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Indians might be eating rice and wheat that are not only low in food value, but also high on toxins

ByNE India Broadcast

Jan 24, 2024 #CSE

The rice and wheat that Indians are eating today might actually be of low nutritional value, says a latest report by Down To Earth magazine citing a recent study led by scientists from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR).

“For the past 50 years, India has been introducing high-yielding rice and wheat varieties at breakneck speed to achieve food security. The ICAR-led study has examined the food value of these modern grains and reports that breeding programmes focused on developing high-yielding varieties have altered the nutrient profiles of rice and wheat — to the extent that their dietary and nutritional value has gone down,” says the magazine.

The study has gone ahead to assess the health impact of this “historical shift” in nutrient profiles of rice and wheat, and warns that the impoverished staple grains could worsen the country’s growing burden of non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

Down To Earth and Centre for Science and Environment (CSE, which helps publish the magazine) organised a webinar here today to discuss the magazine’s coverage of the new study. Panellists included Sovan Debnath, Soil Scientist, ICAR-Central Agroforestry Research Institute, Jhansi and the lead author of the study; Biswapati Mandal, former Professor, Directorate of Research, Bidhan Chandra Krishi Viswavidyalaya, Kalyani and the study’s co-author; Ishi Khosla, Clinical Nutritionist, Consultant and Writer, and Shagun, Senior Correspondent, Down To Earth.

When the Green Revolution began in India, the aim was to feed the rapidly growing population and to become self-sufficient in food production. Hence, the main motive of agricultural scientists was to improve yield. Speaking at the webinar, Dr Mandal said: “After the 1980s, the focus of breeders shifted to developing varieties that were resistant to pests and diseases and tolerant to stresses such as salinity, moisture and drought. They did not have the luxury of thinking whether the plants were taking in nutrients from the soil or not. Hence, over a period of time, what we are seeing is that plants have lost their capacity to take up nutrients from the soil.”

The 2023 study is an extension of another study that scientists from ICAR and Bidhan Chandra Krishi Viswavidyalaya conducted in 2021. The study explored the reasons for zinc and iron deficiency in populations dependent on a cereal diet — high-yielding cultivars of rice and wheat, when tested, revealed a downward trend in grain density of zinc and iron.

Says Debnath, who was one of the scientists behind the 2021 study as well: “Our experiments showed that modern-bred cultivars of rice and wheat are less efficient in sequestering nutrients like zinc and iron, despite their availability in soil.”

The 2021 study also showed that the increase in the proportion of the global population suffering from zinc and iron deficiency over the last four decades coincided with the global expansion of high-yielding, input-responsive cereal cultivars released in the post-Green Revolution era.

Reporting on the study, Down To Earth says that in the past 50 years, the concentration of essential nutrients like zinc and iron has decreased by 33 per cent and 27 per cent in rice, and by 30 per cent and 19 per cent in wheat, respectively.

What’s worse, the concentration of arsenic, a toxic element, in rice has increased by 1,493 per cent. “In other words, our staple foodgrains are not only less nutritious, but also harmful to health. Amid continuous genetic tampering under the modern breeding programme, the plants have also lost their natural evolutionary defence mechanisms against toxins,” says the Down To Earth report.

Depleted concentration of essential nutrients in staple grains could result in higher prevalence of diseases related to neurological, reproductive and musculoskeletal systems. Speaking at the webinar, Shagun of Down To Earth pointed out that “agricultural practices that the Green Revolution shaped have often been criticised for their impact on environment and food systems. But discussions have rarely
moved beyond the impact on soil degradation, surface water pollution, groundwater depletion and mono-cropping. This study has put the spotlight on the impact of the Green Revolution on the nutritional security of India.”

What is India doing to bolster nutrition

Significant efforts are being made in the country to improve the nutritional profile of foodgrains. Agricultural scientists have turned to landraces and wild species of cultivated varieties for answers. Under a special project on bio-fortification, launched by the Union government, scientists at ICAR and other agriculture universities have undertaken germplasm exploration to find donor varieties that are high in nutritional content. So far, institutes under ICAR have developed 142 bio-fortified varieties. “However,” says Shagun, “these varieties are far from being popularised and adopted by farmers on a large scale.”

Scientists Down To Earth spoke to say bio-fortification of other essential elements like manganese, copper and calcium will take some time as breeding and releasing any variety is a long and arduous task. Says Shagun: “Rice and wheat are staple foods for the majority of India’s population. Our report is significant in the context of the health impacts the impoverished grains can lead to.”

(A CSE Report)

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