Scientists in the Department of Agriculture Research Services (DARS) this week held a planning meeting on the production and upscaling of bio-fortified crop varieties that are rich in zinc, iron, proteins and vitamins to improve nutritional status among people affected by COVID – 19 pandemic.
The meeting was attended by breeders, seed services specialists and pathologists as part of the broader efforts to respond to COVID – 19 Experts are hopeful that high zinc, iron, vitamin and protein uptake can be attained by increasing access of bio-fortified crop varieties such as beans, maize and sweet potatoes as a nutritional response in dealing with the effects of COVID – 19 which is a viral disease.
As part of the ministerial response plan, Sustainable Agriculture Productivity Programme with support from the International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD) through Rural Poor Stimulus Facility (RPSF) will scale – up the production of bio-fortified varieties among small holders’ farmers. The goal of the RPSF is to minimize impacts of COVID-19 on livelihoods, through improving food security and resilience of poor rural people by supporting production systems and market access.
Chief Agriculture Research Scientist, Dr Lawrent Pungulani told participants that DARS has been engaged to partly address specific intervention which is dealing with providing inputs for production. “DARS will produce early generation seed of the bio-fortified varieties of beans, maize and sweet potato. The early generation seed of the three targeted crops will feed into seed systems which will subsequently improve availability of improved seeds with more nutritional benefits to the farming communities in the selected sites,” Pungulani who chaired the meeting said during his inaugural address.
He added that in the interim period, this will be implemented in Nkhota Kota and Balaka districts. The primary beneficiaries are poor rural smallholder farmers. A total of 8,000 households will be reached with support, 50 per cent being women and 25 per cent will comprise young people.
In total 10 metric tonnes of bio-fortified early generation seed varieties of legumes pro-vitamin maize varieties will be produced in the winter and 10,000 bundles of sweet potato vines, Pungulani announced.
Taking her turn, Annie Matumba, a bean breeder said during her presentation that the bio-fortified bean varieties that will be produced will be those of high value iron and zinc quantity namely; NUA 35 and NUA 45. She added that iron is important for oxygen circulation other than Iron and Zinc is important for immune system, wound healing, reproductive health and improves appetite often elusive among COVID – 19 patients.
Varieties earmarked for scaling up in the case of sweet potatoes are Kaphulira, Kadyaubwerere and Royal Choice Pilirani Pankomera, agriculture scientist based who specialize in tuber production said. The target sweet potato varieties are rich in beta carotene a precursor for vitamin A.
On the other hand, Geckem Dambo a maize breeder highlighted that pro-vitamin A maize varieties and quality protein maize will be multiplied. Specifically, MH39 A and Chitedze 2 QPM maize varieties will be scaled up during production.
However, plant pathologist Haswell Dambolachepa warned that these crops are at risk of pests and diseases infestation and infection respectively, that leads to quantity yield losses in kgs/ha, quality loss in taste and appearance and nutritional losses through aflatoxins. Therefore, he advised that the program should strictly adhere to good agricultural practices which will significantly reduce infestation of pests and diseases.
When asked what is the role of the Seed Services Unit (SSU) in all this seed value chain process, Dr Grace Kaudzu, Team Leader of SSU narrated that their mandate is to ensure that high quality seed improved variety of crops are produced and made available to the farming communities.
“Leaving out SSU means that the seeds that will be produced in the programme will not be certified. So, the unit is the integral part of the whole programme. We need to make sure that we inspect the field that is producing the seed to ensure that it is meeting the required quality. If we leave out the inspection it means the seed will not be accepted as certified seeds,” Kaudzu highlighted the important role of the Unit.
She added that the purpose of having the seed certified is to ensure that the traits, in this case we are talking about bio-fortified varieties. For those traits to be maintained, to get to the farmer they need to be inspected in the field and then tested in the lab to ensure they maintain those traits. Then the farmer will benefit from the variety, Kaudzu, Team Leader summed it up.