The fate of 400,000 tonnes of rice hung in balance for more than a year
The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has certified the controversial rice variety PAU-201 as fit for human consumption.
The fate of 400,000 tonnes of rice, costing Rs 4,000 crore, was hanging in balance for more than a year; Food Corporation of India (FCI), the Central procurement agency, and the Punjab government could not reach an agreement on PAU-201, named after Punjab Agriculture University that developed it. FCI said the rice variety had black spots on its grains and in some instances exceeded permissible percentage of damage and the grains were broken. It said these factors made the rice unfit for consumption. The agriculture university claimed the spots were due to iron in the rice.
ICMR submitted its report to the Government of India in the last week of September stating that levels of aflatoxin, toxic metabolites produced by certain fungi, in the rice samples were within safe limits, less that 30µ/kg. It said there was no fungus in the rice. The report dismissed the agriculture university’s claim that the spots on the rice were due to high iron content.
The ICMR committee headed by the medical council’s deputy director general, G S Toteja, collected 35 paddy samples from mills in six districts of Punjab from August 21 to August 23. These samples were analysed at National Institute of Nutrition in Hyderabad, Exports Inspection Agency in Kochi and Vimta Lab in Hyderabad.
Farmers took to the rice for four reasons: higher grain yield, resistance to bacterial disease late blight, early maturity (it matures 15 days before others) and 10 to 15 per cent less water requirement. In three years 35 per cent of the 26 million hectares under paddy farming in Punjab were growing this variety.
But on August 31, PAU- 201 rocked the Lok Sabha when members of Parliament belonging to Shiromani Akali Dal, ruling party in Punjab, called an attention motion. The rice costs around Rs 4,000 crore and the government is paying no heed to it, they said. The experts have proved that it is fit for consumption. “If the spots are a problem, the rice could be distributed to the poor at subsidised rates,” Gurdaspur MP Pratap Singh Bajwa told Down To Earth (DTE).
The controversy over the rice variety kicked off last year when newspapers in Punjab published reports that PAU-201 was toxic. The state’s rice mill owners followed with a chorus of complaints about the grain breaking while milling. In December 2009, FCI and the Food and Public Distribution department announced the PAU-201 variety of paddy milled in Punjab had higher incidence of damaged grains than the permitted 4.75 per cent. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research then formed a committee headed by R T Patil, director of the Central Institute of Post-Harvest Engineering and Technology, in Ludhiana. The team was asked to submit a report within five days.
The report said the variety was fit for consumption. Talking to DTE, Patil said, “We found that iron content in the spotted rice was higher than in normal rice of the same sample and overall iron content in PAU- 201 is higher than conventional rice.” This conformed with the results obtained earlier for Phalguna variety in 1982, in Andhra Pradesh. “So one of the reasons of blackening may be iron, but this needs to be authenticated by detailed studies which have now been taken up at the Directorate of Rice Research,” he added.
PAU director of research S S Gosal said, “The black and brown spots on rice are the result of the plant’s genetic character; it could be induced by the presence of phenolics, an anti-oxidant. Only eight to 10 per cent of the grains have spots.” As for the claim that the rice is rich in iron, it is based on the report submitted by the Central Institute of Post-Harvest Engineering and Technology which ICMR has rejected.
ICMR report on spotted rice