Fortified rice leading to side effects among Adivasis: Experts
New Delhi: The Union government’s plan to distribute subsidised iron-fortified rice may do more harm than good to Adivasis, or indigenous populations, who suffer from sickle-cell anaemia and thalassemia and are genetically prone to these ailments, a multidisciplinary fact-finding team of NGOs, which included medical experts, has said.
On April 8, the Union Cabinet approved a programme to supply fortified rice in government-run food schemes, including to 800 million beneficiaries under the public distribution system, to tackle malnutrition and poor health outcomes of a large section of the population.
The decision follows Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement during his 2021 Independence Day speech that his government would distribute only fortified rice by 2024 in all food schemes. The programme is likely to cost the government nearly ₹2700 crore.
Iron deficiency and anaemia are fairly widespread in the country. According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 2019-21, the 5th in the series, India has seen little improvement in health and nutritional outcomes.
Anaemia among children under five years has only worsened, with prevalence of nearly 67.1% compared to 58.6% according to NFHS’s fourth round, while 57% of women of reproductive age are anaemic.
However, iron-fortified rice distribution has shown adverse health impact among Adivasi populations suffering from sickle-cell anaemia and thalassemia, the fact-finding team found after visiting a tribal belt in Jharkhand, where fortified rice is being given in a pilot project.
“For population with these blood disorders, fortified iron is not an answer. The FSSAI’s regulations on fortified foods ask for mandatory labelling, to have a (warning) statement that asks thalassemia patients to consume such iron-fortified food under medical supervision,” Prasad said. “It further warns sickle-cell anaemia patients not to consume iron-fortified food.” FSSAI stands for the food regulator Food Standards and Safety Authority of India.
The food ministry did not respond to a questionnaire from HT seeking comments on the findings.
While some research has shown that biofortified foods may be a solution to improve such deficiencies, other research show a blanket approach to iron-fortified rice may not be a silver bullet. Many experts say a diversified diet is the best answer to malnourishment.
The team, which interviewed several recipients of fortified rice, found a sizable population in Jharkhand plagued with anaemia but also vulnerable to blood disorders like thalassemia and sickle-cell anaemia.
The fact-finding team included Vandana Prasad, a public health expert associated with the Right to Food Campaign, Kavitha Kuruganti, farmers’ rights activist with ASHA-Kisan Swaraj, Balram and James Herenz of the Right to Food Campaign, Jharkhand, Rohin Kumar of Greenpeace India.