Zinc-enriched wheat fights malnutrition in Pakistan

Years of biofortification research and breeding have resulted in Zincol, a wheat variety with 20 percent more zinc than conventional varieties.

Years of biofortification research and breeding have resulted in Zincol, a high-yielding, zinc-enhanced variety that was released in 2016 and is gaining popularity in Pakistan.

Consuming just three chapattis – an unleavened flatbread common in South Asia – made with flour from Zincol can provide up to 40 percent of a child’s daily zinc requirement and 20 percent of an adult’s.

In 2017, farmers from 22 seed producer associations in Pakistan planted large portions of their wheat fields with Zincol. Established to grow quality seed of new wheat varieties, these associations received assistance from the country’s National Rural Support Program, a key partner in the Pakistan Agricultural Innovation Program, led by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).

“Over the 2016 and 2017 cropping seasons, 400 tons of seed of Zincol have been shared with farmers, seed companies and promotional partners,” said Imtiaz Muhammad, CIMMYT country representative in Pakistan and a wheat improvement specialist.

An additional 15 tons of Zincol was shared free of charge for testing with 600 farm families in Sukkar District, Sindh Province, through an initiative of World Vision-Canada and HarvestPlus, a CGIAR research program dedicated to the study and delivery of biofortified foods.

Zinc links to health

In Pakistan, 39 percent of children and 48 percent of pregnant women suffer from zinc deficiency, according to a 2011 National Nutrition Survey. These deficiencies lead to child stunting rates of over 40 percent and high infant mortality.

Zinc is essential for immune and nervous system development, making it especially vital for combatting malnutrition during pregnancy and in young children, according to the World Health Organization. South Asia has one of the highest rates of zinc-deficiency, resulting in a host of harmful effects.

Cost of zinc deficiency

  • Zinc deficiency causes stunting, lowers immunity, and increases risk of diarrheal disease and respiratory infections.
  • 45% of children under 5 in Pakistan are estimated to be zinc deficient (WHO).
  • Mineral and vitamin deficiencies cost Pakistan nearly 3 billion USD in GDP losses annually (World Bank).

Zincol resulted from CIMMYT’s biofortification breeding research, focused on enhancing nutrient levels in the grain of key food crops. The creators of Zincol drew upon diverse genetic resources, including wheat landraces and wild relatives with the genetic potential to accumulate zinc in the grain. Genes for enhanced grain zinc content from those sources were crossed into adapted, high-yielding varieties over repeated cycles of selection involving many thousands of plants.

“Zincol also carries the genetic background of NARC 2011, a popular, high-yielding Pakistan wheat variety that resists wheat stem rust, a deadly disease that threatens wheat worldwide,” added Velu Govindan, a CIMMYT wheat breeder who specializes in biofortification and helped develop Zincol.

Zincol took nearly a decade to reach farmers after the initial breeding cross in 2007, several years faster than is the norm in Pakistan. Today enough Zincol seed has been distributed to cover over 20,000 hectares, and that could expand to more than half a million hectares by 2019.


U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), HarvestPlus and World Vision-Canada

Sustainable Development Goals tied to work mentioned in this story. Of the 17 United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals, 10 relate directly to CGIAR activities and to CIMMYT’s mandate. The SDGs have set the pathway for the next 15 years of agricultural, social and economic development. Likewise, CGIAR has transformed its approach to ensure that its work aligns with the ambitious goals.

This story is part of CIMMYT's 2017 Annual Report


CIMMYT Annual Report 2017. Editors-in-chief: Geneviève Renard, G. Michael Listman, Laura Strugnell. Creative Director: Clyde R. Beaver III. Layout and Design: Gerardo Mejia, Clyde R. Beaver III. Infographics/Illustrations: Gerardo Mejia. Production/Printer Liaison: Eliot Sánchez/Marcelo Ortiz. Video Promotion: Silvia Rico, Carlos Alfonso Cortés. Writers/Editors:  Rachel Cramer, Ricardo Curiel, Jennifer Johnson, G. Michael Listman, Julie Mollins, Matthew O’Leary, Geneviéve Renard, Katelyn Roett, Sam Storr. Contributors: Bekele Abeyo, Ayele Badebo, Frédéric Baudron, Carolina Camacho, Alberto Chassaigne, Kristie Drucza, Kate Fehlenberg, Terefe Fitta, Bram Govaerts, Velu Govindan, Sarah Hearne, Huntington Hobbs, Muhammad Imtiaz, M.L. Jat, Scott Justice, Victor Kommerell, Timothy Krupnik, Jelle Van Loon, Víctor López Saavedra, Cosmos Magorokosho, Kevin Pixley, B.M. Prasanna, Michael Quinn, Matthew Reynolds, Johnson Siamachira, Arturo Silva Hinojosa, Sam Storr, Kashif Syed, Ghulam Ullah. Photographers: Alfonso Cortés, Xochiquetzal Fonseca, Apollo Habtamu/ILRI, Peter Lowe, Johnson Siamachira, Sam Storr, CIMMYT Archives. Spark Page production: Sam Storr.

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