The government replies blow in the face of claims of fortified rice being a silver bullet to solve the high prevalence of undernutrition and anaemia in India. The government has given a go-ahead to the provisioning of fortified rice as part of the Public Distribution Scheme.
Two queries by Greenpeace India addressed to different bodies of the government under the Right to Information Act have thrown up discrepancies that blow the lid off the government’s claims on fortified rice, the international NGO claims.
In a RTI response, the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution could not provide any specific survey or data on the scientific basis for the pilot project of rice fortification, Greenpeace India claimed.
The reply mentioned that the ministry had taken into consideration the National Family Health Survey- 4 (NFHS-4) to approve the Centrally Sponsored Pilot Scheme on ‘Fortification of Rice and its Distribution under Public Distribution System’ for a period of three years beginning in 2019-20.
In the reply received by Greenpeace, the ministry has said that, “Third-party evaluation of the ongoing pilot scheme is due in the third year i.e. in 2021-2022,” which hasn’t been done yet.
Another RTI question from Greenpeace India aimed at the Indian Council of Medical Research, National Institute of Nutrition (ICMR-NIN). The organisation enquired if the twosome had conducted any study to estimate the wholesome impact of the chemically fortified food on the health of people with special focus on pregnant women, nursing mothers, under five year children, undernourished and malnourished children.
In response, ICMR-NIN mentioned that they have not conducted any study to ascertain the impact of chemically fortified food.
ICMR has also said that it did conduct a double blind randomized controlled study in government primary school children (in the 5 to 11 years age group) on fortified rice served as part of their mid-day meal. But their findings showed, “iron fortified rice has a similar effect as mid-day meal on improvement in anaemia.”
This reply to the query is certain to lead to further questions by advocacy groups doubting government’s assumptions and claims that fortified rice could be helpful in eradicating anaemia.
A clear inference of this reply, says Greenpeace India, is that mid-day meal schemes can be a boost in the fight against malnutrition and anaemia, if improvised with attention to food diversity and effectively implemented.
Diverse diets work better
These replies blow in the face of government claims of fortified rice being a silver bullet to solve the high prevalence of undernutrition and anaemia in the country. The government has given a go-ahead to the provisioning of fortified rice as part of the Public Distribution Scheme.
According to Dr Veena Shatrugna, Former Deputy Director of the National Institute of Nutrition, “The fortification project is not formulated from a sound medical science point of view. Any one food item cannot provide all nutrients in adequate amounts.”
“Solutions to anaemia, hunger and malnutrition can only be resolved by introducing diverse foods like several cereals, pulses, fruits, vegetables and even animal foods into the diet rather than looking for a one bullet solution like fortification,” she says.
“Enough research is available to suggest that only dietary diversity can ensure eradication of malnutrition and anaemia,” said Ishteyaque Ahmed, Senior Campaigner at Greenpeace India. “The government must focus on making mid-day meals and PDS more effective by making it regular and also adding adequate nutritional value.”
The Central government believes that fortified food will help fight the crisis of undernutrition and anaemia. The public distribution system (PDS), mid-day meal and Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) have been harnessed to distribute fortified rice in all states.
The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) claims that, “Food fortification is a scientifically proven, cost-effective, scalable and sustainable global intervention that addresses the issue of micronutrient deficiencies.”
But campaigners advocating for food diversification instead of fortification point to conflict of interests on the part of FSSAI. “Entities that will benefit from the rice fortification push are even housed in regulatory bodies like FSSAI,” says the Right to Food Campaign, pointing to the enormous influence these entities have on policy decision-making.