MillNET_i: Millets and Nutritional Enhancement Traits for Iron bioavailability

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: Plant Sciences


Iron deficiency remains the most prevalent nutritional deficiency worldwide, affecting an estimated 4 to 6 billion people. Iron deficiency anaemia (IDA) is the largest nutritional deficiency disorder in the world and one of the five leading causes of global disease burden. At any given moment, more individuals suffer from IDA than any other health problem with a staggering 1.24 billion affected individuals worldwide.

In developing countries, millets are the most common form of cereals, often cultivated by female small holders in semi-arid tropic regions. Their resistance to drought and climate variability, along with nutrient dense characteristics, is attracting an increasing number of small scale farmers and governments in Sub Saharan Africa. While the nutritional value of millets has been identified, there has been limited progress on the creation of functional foods that are readily acceptable to populations. Biofortification of millets is also an emerging area research for enhancing nutritional quality.
The goals of the two-year MillNETi are to tackle the major issue of iron bioavailability (relative to biofortification) by promoting the use and preparation of pearl and finger millets, initially in Ethiopia and The Gambia, but of wider relevance for many semi-arid regions of Africa. The programme has been co-created with colleagues in India, Ethiopia and The Gambia, and a consortium of UK expertise and will undertake fundamental scientific investigations for the GROWTH, PROCESSING and monitoring of iron BIOAVAILABILTY, allied to social science methodologies to disseminate knowledge and improved practices in cultivation and food preparation (EXTENSION) to regional populations. The programme builds on an existing programme of biofortification (ICRISAT), bioavailability testing (MRC- Gambia), and social science studies indicating that rural - urban migration is creating a demand for more nutritious foods such as millets both in The Gambia and Ethiopia.

We will explore the basis of variation in crop iron uptake and availability traits in millets from contrasting regions and cropping practices (GROWTH: NIAB, UCAM, ICRISAT, EIAR). Additional research in Ethiopia on food preparation and processing (PROCESSING: BDU, ICRISAT, UCAM, MRC-Gambia) will be linked with a programme of internationally-validated human nutrition intervention studies (BIOAVAILABILITY: MRC-Gambia, UCAM), analysing plasma bioavailability of iron in healthy adult female representatives from local populations. As well as outreach to improve the nutrition and health of rural communities (EXTENSION (CGE/JeCCDO, BDU, UCAM: CGC, GFS IRC, CAPREX) additional insights from MillNETi on rural-urban linkages will be associated with the practice of food remitting, and potential role in food security, improved nutritional status and marketing opportunities for rural populations. These highly original observations will be of international significance for many populations in Africa and India, where the rural-urban divide represents a complex and interlinked reality of 'stretched' or 'multi-nodal' households.

Technical Summary

Iron deficiency is a major contributor to ill-health, premature death and lost earnings in developing countries. Studies suggest an odds ratio of nought point eight for maternal mortality for each 1 g/dL increase in mean haemoglobin in late pregnancy. The originality of the scientific programme lies in comparing the BIOFORTIFICATION traits in targeted finger and pearl millet varieties which could alleviate this problem, relative to the BIOAVAILABILTY associated with human digestive recovery from contrasting methods of food preparation.

The first biofortified pearl millet open pollinated variety, Chakti, was developed at ICRISAT, through HarvestPlus with iron and zinc 50% higher than any commonly grown varieties. Work will be undertaken (UCAM, NIAB, ICRISAT) to trial varieties under contrasting cropping systems, and identify the genetic basis to grain biofortification in key lines.
Human nutrition intervention studies of iron uptake by females consuming biofortified millet dietary preparations will monitor and sample plasma specimens from human volunteers, at the MRC Unit The Gambia at LSHTM, Keneba laboratories. The increase in serum iron following a single meal will be used as a measure of iron absorption and bioavailability.

Women are central to developing sustainable cropping systems, whether directly through farming activities or indirectly via community exchanges during food preparation. The study (led by Centre for Development Studies and NIAB) will explore fermented food use and opportunities for improved nutrition and well-being among rural and peri-urban populations in Ethiopia and the Gambia.The Centre for Global Equality (in partnership with JeCCDO) will facilitate outreach and extension for rural and urban communities in Ethiopia, and via CAPREX in the Gambia. Additional resources targeted for outreach and impact for early career researcher exchanges, engagement via workshops and outreach activities.

Planned Impact

1. The growing population of Ethiopia and the Gambia, in both rural and urban communities, and more generally in semi-arid regions of the Global South. Specifically, female health and wellbeing will be improved by knowledge dissemination and acceptability of more nutritious millet preparations, distributed equitably and future-proofed to meet rising demand under changing societal and environmental conditions.
2. Saving Lives of reproductively active females and improving the health and eventual productivity of subsequent generations: by helping to alleviate the staggering health and mortality statistics associated with iron micronutrient deprivation, and by changing perceptions about the value of diverse food sources and their best means of preparation to maximise iron bioavailability.
3. Farmers and farming communities in Ethiopia and The Gambia: who will be reached through the project's translation and outreach programme, using the extensive networks in place through our collaborating Institutes, Universities and Third Sector Organisations. The work aims particularly to empower female farmers, and drive equal opportunities to take up the new practices that will deliver resilient food production systems that generate markets for millet and hence wealth and opportunities for the agricultural community;
4. Collaborators involved in the GCRF/BBSRC Grow Call TIGR2ESS BB/P027970/1 where a parallel programme is being undertaken in collaboration with ICRISAT and partners throughout India to improve cropping resilience and micronutrient content in millets, with an additional Fellowship programme to be announced which will appoint 16 Postdoctoral researchers to complement and draw on the work being done in MillNETi.
5. Policy-makers involved in taking biofortified orphan crops and improving micronutrient bioavailability: to instigate effective policy for change for the more widespread use of resilient crops such as millets, and recognise the interactions between rural and urban communities, such as food remittance.
6. Academic researchers who can now translate fundamental science of crop improvement and micronutrient biofortification and relate to bioavailability of processed foodstuffs: career opportunities enhanced directly by research opportunities and indirectly by outreach and engagement across the entire programme
7. The wider research communities in the participating Universities and research institutes: through involvement in project, participants have access to their collaborators' wider research networks and groups, for example the University of Cambridge's Global Food Security Interdisciplinary Research Centre (GFS IRC), the Centre for Global Challenges (CGC), and Cambridge Africa programme (CAPREX). By participation of PDRAs and senior academics in research exchanges and workshops, building interdisciplinary research capacity for the future across Africa and the UK;
8. The international fundamental and applied research communities: collaborators will publish results in high-impact journals in a timely fashion using open access, and present research results at international meetings and institutions in order to widely disseminate information
9. Agro-industry and national crop breeding institutes such as NARES and HarvestPlus to share improved germplasm to stimulate markets and rural entrepreneurship.
10. The general public and food security outreach: the project will have wide educational value and represents an opportunity to draw more young people into scientific careers. Cambridge University has regular opportunities to engage with non-academic audiences eg. local interest groups and schools, science showcases, media, through programmes delivered by the Office of External Affairs and Communications, and organised through programmes delivered by the Office of External Affairs and Communications, and organised through GFS IRC, CGC and CAPREX.


10 25 50