Counter nutrition deficiency with leafy vegetables and not by bio-fortification or genetically-modified golden rice
The tearing hurry to feed fortified rice to the masses is a preposterous move
A front page report in a major newspaper early this week highlighted a revolutionary gene-edited therapy that holds promise for millions of people worldwide, who are suffering from sickle cell ammonia.
This heartening news comes at a time when India is aggressively pushing fortified rice, which clearly says on the package – that fortified rice is not meant for people suffering with sickle cell anaemia (SCA) and thalassemia. When I read both the reports in conjunction, it took away the excitement.
At a time when a lot of hope is seen from the prohibitively priced gene-edited therapy, expected to cost about Rs, one crore a year, and given that an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 children are born every year with this disorder, I thought India should be doubly careful. More so, considering that at the global level the incidence of sickle cell anaemia in India is among the highest.
To expect the beneficiaries of the fortified rice programme, and moreover if they happen to be carrying the faulty haemoglobin gene, to know whether they should opt for the rice being distributed under the public distribution system (PDS), is too much of an expectation. Given the fact that the genetic disorder is prevalent more among tribes, it is quite obvious that not many would know whether they should avoid the rice being given under the PDS monthly ration or not. Moreover, there has been no effort to warn in advance or create wider awareness among the beneficiary population.
Sickle cell anaemia is an inherited disorder that affects haemoglobin. Red blood cells become sickle-shaped thereby blocking blood flow to the rest of the body. It is a life-long disease and so far the only remedy is bone marrow transplant. Regarding the new therapy, it maybe sometimes before the gene-edited therapy becomes popular and also cheap that the tribal population at large can afford. Similarly, thalassemia too is an inherited blood disorder, wherein the body ends up making an inadequate amount of blood. It therefore becomes absolutely important that we do not add to the already prevalent disease load.
Given this background, I thought India should have been treading very cautiously on forcing the questionable fortified grain – fortified with iron and vitamins -- to the unsuspecting 80 crore people who are covered under the National Food Security Act. There is no apparent reason why the government should have been in a tearing hurry to feed fortified rice to the masses before clearing the doubts about its efficiency and need.
But as it happens, corporate interests have taken precedence and built up tremendous pressure to open up the market ignoring the preventions and cautions that many studies had pointed to.
While a Dutch company is already believed to have cornered 17 per cent of the Indian micro-nutrient premix market, the mandatory fortification process is involving public procurement agencies. For instance, in Punjab, which is the biggest contributor of surplus rice to the Central pool, a State agency – the Punjab Grains Procurement Corporation Ltd (Pungrain) has been entrusted with the task of fortifying rice. For 2023-24, the agency has been directed to ensure that the rice millers are able to process and provide 2.5 lakh tonnes of fortified rice, which will then be mixed with the remaining quantity and supplied. With Food Corporation of India (FCI) handling procurement and distribution, it becomes relatively easy to add supplements and distribute it across the country for the PDS.
The Central government had in April acknowledged that about 105-lakh tonnes of fortified rice had been done to 269 districts across 27 states in the second phase.
As mentioned earlier, the undue haste appears more to cater to the commercial interests of the private companies engaged in building a global market for fortified rice.
In an excellent investigation, The Reporter’s Collective had a few months back shown how one Dutch company, with six international organisations, was pushing to reach out for the Rs. 1,800 crore fortified rice market in India. Presented in two parts, this expose is an insight into how such crucial decisions are enforced without any regard to public health as well as public scrutiny.
Shockingly, the investigation shows how even the Niti Aayog in its confidential documents had acknowledged that ‘none of the districts have conducted baseline surveys of beneficiary health parameters before starting FR distribution, which could facilitate a scientific evaluation of outcomes and impact of the rice fortification intervention’. It means that the nation will remain in dark about the impact, whether positive or negative, beneficiary populations will derive from the intake of fortified rice.
Well, as the Niti Aayog itself admitted that there were rumours of ‘plastic rice’ being distributed in some districts where it visited, an excellent insight by an independent journalist and researcher, Anumeha Yadav in The Wire (November 21) shows how the tribals in Jharkhand found it hard to swallow ‘plastic rice’. She quotes several tribals from Odisha and Jharkhand who say they remove the ‘plastic rice’ before cooking.
Why they call it ‘plastic rice’ is because of the way the artificial fortified rice is first manufactured, and then mixed with normal rice grains. According to Reporter’s Collective: “Fortified rice grains are prepared by beating normal rice into dough, and mixing them with powdered micronutrients, known as premix. This dough is then machine-carved into grains, known as fortified rice kernels. One such kernel is mixed with 100 normal rice grains and supplied through PDS.”
There is no denying that India carries a huge malnutrition burden. But what the country needs is a multiple packages of approaches to not only provide adequate calorie-rich staples but also supplement it with diverse and nutrition-rich resources. While there a large number of wild and cultivated plants that are used as vegetables across the country, there are also a number of traditional and uncultivated plant species that are a source of nutrition especially among the tribal communities. Most of the indigenous communities have been utilising the leafy vegetables as part of their diets. With the passage of time, many of these leafy vegetables preparations have otherwise become popular, and many have been pushed out.
At a time when the government is pushing bio-fortification, and some scientists are even asking for introduction of genetically-modified Golden Rice to address the problem of growing malnutrition, I think the popularisation of bhaji or leafy vegetables (as is prevalent in Chhattisgarh) will be an environmentally sound and ecologically appropriate way to overcome the problem of nutrition deficiency without causing any harmful impact on human health. Certain bhaji species do contain beta-carotene, the precursor to Vitamin A (which Golden Rice claims to provide) and Vitamin B12 besides essential minerals, including iron and folic acid, and other nutrients.
(The author is a noted food policy analyst and an expert on issues related to the agriculture sector. He writes on food, agriculture and hunger)