Malnutrition is amongst the biggest elements in India’s food security story with more than 33 lakh children malnourished and more than half of them in the severely malnourished category.
Maharashtra, Bihar and Gujarat top the list according to government figures. The government’s Poshan Abhiyaan to address this critical issue, particularly for anemia among rural women and children is significant. It proposes to artificially fortify some food grain with iron and zinc. By 2024 almost all anganwadis will get such fortified food grain.
What is worrying people is that artificial fortified rice has never been mixed with normal rice thus far. The government of India has permitted the release of 17 fortified food crops out of the selected 21 crops. These are hybrid maize, high oleic acid rich groundnut, low erucic acid content mustard, iron and zinc enriched yam and finger millet and other millets. While there is merit in the approach, it has not been thought through. There are some who seem to now believe that traditional rice or traditional crop varieties are devoid of adequate nutrition.
The National Institute of Nutrition of Hyderabad has analysed the nutritive qualities of many crops of India but has not studied the nutrition levels in different varieties of the same crop. The study shows that traditional crops have enormous nutritive values. Natural food crops have all the ingredients like iron, zinc, selenium, cobalt, copper manganese, protein and carbohydrate, fat amongst others in their natural form and in proper proportion.
Some crops are particularly rich in some nutrients. The abhyiaan, however, aims to incorporate nutrients artificially in crops that show a shortfall in nutritive qualities. The point is that traditional food crops rich in natural ingredients are consumed by people without any food allergy or any other issues related to health. Artificial enrichment with nutrients raises many questions about how they will be assimilated by the body, whether they will cause food allergy or how much of the nutrition will be retained after cooking and whether they will interfere with the absorption of other nutrients.
Rice, maize and pulses contain some anti-nutrients like phytic acid and polyphenols that inhibit absorption of nutrients in our gut. How much of the ironenriched produce will be absorbed by the body is not known because iron in natural food is not completely absorbed by our body. The other worry is with the weed killer, glyphosate, widely used in crop fields, the residue of which, as has been observed, entering the body through food diminishes gut bacteria; it forms chelating compounds with iron and zinc, which the body will definitely not absorb. In eastern India, people add lime juice to pulses while taking rice and dal and this acidic medium helps the body to absorb iron in pulses.
The quantity of iron in 100 grams of Indian’s common food crops is as follows: pulses – 8.9 mg; pumpkin leaves ~ 5.5 mg; pudina leaves – 8.5 mg; date palm ~ 4.79 mg; beaten rice ~ 5.5 mg; molasses – 11.8 mg; til oil ~ 9.3 mg; crab ~ 21 mg; chicken liver ~ 9 mg; mutton liver ~ 6.5 mg; beef liver ~ 14.4 mg, and egg 4.9 mg. Thus, traditional Indian foods are not devoid of iron. In fact, the iron component is much more than the proposed injection of iron in some specified food crops. For rice and wheat, the zinc component would be raised to 2 mg and 4 mg respectively.
For iron it would be 3.8 mg in wheat and 8 mg for pearl millet. Many desi rice varieties have considerable amounts of iron ~ ranging from 3.2 mg to 8.5 mg per 100 gm. of rice. Haem iron, a form of iron is found in animal protein and is absorbed without any acidic medium by our bodies. Non heme/haem form of iron is found in vegetables, eggs and milk and is poorly absorbed. In fact, consuming tea, coffee, and calcium-rich foods also interfere with the absorption of iron. Animal protein contains more iron in the form of haem iron, and it is absorbed more than vegetable irons. However, excess absorption of iron causes colon cancer.
A good way of getting iron is by cooking in utensils made of iron and drinking non-packaged water. That would give Indians enough iron through food. Iron and zinc salts like ferrous sulphate, ferrous fumarate and zinc sulphate powder will be added to wheat and maize flour. These salts (as the case may be) will also be mixed with rice flour to make make the rice artificially zinc-rich. This rice will then be mixed with ordinary rice in a specific proportion. Rice is an inferior cereal, and it is enriched when consumed with protein and mineral-rich food like fish and pulses.
Many traditional rice varieties contain higher amounts of zinc and iron than what is intended to be injected to artificially increase their content. The zinc component in pearl millet is proposed to be increased by 4 mg per 100 grams. Some varieties of pearl millet, however, contain the same amount of iron and zinc. Millets contain minerals with low glycemic index and finger millets contain a huge amount of calcium, nearly 300 mg per 100 grams.
The programme does not consider this natural calcium needed for healthy bones. Beta carotene, found in vegetables, is the precursor of vitamin A and there has been considerable controversy over introducing beta carotene-rich genetically-modified golden rice. It contains nearly 233 microgram of beta carotene per 100 gram. However, the commonly found Moringa leaves, arum leaves, spinach and pumpkin contain more than 5,000 to 10,000 beta-carotene per hundred gram. There is a similar plan to increase the beta carotene in cabbage.
What the programme ignores is that the absorption of beta carotene is dependent on many physiological factors. Mere artificial increment of beta carotene will not serve the purpose. In general, sweet potatoes lack the antioxidant anthocyanin and it is proposed to increase the anthocyanin in sweet potato, instead of focusing on beet root that contains thousand times more anthocyanin. Black rice like Kalabhat and other black or red rice varieties, all coloured edible flowers, coloured maize, cauliflower, red cabbage and black grams contains high amount of anthocyanin.
The genetic manipulation of food to have artificially-enriched nutritive crops is thus a matter of concern. Indeed, genetically modified crops (GM) are a much-debated issue the world over. India has so far allowed only GM (Bt) Cotton, a non-food crop. The other worrying aspect is that all hybrids and GM crops need high quantities of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Given the contamination of heavy metals like cadmium, chromium, lead and arsenic and such others present in chemical fertilizers, this becomes a serious problem. Crops produced with such chemicals are not only heavily contaminated with pesticide residue and heavy metals, thereby losing the potential benefits of the artificial nutrition addition, they also damage the soil.
Way back in 1935, Sir Albert Howard, a British botanist looking after Indian agriculture expressed this concern. If the soil is devoid of adequate nutrients and organic matter, it can be considered as dead and unhealthy soil; crops grown in such soil will give rise to unhealthy food and consumption of such food leads to diseases. The point is that India has enough crop varieties that pack a great deal of nutrition. Pushing artificially-enriched food without evaluating the nutritive qualities of India’s crop varieties can hardly be the solution to India’s malnourishment. The need is to showcase the nutritive values of India’s traditional food crops and look for solutions through them instead of going for artificially induced nutritive value.
The need is to avoid fast food and hybrids grown with chemical fertilizers and pesticides and encourage, for instance, a homely lunch with pieces of lemon, bitter gourd curry, green salad, sour curd, leafy vegetables, pulses, unpolished rice, seasonal vegetables and fruits. Black rice or red rice are medicinal. Gruel rice, water-soaked fermented rice, different millets, coloured vegetables and such others need to be incorporated in our diets. The government needs to focus on growing these crops organically, ensure that the drinking water is safe and the salt content is right. These do not involve a lot of money but only sensible thinking