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Why Modi govt wants to distribute fortified rice & how it will help combat ‘hidden hunger’

PM Modi in his I-Day speech announces that fortified rice will be distributed through the various food schemes to combat malnourishment among the poor.

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New Delhi: In his Independence Day address to the nation Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that rice distributed under various government schemes such as  the public distribution system (PDS) and mid-day meal (MDM) will be fortified by 2024.

“Malnutrition and lack of micronutrients are affecting the growth of poor children. Looking at this, it has been decided to fortify the rice given to the poor via different government schemes,” the PM said.

The announcement marks a huge push by the central government for fortified rice projects.

Under the current pilot project, which has a budget outlay of Rs 174.6 crore, 130 Lakh Metric Tonnes (LMT) of the foodgrain is being provided to 112 specially identified aspirational districts. The rice is being distributed through various schemes such as PDS, MDM and integrated child development services (ICDS).

However, with Sunday’s announcement, the quantity will need to be scaled up to at least 350 LMT to cover the entire PDS rice supply lines across the country. Also, while PDS caters to almost 81 crore people, with an annual supply of nearly 350 LMT, as much as 31 LMT of rice is supplied through ICDS and MDM — around 8.5 crore beneficiaries under ICDS, and 10.4 crore school children under MDM.

With such an ambitious target set by the central government to combat ‘hidden hunger’ or micro nutritional deficiencies, ThePrint explains what fortified rice is and why it is so important.

Also read: The 5 big announcements by PM Modi in his Independence Day speech

What is fortification

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), fortification is the process of increasing the content of an essential micronutrient, such as vitamins or minerals, in a food item to improve its nutritional value and provide public health benefits at minimal cost.

Food fortification is identified as one of the strategies used by WHO and the Food and Agriculture Organization to tackle nutrient deficiencies at a global level with more than 86 countries working on cereal grain fortification like rice, wheat and maize amongst others.

Fortification has a distinct edge over supplements when it comes to combating micronutrient deficiency. It has minimal effects on taste and cooking properties while at the same time adding multiple nutrients to cure multiple deficiencies. It also has minimal behaviour change, unlike supplements.

With such benefits, fortification is a preferable choice to combat micronutrient malnutrition at a mass scale.

Rice is the fifth item to get the government’s fortification push after salt, edible oil, milk and wheat.

Also read: Rice with zinc, wheat with protein — Bio-fortified crops can fight India’s hidden hunger

Why fortified rice

Micronutrient malnutrition — a shortage of essential vitamins or minerals — is often unnoticeable. The people it affects frequently don’t show any clinical symptoms but its consequences are long-lasting, a reason for the term ‘hidden hunger’.

It makes people vulnerable to infectious diseases compromising their physical as well as mental development, hampering their productivity and increases the risk of premature death along with other ailments.

Adding vitamins or minerals to most commonly eaten foods (fortification) has already been tried to reduce these deficiencies. For example, the addition of folate or iodine to items such as flour and salt. However, rice, which is a staple food for more than half of the world’s population, is being added to the list.

Cultivated and consumed in many parts of the world, rice makes for a promising avenue for ensuring fortified foods reach a large number of people. It helps tackle micronutrient deficiencies widespread in countries, which are are also high consumers of rice, thereby helping vulnerable populations.

India is one of the largest producers of rice, and accounts for 22 per cent of the world’s rice production. It is also a leading consumer, with a per capita rice consumption of 6.8 kg/ month.

According to operational guidelines for the pilot scheme-fortification of rice, and its distribution through the PDS by the Department of Food and Public Distribution, food ministry, India is home to about 60 per cent of the world’s anaemic preschool children, 50 per cent of anaemic pregnant women, and a quarter of anaemic men. Iron deficiency anaemia contributes to half of the global anaemia cases and results in an 8 point lower intelligence quotient in children.

Moreover, according to the National Nutrition Monitoring report, more than 50 per cent of the population across any age group consumes less than 50 per cent of the recommended dietary allowance for iron, zinc, vitamin A, folate, and other B vitamins.

In addition to iron deficiency, other vitamin-mineral deficiencies such as vitamin A, vitamin B12, folic acid and zinc, continue to co-exist and damage health and productivity of the population.

The country reportedly loses around 1 per cent of GDP (Rs 1.35 lakh crore) every year due to iron-deficiency anaemia. Also, research by the Observer Research Foundation suggests that $1 (approximately around Rs 74) spent on nutritional interventions in India could generate USD 34.1-38.6 (Rs 2,530.80-Rs 2,864.78) in public economic returns, three times more than the global average.

Also read: Rice, the one grain that’s keeping the world’s food crisis from getting worse

How to fortify rice

According to the norms of the Food and Safety Standards Authority of India, 1 kg of fortified rice must contain iron (28mg-42.5mg), folic acid (75-125 mg) and vitamin B-12 (0.75-1.25mg).

Usual milled rice is low in micronutrient content because its nutrient-rich superficial layer is removed during rice milling and polishing operations. This makes the grain taste better and visually appealing but less nutritious.

Rice can be fortified by adding a micronutrient powder containing iron, folic acid and other B-complex vitamins, vitamin A and zinc, which then sticks to the grains. A vitamin and mineral mix can also be sprayed on the surface of ordinary rice grains in several layers to form a protective coating.

Another way of fortification is to extrude the micronutrients and shape them into partially pre-cooked grain-like structures resembling rice grains, which can then be blended with polished rice in a ratio ranging from 1:50 to 1:200. The ideal ratio is 1:100. This way the fortified rice is identical in aroma, taste and texture to regular rice.

(Edited by Manasa Mohan)

Also read: Black rice, the ‘forbidden’ grain that earned UP’s Chandauli big UNDP praise and good profit


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