The Union government’s plan for mass rice fortification has faced serious objections from civil society since it was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The programme involves adding fortified rice kernels to regular rice and distributing it under the Public Distribution System (PDS) to low-income families. The government claims that this will fight malnutrition and anaemia, but critics argue that there isn’t enough evidence to support this claim.
One of the main criticisms of rice fortification is that it oversimplifies a complex problem. India does have multiple nutritional deficiencies and children often receive inadequate nutrition, but these deficiencies cannot be solved by simply adding fortified rice to their diets. Proper management of nutritional anaemia requires a variety of nutrients, not just iron. Iron treatment can also have detrimental effects, especially in cases of underlying infections or malnutrition.
Furthermore, rice fortification fails to address the barriers to consuming iron-rich foods in India. Animal source foods, which are rich in iron, are often stigmatized and considered “polluted” or “untouchable” in the caste-ridden society. The government’s focus on fortification overlooks the importance of a diverse diet that includes foods like meat, fish, eggs, and vegetables. Without addressing these barriers, no amount of rice fortification will improve the health of the population.
It is concerning that the government is pushing unscientific interventions like rice fortification while simultaneously taking away nutrient-dense foods from people’s plates. Efforts to restrict meat consumption and criminalize cattle slaughter further erode the availability of iron-rich foods. This bias against animal source foods is reflected across the health and nutrition discourse, perpetuated by doctors, researchers, bureaucrats, and elected representatives.
In conclusion, the government’s rice fortification programme has faced valid criticisms from civil society. The focus on fortification oversimplifies the issue of malnutrition and fails to address the barriers to consuming nutrient-dense foods. To truly improve the health of the population, a comprehensive approach that includes diverse diets and addressing stigmas around certain foods is necessary.