture scientist, Mahalingam Govindaraj, has won the prestigious 2022 Norman E. Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application for developing a variety of pearl millet rich in iron and zinc. In 2014, Dhanashakti, the world’s first biofortified pearl millet or bajra variety, was made available for cultivation.
World Food Prize Foundation said in a statement that “Govindaraj is recognized for his outstanding leadership in mainstreaming biofortified crops, particularly pearl millet, in India and Africa.”
Govindaraj also directed the development and dissemination of high-yielding, high-iron, and high-zinc pearl millet varieties for over a decade, which contributed to better nutrition for thousands of farmers and their communities.
Govindaraj is a senior crop development scientist at Harvest Plus, which promotes the production and consumption of biofortified staples. Biofortification is a method of selective breeding used to increase crop productivity and micronutrient content.
The award was created in 2011 to honour Norman E. Borlaug, whose work as a young scientist in Mexico during the 1940s and 1950s was crucial in the fight to end global hunger and poverty.
The Rockefeller Foundation endows a $10,000 award each October in Iowa, US, to recognise the work of an individual scientist under the age of 40.
Self-sufficient country in food production
During the Green Revolution, which began in the mid-1960s, India adopted high-yield dwarf wheat varieties developed by Borlaug, allowing the country to become self-sufficient in food production. “It is an honour to receive an award named after Dr. Borlaug, who has been an inspiration to me and whose footsteps I have followed while disseminating new varieties to farmers,” Govindaraj told.
“[Since] the release of Dhanashakti in 2014, we have released approximately ten biofortified pearl millet varieties in India and West Africa.” Farmers are now being sold these seeds by the private sector.” He went on to say that, in addition to millets, biofortification technology- early work on which was led by Howarth Bouis in 2003- is being adopted for other staples such as rice, wheat, maize, cassava, and corn.
According to the World Food Prize Foundation, 200 g of Dhanashakti can provide women with more than 80% of their RDA of iron, compared to 20% in regular pearl millet varieties. By 2024, it is expected that more than 9 million Indians will consume biofortified millets, resulting in improved nutritional standards. Farmers in West Africa have also adopted new biofortified varieties since 2019.
According to Harvest Plus, the first biofortified food crop, a Vitamin A-enriched sweet potato, was released in 2004. Since then, hundreds of biofortified varieties of 12 different staple crops have been released or are in the testing phase in over 60 countries.
Biofortification is now used as one of several methods around the world to combat hidden hunger or micronutrient deficiency. Other strategies include encouraging dietary diversity, fortifying food after harvesting, and providing vitamin, iron, and folic acid supplements to specific populations such as pregnant women and lactating mothers.