In today's Finshots we talk about fortified rice and see why it's getting such a bad reputation

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The Story

"Ugggh…it’s plastic!"

That’s what a few people in Kurnool (Andhra Pradesh) had to say when they received rice that didn’t look quite right. This new rice was white. Too white for their liking and the texture was a bit different. Soon there were WhatsApp messages floating around. It was plastic rice they said. And the idea caught on. Some even posited that there might be a Chinese angle here.

So what’s going on?

Well, it seems the Indian government is experimenting with something new called “fortified” rice. And no, it’s not plastic. It’s just rice with added nutrition. It’s the kind of stuff you’d see in a TV ad. Only this time the government really wants to add the extra nutrients into the mix.

And to understand why they’re embarking on this mission you have to look at India’s malnutrition problem.

Around 14% of India’s population is undernourished. In absolute numbers, that’s nearly 190 million people. And since most of these happen to be women, the undernourishment problem precipitates a vicious cycle. When malnourished women give birth to young children, their newborns also turn out the same way. In fact, some reports indicate that 35% of the children under the age of 5 are stunted (too short for their age). And 20% suffer from wasting (with the weight to height ratio being too low).

The situation is so dire that India slipped to the 101st position in the Global Hunger Index report in 2021. For context, there were only 116 countries in the mix with Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal having done better than us.

So in essence, the government wants to fix this problem. And they want to do it using fortified rice. Here’s how it works. First, they grind the rice powder. Once it’s nice and fine, they mix in the nutrients — vitamin B12, iron powder, and folic acid. After this, they shape the mix into rice-like kernels and the kernels are then mixed with normal rice in a 1:100 ratio. Finally, it’s distributed for consumption and voila, you have solved the malnutrition problem.

But why rice? Why not do this using vitamin tablets for instance?

Well, the problem isn’t producing food that’s nutrient-rich. It’s getting it into people’s hands and making sure they eat it.

Indians may not be used to multivitamins. But they do eat a lot of rice. We’re the second-largest producer of rice in the world and we consume around 80% of our annual production of 122 million metric tonnes. And so, it makes sense to drive this mission using rice and the government has shown some commitment to this cause by allocating close to ₹2,700 crores in this year’s budget.

Also, distributing rice is far easier than any other commodity out there. We already have the public distribution system (ration system) that covers roughly 67% of the Indian population and you can see why this is a practical approach.

However, it does come with its own challenges.

For starters, to supply all the PDS centres under the scheme, India will need to expand its capacity of fortified rice to 350,000 tonnes from its current capacity of 130,000 tonnes — if you’re talking about the districts under consideration. And doing this won’t be easy. You have to upgrade rice mills across the country with special equipment and you have to maintain them. More importantly, rice mill owners will have to play ball. Right now, they may have to invest close to ₹10 lakhs if they were forced to modify their existing plants and that isn’t a modest sum by any account.

In fact, many rice mill owners in Telangana have already requested more time to upgrade their facilities. They’re also reluctant to make the investments considering the government hasn’t come good on past dues. Dues owed for supplying custom rice in the past.

Oh yes, we tried the fortification experiment in the past and it didn’t quite take off. So you can see why rice mill owners have their reservations.

There’s also the fact that a “one size fits all” approach isn’t particularly prudent in this case.

For instance, a large number of tribals in Jharkhand suffer from Thalassemia- a blood disorder involving lower-than-normal amounts of haemoglobin. Now ideally people dealing with this disorder should refrain from getting excess iron into their bodies— since excess iron can damage their heart, liver, and endocrine system. But the government has scaled its plan of distributing fortified rice to 257 districts anyway and health activists have raised some concerns.

In fact, one report from the Right-to-Food Campaign has explicitly urged the Jharkhand government to stop supplying people with fortified rice. They’ve warned the state of the potential health implications if people continue to eat fortified rice without due consideration and that’s another issue.

And finally, there’s the “plastic” concern. People are throwing fortified portions away because they just think it’s weird. Fortified kernels float when washed and since people aren’t used to seeing this, they just pick them apart and chuck them away. A few others have also complained of gastritis, diarrhoea, and nausea after eating fortified rice. So it’s going to be hard to convince everyone.

Bottom line — While it seems like fortified rice could alleviate some of the malnutrition problems, we still have some way to go before we make a massive dent.

Until then….

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