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regular-article-logo Monday, 17 June 2024

Unwholesome: Editorial on study suggesting a drop in nutritional value of rice and wheat

A majority of consumers thus remain vulnerable to the threat of ailments like anaemia, weakened immunity and maternal mortality, thereby adding to India's increasing burden of diseases

The Editorial Board Published 05.02.24, 07:42 AM
Representational image.

Representational image. File Photo

Rice and wheat — Indian staples — are integral to meeting the country’s dietary requirements as well as its economic productivity. However, research has revealed that the nutritional value of these principal crops has been less than satisfactory. According to a recent study funded by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, concentrations of essential micronutrients such as zinc and iron in rice have decreased by 33% and 27%, respectively, over the past five decades. The corresponding figures of decline in wheat are 30% and 19%, respectively. Worryingly, the diminishing values of vital nutrients have been accompanied by the ascendant levels of hazardous substances such as arsenic, barium, strontium and chromium. Data suggest that there has been a staggering 1,493% increase in arsenic quantity in rice, mostly in the high-yielding varieties that are engineered to produce superior grain quality and are resistant to pests. This is significant because researchers have alleged that it is the ceaseless genetic modifications of traditional crop varieties along with modern breeding programmes — key traits of new-age agrarian practices — that have led to this alarming decline in the nutrient profiles of staples. The negative implications of this on the population's wellness cannot be overemphasised. Notably, Indians consumed 108.5 million metric tonnes of rice between 2022 and 2023 whereas wheat consumption was about 104 million metric tonnes. A majority of consumers thus remain vulnerable to the threat of ailments like anaemia, weakened immunity and maternal mortality, thereby adding to India's increasing burden of diseases.

A deeper probe into the phenomenon would put the spotlight on some enduring lacunae in agricultural policy-making. The disproportionate thrust on productivity aimed towards feeding India's growing number of hungry mouths, as envisioned in the Green Revolution, seems to have exacted a toll on ecological imperatives as well as on public health. Crops, it seems, have lost the capacity to absorb nutrients from the soil. The devastating impacts of climate change have also dented crop yield. Unfortunately, the Indian government has been addressing such challenges with knee-jerk measures like iron-fortified rice, which has the potential to do more harm than good. A radical rethinking of agrarian strategy is in order. Traditional agrarian practices, such as zero-chemical farming, must be revived and soil fertility enhanced. Farmers should be incentivised to cultivate diverse crops and break the duopoly of rice and wheat. Funding for research to guide Indian agriculturalists must also be prioritised.

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