Scaling Biofortified Crops: Role of Farmer Collectives in Combatting Hidden Hunger

Scaling Biofortified Crops Role of Farmer Collectives in Combatting Hidden Hunger

Garima Joshi

Αgriculture development professional

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Co-author: Anusha Jain, Grameen Foundation, Image Credits: Garima Joshi

Despite the current agricultural capacity to produce enough food for everyone, a staggering one billion people are still unable to meet their minimum food energy requirements, and two billion are plagued by “hidden hunger” due to micronutrient deficiencies (FAO 2013). Hidden hunger is the presence of multiple micronutrient deficiencies, which can occur without a deficit in energy intake because of consuming an energy-dense but nutrient-poor diet. 

Recent studies reveal that over half of children under five and two-thirds(2/3) of women aged 15 to 49 worldwide lack at least one micronutrient. This means that the likelihood of a person or one (or more) of his/her family members suffering from hidden hunger is very high. 

Alarmingly, the FAO predicts that by 2030, nearly 600 million people will be chronically malnourished. Given the current scenario, most of this population will belong to underdeveloped and developing nations. 

This growing concern about hidden hunger emphasizes the need to promote nutritional security, moving the needle from food sufficiency to nutrition sovereignty. 

Some prominent ways to address this challenge at scale are medical supplementation, dietary diversification, and fortification. While dietary diversification and food supplementation are effective in addressing hidden hunger, fortification, especially biofortification, emerges as a particularly promising approach. Unlike alternative methods, biofortification offers notable advantages in terms of cost-effectiveness, scalability, and sustainability, making it a highly relevant solution for addressing hidden hunger in developing countries.

Ways to Combat Hidden Hunger

Figure 1: Ways to Combat Hidden Hunger

As staple foods are the primary components of the diets of impoverished people, the production of biofortified varieties of staple crops emerges as a go-to strategy to target the needs of low-income households. Once implemented, the biofortified crop system is highly sustainable, and varieties with enhanced nutritional value can be grown and consumed year after year. Furthermore, biofortification can have significant secondary benefits, such as improving farm productivity in developing countries in an environmentally positive way.

There is ample literature and evidence linking improved nutrition through the production of biofortified crops. However, a limited body of knowledge is available on ways to scale and mainstream the adoption of biofortified crops in communities. This blog explores the pivotal role the farmer collectives, such as Farmers’ Producer Organizations (FPOs) in India, can play in mainstreaming the consumption of nutrient-rich crops, especially among impoverished populations. It presents the learnings from a pilot project focused on cultivating bio-fortified mustard (BFM) by smallholder farmers in Mirzapur and Azamgarh Districts of Uttar Pradesh, India. 

What is biofortification? – The example of biofortified mustard?

The International Encyclopedia of Public Health defines food fortification as the deliberate addition of one or more micronutrients to certain foods to address deficiencies in the population’s diet and improve overall health. Biofortification, however, is like giving crops a makeover at the very beginning. It’s the process of boosting crops’ nutritional content while growing. 

The pilot conducted by the Grameen Foundation in Uttar Pradesh involved biofortified mustard, a pure-line biofortified variety of mustard—”PUSA Mustard 30.” This variety contains 95% less erucic acid than conventional mustard varieties, making it healthier for daily consumption. At the same time, PUSA Mustard 30 produced an 8.31% higher yield with superior oil content (7.35%) compared to the popular varieties. Its lesser maturity time, higher tolerance to terminal heat stress, and resilience to stem rot make it an excellent choice for farmers amidst fluctuating weather patterns and evolving climate conditions.

What role do farmer collectives play in promoting biofortified crops?

Grameen’s BFM pilot experiment provided three key insights into the role of farmer collectives in promoting both the production and adoption of biofortified crops on a larger scale.

  • Collectives are an effective platform for farmer sensitization

One of the key lessons learned (from the pilot) is that farmer collectives are one of the most effective ways to reach and create awareness among farmers about new technologies or improved farming practices. Through group meetings, discussions, circulating advisory and benefit-related messages, social-media groups, and word-of-mouth publicity, farmer collectives can quickly disseminate information and reach even the smallest and most marginalized farmers. In the case of the BFM pilot, FPO meetings provided the necessary avenue to sensitize farmers around the benefits of fortification and BFM in particular. The exposure visits and training sessions organized regarding the package of practices played an instrumental role in supplementing farmers’ knowledge regarding the production and consumption of BFM. Distribution of biofortified seeds was also successfully done through this channel. 

  • Collectives foster credibility and trust among farmers

Typically comprising farmers from neighboring villages and communities with similar backgrounds, collectives such as FPOs serve as platforms for joint decision-making and resource exchange, nurturing robust trust networks among farmers. This environment facilitates the uptake of novel practices and technologies. In instances like adopting a new variety, collectives act as advocates for the latest methods, helping to build confidence among farmers and address any concerns they may have. 

Initially, farmers in Grameen’s BFM pilot showed hesitancy due to concerns about the appearance of BFM seeds and the absence of established markets. However, active support from FPOs and encouragement from board members convinced them to participate. Despite initial skepticism, transparent information transfer, a sense of collective ownership, and consistent FPO support facilitated the adoption of BFM among farmers in Uttar Pradesh. 

  • Collective associations empower farmers to embrace change

Farmers, especially smallholders, who are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, often have limited risk-taking ability. This leads to an inherent reluctance to embrace changes in their usual cultivation practices. However, collectives such as FPOs can provide farmers a sense of solidarity and empowerment, helping them overcome their resistance to change. 

In the regions where the BFM pilot was implemented, the primary agricultural activity has long revolved around paddy-wheat cultivation, relying heavily on irrigation. Yet, recent times have brought water scarcity due to inadequate rainfall, posing challenges for farmers in meeting crop irrigation requirements. Initially hesitant to change, farmers found newfound motivation through the support and encouragement from FPOs and embraced crop diversification, turning from Wheat to Mustard, especially adopting the BFM variety, thereby making their agricultural practices climate-resilient. As positive outcomes emerged with time, farmers gradually embraced the biofortified variety, highlighting the significant impact of collective action in driving change.

In addition to producing biofortified crops, it is essential to recognize that numerous farmers in these FPOs also practice subsistence farming. Hence, FPOs played a pivotal role in educating them about the nutritional benefits of BFM, thus enhancing awareness and promoting its consumption among rural communities. 

Concluding remarks – The importance of FPOs and biofortified crops and the future of the agricultural sector

In conclusion, the role of farmer collectives such as FPOs in promoting biofortified crops, particularly mustard in this context, cannot be overstated. Grameen’s BFM pilot offers valuable insights into how these collectives can effectively mainstream the production and uptake of such crops. However, it is essential to highlight that the pilot brought about some changes only because of the deep engagement of multiple stakeholders, such as FPO board members, research institutions, and agricultural extension centers, throughout the project cycle. Looking ahead, continued stakeholder engagement, action, and commitment are essential to further scale up the production and uptake of biofortified crops. 

This involves not only the active involvement of farmer collectives but also collaboration with government agencies, research institutions, non-governmental organizations, and other relevant stakeholders. By working together towards a common goal of addressing nutritional security at scale in a cost-effective manner, stakeholders can address existing knowledge barriers- both at production and consumption ends, mobilize existing resources, and implement strategies that strengthen FPOs to promote the widespread adoption of biofortified crops. This collaborative endeavor will ultimately enhance nutrition and food security for communities, particularly those most susceptible to malnutrition and dietary inadequacies.


Lowe, N. M. (2021). The global challenge of hidden hunger: Perspectives from the field. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society.

Co-author: Anusha Jain, Grameen Foundation

Anusha Jain: Anusha Jain is a Development Professional currently working as a Program Manager at Grameen Foundation’s Client Insights and Impact division in India. She holds a Master’s in Forestry Management from the Indian Institute of Forest Management, with expertise in the domain of social protection, with a particular emphasis on food security, social assistance, and financial inclusion. Her expertise lies in public policy consulting, impact evaluation, and social research. She is proficient in designing research methodologies, conducting data analysis, and managing large-scale primary research projects. She strives to drive positive social impact and advance the field of social protection in low and middle-income countries.

Further reading

Biofortification: A Sustainable Solution to Hidden Hunger and Malnutrition

Food Insecurity in Africa: Can Insect Consumption Bridge the Protein Gap?

Farmer Producer Organizations: A Way to Increase Smallholder Farmers’ Income


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