What is rice fortification? Does India really need this Rs 2,700 crore per annum scheme?

There is more to food and nourishment than just rice

By DTE Staff
Published: Thursday 05 May 2022

Last year on August 15, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his Independence Day speech, announced a plan to distribute fortified rice to the poor by 2024. He said this could be accomplished under different schemes, including through Public Distribution Systems (PDS) and Mid-Day Meals.

This year on April 7, the Union Cabinet approved a proposal to distribute fortified rice under all government schemes, as a solution to tackle the problem of nutritional deficiency. The government will spend about Rs 2,700 crore per year on the scheme but is it really worth it?

First, let us understand what fortification is and why India requires it. What is rice fortification? Fortification is a process through which essential micronutrients in food are deliberately added to boost nutritional quality that helps improve public health.

This is done by a process called extrusion. The micronutrients added to rice are iron, folic acid, vitamin B-12, zinc, vitamin A, vitamin B-1, vitamin B-2, vitamin B-3 and vitamin B-6 per kg.

Why rice fortification? India is the second-largest producer and consumer of rice in the world, accounting for some 20 per cent of global production. Almost a third of Indians depend on rice for sustenance.

According to the food ministry, India has very high levels of malnutrition among women and children. Every second woman in the country is anaemic and every third child is stunted. Thus, fortification of food is viewed as one of the most suitable methods to combat malnutrition.

Per capita rice consumption in India is 6.8 kg per month. Therefore, fortifying rice with micronutrients is an option to supplement the diet of the poor.

But is this fortification really necessary? Contemporary evidence indicates that iron deficiency is neither rampant nor omnipresent and therefore, does not require a universal (mandatory) solution. Clearly, mandatory fortification is not required as the deficiency is not universal.

There is more to food and nourishment than just rice. Is just rice enough? What about diversity? It is an oxymoron that fortification will complement and co-exist with dietary diversification.

The NIN food plate for Indians stipulates that a diverse and healthy plate of food must not contain more than 40 per cent of the total calories from cereals, of which only a fraction should be from rice.

Yet, the fortification is likely to instruct people to eat 250-350 gm fortified rice per day. Whither dietary diversity? We need gentler, safer, long-term and sustainable solutions, that involve the community and stimulate diet diversification. We must resist the fascination with technology and universality and go local (solutions) for global (problems).

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