The government has recently announced a very fast schedule of spreading rice fortification in India. According to this schedule the supply of fortified rice to ICDS, mid-day meals, other nutrition and welfare schemes as well as to the vast public distribution system is to be completed by the year 2024. The capacity of the government to achieve this is much higher in India than in many other countries because the government controls the vast network of public distribution system and nutrition schemes, together reaching out to around 800 million people.
This rapid roll-over of rice fortification is likely to be harmful in various ways. These harmful impacts and risks can be easily avoided by achieving the stated nutrition aims in several other ways. Here we first draw attention to harmful impacts of rice fortification and then we discuss how nutrition aims can be achieved without these risks and harms. However we must first point out that this scheme of rice fortification should not be seen in isolation, but together with programs and proposals for fortification of several other essential foods like salt, milk, edible oils and wheat, apart from the fact that fortification is also used in several other widely sold packaged food products.
So the first risk is that there can be health problems arising from excess intakes of some of the micro nutrients like iron and vitamins. The fact that such excess can lead to several health problems is well-established, as is the fact that this is much more likely to arise from artificial fortification than from natural foods. The process of fortification involving processing in heavy machines can also lead to some undesirable residual products finding their way to our food.
In the case of fortified rice if the fortified kernels do not blend optimally with normal rice, the consumer can be confused regarding whether there are some undesirable contaminants to be removed. There can be pressure to use only those rice varieties that blend well, and in the process the pressure to reduce rice biodiversity can increase. The next step can be to promote only a few rice varieties, or to give a better price for only such varieties, or even to root for patented or GM varieties in the name of varieties that blend well.
While the need is to encourage smaller, village-level processing of rice and all other food , generating local livelihoods, this rice fortification will take us in the opposite direction of further increasing centralization and control of a few big businesses. Several Gandhian reformers still stick to the idea of local village-level rice processing but with mandatory rice fortification their hopes will be dashed forever. It will become difficult to establish even a cottage industry based on rice produced in the nearby fields of this village as the rice grown here cannot be used directly without fortification.
Now rice processing will be in the hands of those big companies including multinational companies which control fortification technology. Other rice millers, only the bigger among them, will survive only after taking loans and adding the new expensive machinery, and then too only as the junior partners of those who control fortification technology, who can keep dictating to them to make this improvement or that improvement in processing and machinery, also imposing more costs on them.
It has been seen time and again that staple food becomes more expensive once its processing passes into the hands of big business interests. To give an example, even at the time of influx of cheap corn in Mexico as a result of Free Trade Agreement with the USA, the price of staple food tortillas remained high because the maize milling and flour industry was concentrated in a few big business units. Thus farmers lost (due to higher maize imports) and consumers also lost. In fact at the time of the farmers’ movement last year the main point precisely was that with increasing big business domination both the ordinary farmers and consumers will be harmed. But it appears that the government has still not learned this lesson.
In the case of indigenous rice varieties it is often stated that the flavor improves with time. So it has been usual to store and eat somewhat later. The late environmentalist Anupam Mishra was so impressed with this quality that when he started a column in reputed Hindi journal Gandhi Marg for reprinting old articles of durable quality, he called this column ‘purana chawal’ ( old rice)!The shelf life of the fortified rice kernels is stated to be only around 12 months or so. So it is likely that fortified rice if kept beyond this time may start getting spoilt. We need to remember that storage periods in FCI warehouses can be quite long, and then transport across vast distances, ultimately to fair price shops takes its own time too.
An important need in India is for decentralized procurement, as this writer has argued several times, so that a significant part of the food procured in a village ends up in the same village’s fair price shops and nutrition programs, reducing food miles in a big way, good both for environment and food security. Mandatory food fortification can shut, or even slam the door on such ideas.
Now let us see if we can achieve better nutrition enhancement objectives in other ways. Even official reviews say that the need for fortification arises because present-day milling removes essential nutrients from rice in a big way. Hence the most obvious way is to move away from milling which indulges in excessive removal and polishing to milling which results in much lower removal and polishing, reducing this as much as possible. Such technology is certainly available and so the real solution is actually very simple and inexpensive. It is only the government’s blind love for big business which leads it to ignore such simple truths. However the biggest gains for nutrition will come from following the social agro-ecology approach in farming and food, which is based on improving soil health and overall natural conditions of farming on the one hand and reducing inequalities on the other hand. As soil is nursed back to its health, its balance of micro-nutrients will return, and the nutrition of plants grown in this soil will improve too. Reducing inequalities at all levels and promoting creative, sustainable, ecologically protective livelihoods of people remain the best means of chasing away hunger and malnutrition, but in addition well implemented nutrition programs in both villages and cities will also help.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Protect Earth Now. His recent books include Man Over Machine ( Gandhian ideas for our times) and India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food.