UPSC Prelims 2021 Important topics: What is Biofortification?

Most Important UPSC IAS topics for UPSC Exam 2021 (Most Important UPSC IAS Topics UPSC CSE Prelims & Mains Exam 2021): UPSC Prelims 2021 Important topics: What is Biofortification?

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UPSC Prelims 2021 Important topics: What is Biofortification?: PM to dedicate to the Nation 17 recently developed biofortified varieties of 8 crops.


These varieties, along with other food ingredients, will transform the normal Indian thali into nutri-thali.

  • These crops will have up to 3.0-fold increase in nutritional value.


What is biofortification?

It is the process of increasing nutritional value of food crops by increasing the density of vitamins and minerals in a crop through either conventional plant breeding; agronomic practices or biotechnology.

  • Examples of these vitamins and minerals that can be increased through biofortification include provitamin A Carotenoids, zinc and iron.
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How are crops fortified?

  1. Conventional crop breeding techniques are used to identify varieties with particularly high concentration of desired nutrients.
  2. These are cross-bred with varieties with other desirable traits from the target areas (such a virus resistance, drought tolerance, high yielding, taste) to develop biofortified varieties that have high levels of micronutrients (for example, vitamin A, iron or zinc), in addition to other traits desired by farmers and consumers.

What is Agronomic biofortification?

It entails application of minerals such as zinc or iron as foliar or soil applications, drawing on plant management, soil factors, and plant characteristics to get enhanced content of key micronutrients into the edible portion of the plant.

UPSC Prelims 2021 Important topics: What is Biofortification?

How does Biofortification differ from food fortification?

  • Bio fortification has the increased nutritional micronutrient content embedded in the crop being grown.
  • Food fortification increases the nutritional value of foods by adding trace amounts of micronutrients to foods during processing.

Biofortification of staple crops

Fortification is the practice of deliberately increasing the content of an essential micronutrient, i.e. vitamins and minerals (including trace elements) in a food, so as to improve the nutritional quality of the food supply and provide a public health benefit with minimal risk to health.

Biofortification is the process by which the nutritional quality of food crops is improved through agronomic practices, conventional plant breeding, or modern biotechnology. Biofortification differs from conventional fortification in that biofortification aims to increase nutrient levels in crops during plant growth rather than through manual means during processing of the crops. Biofortification may therefore present a way to reach populations where supplementation and conventional fortification activities may be difficult to implement and/or limited.

Examples of biofortification projects include:

  • iron-biofortification of rice, beans, sweet potato, cassava and legumes;
  • zinc-biofortification of wheat, rice, beans, sweet potato and maize;
  • provitamin A carotenoid-biofortification of sweet potato, maize and cassava; and
  • amino acid and protein-biofortification of sourghum and cassava.


UPSC Prelims 2021 Important topics: What is Biofortification?

Biotechnology and Biofortification

A major challenge of our time is that one sixth of the world’s population suffers from hunger, a situation which is totally unacceptable. In addition, many more people, over half of the global population, are afflicted by a different form of food deficiency (FAO, 2004). This “hidden hunger” is due to the quality, rather than the quantity, of the food available, and it is closely related to the fact that in many poor developing countries people rely only or mostly on low-protein staple crops for food.

Nutrient deficiencies pertain mainly to proteins and micronutrients like vitamin A, iron, zinc, selenium and iodine. Conventional strategies to combat nutrient deficiencies include dietary supplements and food fortification programs. These programs, however, present several problems: the target populations are often not reached (especially in poor rural populations in developing countries); they are often not sustainable over time; and they address mostly the symptoms rather than the underlying cause of the problem.

An adequate and diverse diet, comprising fruits, vegetables and animal products, is the best solution for good nutrition both in terms of energy requirement and micronutrients needs. However, this remains out of reach for a large proportion of the world’s population. Introducing biofortified staple crops with increased nutritious content can therefore have a very big impact, as the strategy relies on improving an already existing food supply.

Biofortification capitalizes on the consistent daily intake of food staples, thus indirectly targeting low-income households who cannot afford a more diverse diet. After the initial investment of developing fortified crops, no extra costs are met, making this strategy very sustainable. Furthermore, the improved varieties can be shared internationally. Biofortified seeds are also likely to have an indirect impact in agriculture, as a higher trace mineral content in seeds confers better protection against pests, diseases, and environmental stresses, thereby increasing yield (Welch and Graham, 2004). Biofortification is not a panacea in itself but a very important complement to dietary variety and to supplementation.

Biofortified crops can be developed by traditional breeding methods, provided there is sufficient genetic variation in crop populations for the desired trait (such as high protein content). In staple grains such as rice, improvement of some complex traits such as vitamin A is not possible using conventional breeding strategies, as there are no natural rice varieties rich in this vitamin. All plants produce pro-vitamin A, but only in the green organs of the plant and not in the starch-storing part of the seed. Conventional breeding is also very difficult in vegetatively propagated varieties (such as cassava and potatoes), due to the scarcity of genetically well-defined breeding lines. In addition, conventional breeding can change important traits of the crops desired by consumers, such as taste. Agricultural biotechnology methods, and in specific genetic engineering (GM), represent therefore a very valuable, complementary strategy for the development of more nutritious crops.

Crops for Biofortification

A significant portion of the developing world’s population relies largely on one or more of the staple crops for their nutrition, and these are the subject of biofortification projects, both by conventional breeding and by modern biotechnology methods. Rice, the world’s most important cereal crop for human consumption, is the food staple of more than 3 billion people, many of them very poor. Maize constitutes a staple human diet in at least 22 countries, mostly in Africa and Latin America. Wheat is a very important human food grain and the staple food for 35% of the world’s population. Potato is the most important non-cereal food crop, and ranks fourth in terms of total global food production. Cassava feeds about 800 million of the world’s most deprived populations, mostly in Africa.

Biofortification for Increased Protein Content

Human cells can produce only 10 out of the 20 amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, and so the missing essential amino acids must be supplied in the food. As the body cannot store excess amino acids, their intake must be daily. In many poor developing countries, the daily intake of essential amino acids is often not sufficient due to the scarcity of high-protein sources such as meat, fish, or soybean. Rice, cassava and potato are important sources of carbohydrates, but they are low in protein content.

Suitable protein candidates for biofortification include the storage protein Sporamin A from sweet potato, the seed albumin AmA1 protein from Prince’s Feather (Amaranthus hypochondriacus), and ASP1, an artificial storage protein rich in essential amino acids. ASP1 has been introduced and expressed successfully in rice and cassava, and efforts are under way to optimize expression and increase the level of protein accumulation in transgenic plants. UPSC Prelims 2021 Important topics: What is Biofortification?

Combating Vitamin A Deficiency

Vitamin A deficiency, particularly prevalent among children in Africa and Southeast Asia, causes irreversible blindness, and increased susceptibility to disease and mortality. Rice plants produce β-carotene (provitamin A) in green tissues, but not in the seeds. A public-private partnership to produce rice varieties rich in provitamin A culminated in the development of Golden Rice, in which two genes were introduced by genetic engineering.

These encode the enzymes phytoene synthase (PSY) and phytoene desaturase (CRTI). Golden Rice 1 contains the PSY gene from daffodil and the CRTI gene from the bacterium Erwinia uredovora, both expressed only in the rice seed (Ye et al., 2000). Replacing PSY with genes from maize and rice increased the level of β-carotene by 23 times in Golden Rice 2 (Paine et al., 2005). Half the daily recommended allowance of vitamin A for a 1-3 year old child would therefore be provided for in 72g of Golden Rice 2. Golden Rice is in advanced testing stages, and is expected to be released in a few years. UPSC Prelims 2021 Important topics: What is Biofortification?

In addition to rice, other crops engineered for higher β-carotene content include potato, canola, tomato, carrot, and cauliflower (Sautter et al., 2006; Diretto et al., 2007).

Iron-rich Crops Against Anemia

Iron deficiency anemia affects more than 2 billion people in virtually all countries, which makes iron deficiency by far the most common micronutrient deficiency worldwide. Iron is found in vegetables, grains, and red meat. However, the bioavailability of iron in plants is low, and in rice, the problem is aggravated by the presence of phytate, a potent inhibitor of iron resorption, and by the lack of iron resorption-enhancing factors.

Therefore, scientists had to increase the iron content in grains, reduce the level of phytate, and add resorption-enhancing factors (Sautter et al., 2007). Expression of the iron storage protein ferritin from French bean and soybean in the endosperm of rice results in a 3-fold increase of iron in seeds. In order to decrease the level of phytate, an enzyme that degrades it (known as phytase) has also been transformed into rice, and efforts are currently under way to optimize the construct. Finally, over-expression of a cysteine-rich protein that transports metals in rice can improve the rate of iron resorption during digestion.

Increased Folic Acid in Tomato

Folic acid deficiency is a global health problem that affects mainly, though not exclusively, women over the age of 30, and it is the main cause of anemia in at least 10 million pregnant women in developing countries.

In food, most of the folic acid occurs as folate. In order to engineer tomatoes with higher level of folate, scientists have over-expressed in the fruit the genes encoding the enzymes catalyzing the synthesis of two folate precursors (Díaz de la Garza et al., 2007). In plants were both traits were combined by crossing, vine-ripened transgenic fruit accumulated up to 25 times more folate than controls.

Challenges for the Adoption of Biotech Biofortified Crops

A major problem of developing fortified crops is the cost of research and of regulatory compliance, due to due to the extreme precautionary regulation of biotech crops. In the case of biofortified crops, where profit margins for private technology developers are slim, the scarcity of public funds exacerbates this problem (Powell, 2007).

GM technology tends to be proprietary, so intellectual property (IP) issues also need to be duly considered. As many as 16 patent and 72 intellectual property issues had to be resolved in the process of making Golden Rice available to poor farmers at no cost. A successful biofortification strategy requires widespread adoption of the crops by farmers and consumers, and this presents several important challenges (Powell, 2007). Public acceptance is also essential, especially if the new trait changes perceptibly the qualities of the crop, such as color (like in Golden Rice), taste, and dry matter content. Adequate information programs will play an essential role in ensuring acceptance.

Wide dissemination of the technology, a requisite for success, also relies on good market networks and channels for the dissemination of agricultural information. The lack of agricultural infrastructure in some developing countries, especially in Africa, is a significant challenge for adoption of new biofortified varieties.

Micro vs Macronutrients

Nutrients are chemical substances that are required for the proper functioning of cells, tissues and different organs in all living organism. Our body requires an adequate amount of nutrients which are mainly required for various functions of the body, including growth, repair, and protection against disease-causing microbes. Since our body cannot synthesize these nutrients on its own, these need to be supplied through external sources as food.

There are two different types of nutrients essential for the body:

  • Macro-nutrients.
  • Micro-nutrients.

The nutrients that are essential for the body in lesser amounts are known as micro-nutrients, whereas the nutrients that are required by the body in greater amounts are known as macro-nutrients.

Let us have a detailed look at the difference between macro-nutrients and micro-nutrients.

Difference between Micronutrients and Macro-nutrients

Following are the important difference between macronutrients and micronutrients:

Required in very minute quantities.Required in larger quantities.
Prevents diseases.Provides energy.
Consequences of Deficiency
Deficiency results in Anemia, Goiter, Scurvy, etc.Deficiency results in Kwashiorkor, Marasmus, Malnutrition,  etc.
Consequences of Overconsumption
Overconsumption of Vitamins leads to liver and nerve damage.Overconsumption of macro-nutrients results in cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, obesity, etc.
Available in a minute concentration in the body, less than 1 mg/gm.Available in high concentration in the body, equal to 1 mg or 1000 microgram.
Also called trace elements.Also known as major elements.
vitamins, minerals and trace elements.carbohydrate, protein and fats.
Antioxidants, Minerals, and Vitamins are examples of macro-nutrients.Proteins, fibre, carbohydrates, and fats are examples of micro-nutrients.
Are found in fruits, vegetables, eggs, fermented foods, green leafy vegetables, etc.Are found abundantly in cereals, fish, legumes, meat, nuts, oilseeds, potatoes, yam, etc.
Micro-nutrients contribute to body growth and disease prevention.Provides energy required for the metabolic system.

UPSC Prelims 2021 Important topics: What is Biofortification?

Macro and Micro-nutrients


The plant-based nutrients which are essential in large quantities as our body cannot produce by its self. These macro-nutrients providing energy and supports the different metabolic system, growth, and development of the body. Macro-nutrients include fats, proteins,  carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals.


The plant-based nutrients which are required in very small quantities and are mainly responsible for repairing damaged cell and tissues, prevention of infectious diseases by fighting against the disease-causing pathogens including bacteria, virus, fungi, etc. Micro-nutrients include calcium, iron, vitamins, iron, minerals and vitamin C.

Approval for Biofortified and GM crops in India

In the current Kharif season, farmers would undertake mass sowing of GM seeds for maize, soybean, mustard brinjal and herbicide-tolerant (Ht) cotton, although these are not approved. Farmers had carried out a similar movement last year, too.

Practice question for mains:

Q. Indian agriculture is in a way, a victim of its own past success – especially the green revolution. Critically comment.

Genetically Modified (GM) seeds

  • Conventional plant breeding involves crossing species of the same genus to provide the offspring with the desired traits of both parents.
  • Genetic engineering aims to transcend the genus barrier by introducing an alien gene in the seeds to get the desired effects.
  • The alien gene could be from a plant, an animal or even a soil bacterium.

What is the legal position of GM crops in India?

  • In India, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) is the apex body that allows for the commercial release of GM crops.
  • In 2002, the GEAC had allowed the commercial release of Bt cotton.
  • More than 95 per cent of the country’s cotton area has since then come under Bt cotton.
  • Use of the unapproved GM variant can attract a jail term of 5 years and a fine of Rs 1 lakh under the Environmental Protection Act,1989.

GM crops in India

  • Bt cotton, the only GM crop that is allowed in India, has two alien genes from the soil bacterium Bacillus Thuringiensis (Bt) that allows the crop to develop a protein toxic to the common pest pink bollworm.
  • Ht Bt, on the other, cotton is derived with the insertion of an additional gene, from another soil bacterium, which allows the plant to resist the common herbicide glyphosate.
  • In Bt brinjal, a gene allows the plant to resist attacks of fruit and shoot borer.

Why are farmers rooting for GM crops?

  • In the case of cotton, farmers cite the high cost of weeding, which goes down considerably if they grow Ht Bt cotton and use glyphosate against weeds.
  • Brinjal growers in Haryana have rooted for Bt brinjal as it reduces the cost of production by cutting down on the use of pesticides.
  • Industry estimates say that of the 4-4.5 crore packets (each weighing 400 gm) of cotton sold in the country, 50 lakh are of the unapproved Ht Bt cotton.
  • Haryana has reported farmers growing Bt brinjal in pockets which had caused a major agitation there.

Why furore over GM crops?

  • Environmentalists argue that the long-lasting effect of GM crops is yet to be studied and thus they should not be released commercially.
  • The genetic modification brings about changes that can be harmful to humans in the long run.

Why biofortification?

Biofortification is one solution among many interventions that are needed to solve the complex problem of micronutrient malnutrition. It is considered one of the most cost-effective interventions for countries to employ in combating micronutrient malnutrition.

  • Biofortification reaches rural consumers who have limited access to industrially fortified foods, supplementation interventions, and diverse diets.
  • Biofortification combines increased micronutrient content with preferred agronomic, quality, and market traits and therefore biofortified varieties will typically match or outperform the usual varieties that farmers grow and consume.

How does Biofortification differ from food fortification? 

Biofortification has the increased nutritional micronutrient content imbedded in the crop being grown. Food fortification increases the nutritional value of foods by adding trace amounts of micronutrients to foods during processing.

Some other useful articles:

Biofortification – an overview

Biofortified crops or biodiversity

biofortification – Copenhagen Consensus

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