Navigation towards food security and nutrition through a rice-based agri-food system

This blog post is written by Anudini Wijayarathna, intern at SLU Global & Master’s student in Rural Development & Natural Resource Management at SLU. The content is based on her experience in participating a GOBESHONA (7th) Global Conference Session.

Image by Nandalal Sarkar from Pixabay 

I would not argue with the fact that life is not the same amidst this global pandemic affecting almost all the global citizens. Yet, I believe that acquiring knowledge should not be hindered by that. For me, it has been a great experience having the chance to participate in GOBESHONA Global Conference session on ‘Innovations in the Rice-based Agri-food Systems to improve Food Security and Nutrition’.

GOBESHONA (7th) Global Conference on ‘Locally Led Adaptation’ was hosted by the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) online from 18 to 24January 2021. This particular conference session listed under the category of Food Security & Agriculture lead by Mahjabeen Rahman, programme coordinator, International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) consisted of three presentations, out of which two drew my interest the most.

Ensuring food security while combating nutrition deficiency

The presentation; ‘Healthier rice for healthier future’ was presented by the affiliated personalities at the IRRI and Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI); Ibrahim Saiyed, Bangladesh Country Manager of Healthier Rice Program, Ahamed Salahuddin, Consultant and Syada Munia Hoque, Senior Specialist of Nutrition. They brought up the discussion on introducing ‘Golden Rice’ and ‘High Iron & Zinc Rice’ by IRRI to Bangladesh not only as a stimulating factor of food security, sustainable rural livelihoods, and economic development, but also as a solution to country’s prevailing micronutrient deficiency.

Golden Rice is developed by adding Beta carotene gene from yellow maize into ‘BRRI dhan29’, which is a high yielding rice variety already cultivating in Bangladesh. The Beta carotene gene in Golden Rice which converts into vitamin A in human body specifically addresses the substantial issue of vitamin A deficiency. The High Iron & Zinc Rice is formed through adding Ferritin-1 genes from apple, kidney bean and soybean into rice variety ‘BRRI dhan28’. The composition of High Iron & Zinc Rice results in high concentration of iron and zinc, which helps to tackle the iron and zinc deficiency amongst people in the country.

As a result of existing significant level of poverty or extreme poverty in Bangladesh where vulnerable people cannot afford a proper nutritious diet, subsequently the general public suffers from malnourishment. Since rice is a staple food in Bangladesh, the presentation upheld promoting Golden Rice and High Iron & Zinc Rice as it would be an ideal solution to combat so-called issues. Even though, a deployment strategy for these varieties of rice is arranged, dissemination of them among the agricultural sector is still under process of receiving regulatory approval.

The content was appreciated, as it is a constructive solution to fulfil the dire need of the country. Nevertheless, the question raised from the audience was, why this administration procedure in Bangladesh is still lagging behind in a context where, international actors like Australia and New Zealand (2017), USA and Canada (2018) and Philippine (2019) have already approved Golden Rice? It was even suggested that the IRRI should communicate and collaborate with the authorities to expedite the approval process. Besides, it was proposed to have more advocacy through scientific, research and policy education in promoting these varieties. Moreover, the requirement for an awareness discussion on the nutrition level of these rice varieties even after processing (polishing) and cooking was also depicted.

Acquiring food security through machine-sown Direct Seeded Rice

The next presentation; ‘Directly-sown rice to address labour and energy constraints to precision rice establishment’ was delivered by M. Murshedul Alam, Scientist, Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia (CSISA)-III project, IRRI. He highlighted the ‘machine-sown Direct Seeded Rice (DSR) in Aus technique’ in rice cultivation as a possible solution to address the issues such as labour shortage, water scarcity etc, in Bangladesh. ‘Machine-sown DSR in Aus technique’ is a method of planting rice directly in the field by spreading seeds using machinery instead of transplanting. Transplanting is the traditional method, where the seeds are sown in a different place first and once the seedlings are ready, they will be planted in the puddled field manually or mechanically.

Several comparative evaluations were presented between different rice planting methods such as ‘machine sown DSR’, ‘hand broadcasted DSR’ and ‘manual transplantation’ in relation to the quantity of yields, landscape positions, labour use for land preparation etc. Accordingly, except in the lower landscape, ‘machine sown DSR in Aus technique’ was projected as the most probable alternative in both higher and medium landscapes in Bangladesh. This technique optimises the profit with a higher yield together with a lower requirement of water and labour.

Apart from that, CSISA-III is also involved in awareness raising programmes among the community regarding ‘DSR in Aus technique’ such as providing subsidy and conducting training on machinery usage etc. Thus, the usage of this technique was mostly acknowledged by the audience while highlighting the necessity of development in technology to cater sustainable agriculture and food security.

Manual transplanting on puddled soil. Image by Nandalal Sarkar from Pixabay 

Seeing a better future or not?

As a final remark, I view these attempts presented in these presentations as very much constructive propositions in dealing with food security and nutrition amongst all the challenges Bangladesh is currently undergoing. Especially, I also consider that, promoting Golden Rice and High Iron & Zinc Rice together with machine sown DSR in Aus technique within the agricultural sector are frugal and credible initiatives in expansion of a rice-based agri-food system in Bangladesh.

On the other hand, as I am having roots in Sri Lanka, I believe introducing Golden Rice and High Iron & Zinc Rice even to the rice cultivation and national diet in Sri Lanka, will be a healthier option to strengthen the country’s food security and nutrition more. Particularly because, Sri Lanka being located in the South Asian region same as Bangladesh, having similar tropical climate conditions, having almost the same monsoon rain-based rice cultivation seasons and with rice being a staple food in both countries I see the possibility of paving the way towards this alternative in Sri Lanka.

At the same time, I believe, these tasks will not be simple, especially because, adopting and adapting to these innovations among the general public seems time consuming. Thus, in order to realise them and to make them sustainable, a lot of stable groundwork have to be laid. Apart from that, health and food can be considered as interdependent entities. In order to be healthy one needs to have nutritious food whereas one who is not in good health has difficulties in accessing and utilising nutritious food. Therefore, accomplishment of all these initiatives will also depend on the success of the country in controlling Covid-19 pandemic as currently, it managed to destabilise the ordinary livelihoods of people, not only in Bangladesh but also in the whole world.

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