Back to TRADITIONAL rice
Sometime in the year 2003, a bumper harvest saw rice prices plummeting in Sri Lanka severely affecting the paddy farmers of the country. The Government of the time decided that a concerted communications campaign was necessary to increase the demand for rice. The advertising company Phoenix-Ogilvy was given this task.

It coincided with one of my first conversations with Irvin Weerackody who was instrumental in initiating me into the fascinating world of advertising, a venture which I believe helped considerably improve my writing skills among other things. He asked me to come up with a line. So I did: ‘yali sahalata’ and the English version, ‘Back to rice.’ The idea was accepted and of course considerably enhanced by the Phoenix creative team.

At that time, as had been for several decades, the focus was on obtaining food security. Interesting term. Although it has connotations of self-sufficiency, what it really implies is the ability to either grow all the food a country (or a household or an individual) needs or possess the means to purchase the same. For those who believed that the former was the better option, which would make the term ‘food sovereignty’ more appropriate, it was about volume. In short, it was about growing all the food needed in the island itself.

There’s something missing though. Nutrition. New ‘improved’ rice varieties introduced with the Green ‘Revolution’ (the quotation marks are significant, please note) were hailed as miracles. Shailesh Awate, Co-founder of OOO Farms, a social movement in India, argues, however, that the term ‘improved’ was misleading because it suggested what people were eating before was underdeveloped.

The new varieties did help countries become self-sufficient but they also brought with them a lot of problems. They were thirsty for chemical fertilizers, demanded insecticides and pesticides and required farmers to buy new seeds every year. Traditional rice varieties had been developed over centuries and were adapted to specific environments. Most importantly, their nutritional benefits were immense.

So ‘back to rice’ on the face of it addressed a particular problem and did justice to the brief submitted by the then Government — necessary but not sufficient, one has to conclude in retrospect.

The self-sufficiency drive was launched in a context of the above ‘miracle’ as well as more than half a century since Japan developed technology to separate the inedible outer husk of rice grains which polished the grain so much that the bran got removed and turned brown rice into white. The removal of fibre and nutrients through polishing, it is now acknowledged, has affected the health of populations with rice-heavy diets. Dr. Vasanti Malik of the University of Toronto, points out that ‘white rice, because it lacks fibre and other nutrients, is absorbed quickly, prompting rapid spikes of blood glucose and insulin levels which, over time, increases the chances of developing diabetes.’ Asia, unsurprisingly, is projected to see the biggest rise in diabetes cases by 2045.

Strangely, though, the World Health Organisation in its report on non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, has recommended as long ago as 2002 that it would be prudent for countries to shift to traditional foods. It seems, then, that the subjects of agriculture and health (and within it, nutrition) have existed like two countries separated by oceans, mountains and massive chasms.

The problem is a fascination or even fixation with improving yield density at the cost of virtually abandoning nutrition density and along with it traditional rice varieties. Dr. Sirimal Premakumara of Colombo University, after studying brown, purple, red and gluteus varieties of rice still grown in Sri Lanka, concludes that their nutritional density is superior to even that of the iron-fortified ‘breakthrough rice’ developed by Thailand.

The ITI (Industrial Technology Institute) data shows that traditional varieties such as Pachchaperumal, Kalu Baala Vee, Rath Suwandel, Kalu Heenati, Rathu Heenati, Gona Baru, Kahavanu, Madathavalu and Beth Heenati are considerably richer in protein, iron and antioxidants than the modern, hybrid varieties that have been pushed over so many decades. They have superior anti-diabetes and anti-cancer properties, higher fibre content, improve immune systems and are far more nutritious.

The argument can be made and indeed is often tossed around that traditional varieties will not help the cause of achieving self-sufficiency. That’s bad science, isn’t it? First of all, they were rubbished by ‘experts’. Then they were deemed to be useless in the context of the yield-mantra, a gain proposed by experts who didn’t seem to think that nutrition needed to be considered. It was always about volumes, never mind if the population was forced to eat tons of unhealthy rice. Never mind if the Treasury had to allocate more and more money to deal with patients with non communicable diseases such as diabetes.

An unhealthy population is ok as long as they aren’t hungry, it’s ok if they suffer, it’s ok if they die young, seems to be ‘expert thinking’. All ok as long as manufacturers of so-called miracle seeds, agrochemicals and paddlers of such things profit and prosper, we might add. And the current call for ‘fortified rice’ is not about shifting to a different culture of consumption, it’s not about promoting traditional rice varieties or research on the same, perhaps towards improving yields, or about communication campaigns on eating better and on the severe risks of bad food habits. These things need to be talked about.

Back to rice. Good. Not good enough. Back to traditional rice. Better. Much better. Maybe the Government can consider commissioning a communication campaign along these lines. It could be a simple, four-word brief: ‘Back to TRADITIONAL rice.’

Date: 12-Jan-2023