Bangladesh: Zinc rice innovation falters as cultivation slumps 

The country sees lower cultivation of biofortified zinc rice despite developing such paddy a decade ago by the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) to meet the deficiency of micronutrients in the human body.

Experts say cultivation of these paddy varieties is not growing at a comparable rate due to the relatively low taste of the coarse rice and lack of awareness about its health benefit.  Besides, the newly-developed rice is not becoming popular due to the availability of hybrid rice and people’s lack of knowledge about the nutritional value of zinc-enriched rice.

Various companies in the country have developed 16 varieties of zinc-enriched paddy, including seven by BRRI since 2013. But, farmers have so far cultivated only six varieties of those.   

Shahjahan Kabir, director general of BRRI, said 60-70% of the need for zinc in the human body is possible to fulfil by consumption of bio-fortified zinc rice. But the varieties of rice are not becoming popular due to the lack of knowledge about its nutritional value, and lack of the study of its effects on the human body after consumption.  Moreover, the farmers do not benefit from zinc-enriched paddy cultivation.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, biofortified zinc paddy was cultivated in only 1.20 lakh hectares of land across the country in 2022. Whereas paddy was grown on more than 1.08 crore hectares of land in Aman, Aush, and Boro sessions together in the country. 

The prevalence of zinc deficiency was 45.40% and 32.5% among women and children, respectively in Bangladesh.  Due to zinc deficiency, 41% of children under five are undersized. Deficiency is high among low-income people, who are lagging in zinc intake mainly from animal-based sources. Zinc biofortified rice is believed to be able to overcome this deficiency to a large extent.

What is biofortified zinc rice?

The human body needs a lot of micronutrients. To meet these needs, the body requires zinc-enriched foods like carbohydrates and protein. If there are no micronutrients in the food, it creates various imbalances in the body, causing various diseases like diabetes, hypertension, and obesity.

To ensure the supply of zinc-enrich foods to its people, the BRRI started research on zinc-enriched rice in 1995 and developed BFR-62 variety biofortified zinc rice in 2013.   Then the BRRI developed BRRI-68, BRRI-72, BRRI-74, BRRI-84, and BRRI-100 and BRRI-102 in phases.

BRRI Scientific Officer Abdul Kader said among the BRRI-developed rice, per kilogram BRRI-84 paddy contains 27-milligram zinc. Besides, per kg of Bangabandhu Paddy-100, the newly-developed paddy variety, contains 25.7-mg zinc, which can meet the half of required zinc for the human body.

As rice is the staple food in the country, it is easy to supply zinc through biofortified zinc rice. These rice can cover up to 60-70% of zinc deficiency in the body of children and mothers he added.

Poor cultivation leads to a project for adding zinc to rice

The presence of zinc-enrich varieties of paddy is low in the field despite the development of various new varieties. Farmers are still cultivating common varieties of rice.

Agriculture Minister Abdur Razzaque said the farmers are not cultivating these paddy varieties due to the reluctance of the customers to have the zinc-enriched rice despite the efforts of the government.

He said people do not show enthusiasm for zinc-enriched rice as zinc-enriched rice is coarse. They prefer thin and polished rice.

The government has taken up a Tk58-crore project for zinc fortification to rice without boosting efforts to increase the cultivation of newly developed paddy.

The BRRI Director General said, “Zinc fortification (artificial application of zinc to rice) is not a viable method at all. The nutrition of biofortified zinc rice is not last long. After the second time washing of rice, zinc starts to run out.”

The government can increase the cultivation of bio-fortified zinc paddy by providing incentives to the farmers. It also can create a market for zinc-enriched rice by creating awareness among people of the country, he suggested.

This article has been republished from The Business Standard.