Eating brown rice and cooking with rice bran oil – A paradox?

Every few years newspapers and magazines will quote medical practitioners, nutritionists and other health gurus to tell us that a certain cooking fat is the super-oil. Traditionally used oils such as mustard, coconut, groundnut, sesame, rapeseed will be discarded and people will start rushing to buy this new super-oil. Advertisements on television, in magazines and newspapers will extol the virtues of the new heart-healthy oil…saffola, sunola, olive oil and so on. The last one not from an oil seed traditionally grown in India. More recently the praises of rice bran oil are being sung loudly as the next heart-healthy oil. It is different from the rest – it is not from an oil seed unlike all traditional oils. So what is it? If you take a grain of paddy and remove the hull (see Figure of Rice Grain Structure below) what we are left with is unpolished brown rice.



At this stage rice is a whole grain and is rich in dietary fibre, various  antioxidants, minerals and some vitamins. When this grain of rice is polished to make white rice (so that it can be stored easily for long duration)  the dark layers called “bran” are removed. This bran is rich in oils and it is this oil that is being extracted to produce rice bran oil. Traditionally in India and other South Asian countries, rice bran has been used as animal feed. In parts of India (e.g., Kerala) where rice is consumed as parboiled rice, some of the bran is held in the rice grain during the parboiling process thereby retaining the fibre and nutritional value of rice. When we consume white, polished rice we are essentially consuming a refined grain that is primarily a source of starch with very little dietary fibre.

With this context let us look at the brown-rice-rice bran oil paradox. Whole grains are more nutritious, they have a low glycemic index, and in a population with increasing incidence of diabetes there is a great demand for whole grains such as brown rice or rice with bran. This demand is more in urban areas among the upper middle class. Demand for rice bran oil is also increasing in this class of society because it has a mild flavour, very suitable for high-temperature cooking like frying and is purported to be a heart-healthy oil. In addition, no manifestations of allergies have been reported with this oil, a fear that many urban Indians are beginning to express with groundnut oil (another import from globalisation – peanut allergy)!

Doctors are recommending rice bran oil because its active constituents reportedly improve blood cholesterol and increase the proportion of the good cholesterol (HDL cholesterol). So if you are really conscious of your health then you will want to eat brown rice (rice with bran intact) and use rice bran oil for cooking.

Let us look at the rest of the country, particularly those classified as BPL. The Public Distribution System (PDS) provides polished, white rice (completely devoid of bran) which has very low nutritive value. Even those who grow some paddy for home consumption take their paddy to be dehulled and polished and largely consume polished white rice as it is easier to cook and is considered a sign of affluence. The PDS also provides palm oil (most of which is imported) at subsidised prices and not rice bran oil or any other oil that is grown and produced locally.

The dilemma now is that we want more people to eat whole grain and brown rice since it is more nutritious. Diabetes and hypertension is increasing in out urban and rural areas which we want to address through increase of whole grains in diet. But we are also being told that we should replace our traditional oils with rice bran oil since it is “heart-healthy”. A third dimension to this is that the nutritious bran which traditionally was used by farmers to prepare cattle feed is not easily available. Farmers are dependent on poor quality synthetic feed which has impacted animal health as well as the quality of milk. Recently in August 2015, the Government of India removed quantitative restrictions on export of rice bran oil so there is bulk export of this oil while India continues to be major importer of edible oils.

Over the years Government policy dominated by international commitments to WTO and agribusiness has destroyed the highly diverse local oilseeds sector (mustard oil in the east and north, groundnut and rapeseed oil in the west, central and peninsular India, sesame oil in the South and coconut oil in coastal India) and with it impacted food cultures, nutrition and health of the present and future generations. In addition the health bulletins (often pushed by the agribusiness lobby) condemning  traditional oils have tried to prescribe a uniform standard oil for everybody irrespective of their place of origin and traditional diet. The latest target is the rice grain! The nutritious bran which if held in the grain can be an excellent source of nutrition for our population. However what is happening is that the bran (with it the nutrition) is being stripped from the grain, oil extracted largely for a small section of the domestic market, but mostly for an export market, leaving behind the white, empty calories. The irony of this is incredible.

So to come back to the question: Can we eat brown rice and cook with rice bran oil? We have another option: Stick to our traditional oils, eat brown rice and use our own agency to assert our control over our food system.


The Milk Crises 2015 – Fracturing the backbone of the Indian Dairy Sector

Expand, grow, consolidate and let’s join the Big Boys! This is the mantra that Indian policy makers (politicians and their advisors) have been chanting. For over 20 years now they have been telling us that unbridled growth, urbanisation and deserting rural landscapes are the only way out of poverty. Reality on the ground: more malnutrition, unemployment, greater deprivation, violence, debt-ridden rural families, fractured education system, regressive governance. The latest casualty of this environment is the Indian Dairy Sector – a sector that was touted as the sunshine sector of the liberalised India.

While our mainstream news reporters and political spokespersons are distracting us with their ludicrous shenanigans there is a massive milk crises unfolding in the country. A crisis that is threatening to destroy (for the first time) the “resilient” people’s milk market. Today India is the world’s largest producer and consumer of milk and its backbone are the millions of small dairy farmers across the country. The domestic dairy sector even today is dominated by what is termed the “informal market” which is really the people’s market built by small farmers, milk vendors, cooperatives. A vibrant market built on experiential knowledge and resilient local cycles of production and consumption.

However as the Government’s chant of Bigger is Better grows more and more strident this resilient sector is facing a grave crisis. In May 2015, we at the Food Sovereignty Alliance were alerted to the crises by our member farmer sanghas from Chittoor in Andhra Pradesh and Medak in Telangana. As we tried to understand the depths of the crises it rapidly emerged that this is not just a crisis for small dairy farmers in A.P and Telangana but one that is engulfing farmers across the country.

Further research showed us that the crises was global! Small farmers in the EU, UK, US were suffering the same fate. The crux of the crises in India and globally is – the price at which milk is being procured by dairy processors from small farmers is much lower than the cost of production of one litre of milk. This is driving farmers deeper and deeper into debt.  This is in spite of the fact that farmers in the EU, UK and US have tremendous Government support. In India there is no safety net for these small farmers. Neither State nor the Central Government have taken any serious action to protect small farmer livelihoods since the onset of the crises.

In the UK and Europe mainstream media is highlighting this as a global dairy crises and some are even saying that “the crisis is too important to be left to the market.” To quote a recent piece from the Guardian “Being at the whim of the world’s commodity markets means a farmer in Cheshire is vulnerable to a fall in demand from China, and Russia’s ban on EU food imports in retaliation for Brussels-imposed sanctions”. This is going to be India’s reality very soon – a farmer in Chittoor is vulnerable to a fall in global skimmed milk prices triggered by China and Russia’s import bans or by Europe’s dumping of excess dairy products.

India’s dairy sector unlike that in the EU, UK and US was and is dominated by the “people’s market”. This made it resilient providing an assured source of livelihood for the small dairy farmers. As the Government aggressively tries to integrate the sector into the global market, lives and livelihoods of these small farmers are becoming increasingly vulnerable. If India continues on this course, small farmers will be destroyed. This is extremely serious given the agrarian distress that the country is facing. In a situation when livelihoods based on agriculture are becoming unpredictable, due to erratic weather patterns, dairying is the one hope for these small farmers.

In an effort to bring attention to this crisis and chalk out a strategy for a way forward, the Food Sovereignty Alliance convened a dialogue of farmers’ groups on October 21, 2015 at Chennai. Farmers’  Groups from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, representatives of the South Indian Coordination Committee of Farmers’ Movements and the Bharatiya Kisan Union participated in the dialogue. Details of the dialogue and proposed next actions are available at the Food Sovereignty Alliance’s blog.

This crisis is not one for the farmers alone. It is our crisis. All of us as global citizens must begin to ask ourselves at least a few questions – Where does our food come from? Are we drinking real milk? What goes into producing our food – vegetables, fruit, milk, meat, eggs, fish? Who makes it possible for us to eat? If we don’t then we will be party to the destruction of the lives and livelihoods of these small farmers and then where will our food come from?

Is this Climate Justice?

During his address at the “Samvad”- Global Hindu-Buddhist Initiative on Conflict Avoidance and Environment Consciousness (Sept. 3-5, 2015), Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated “Climate change is a pressing global challenge. It calls for a collective human action and a comprehensive response. In India, faith and Nature have had a deep link since ancient times. Buddhism and environment are deeply co-related.” He also went on to say “In this context, I want to say that we, the present generation, have the responsibility to act as a trustee of the rich natural wealth for the future generations. The issue is not merely about climate change; it is about climate justice. Again I repeat is not the issue of climate change, it is about climate justice………….We can’t let climate change keep affecting people in this manner. Which is why I believe the discourse must shift focus from climate change to climate justice.” 1

The nuanced position and repeated emphasis to move the discourse away from climate change to climate justice is a sophisticated comment from the Prime Minister of a country that is being talked about as a rapidly growing economy and hence potentially a large carbon emitter. The position has significance given that in around 3 months world leaders will meet in Paris for the UN Climate talks (yet again) to discuss the future of the planet. Is this articulation the foundation on which India’s climate change strategy is going to be built? Is India going to be a bold leader and change the course of the deliberations in Paris? Not so fast!

Juxtapose the comment on “climate justice” with an announcement made in the press by the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas (a Ministry whose policies will have strong implications for climate change) on the same day Sept. 3, 2015. The Government of India has decided to allow exploration of all types of hydrocarbons — oil, gas, shale (oil and gas), coal bed methane. It has decided to auction 69 marginal oil and gas fields of ONGC and Oil India thus opening up the oil and gas sector to investors from across the globe.

Included in this list are shale (oil and gas) and coal bed methane (CBM). These hydrocarbon resources are located both onshore and offshore. It is well established scientifically that extraction of both these fossil fuel sources (shale oil and gas and CBM) is ecologically damaging. The processes of extraction of these fossil fuels are resource (water and energy) intensive and extremely dirty both in terms of water and soil contamination. Their impact on groundwater resources and therefore the dependent life forms (human and non-human) are likely to be severe. No information has been released regarding the environmental regulatory mechanism that has been put in place to address these issues. Do the existing regulations have the capacity to understand and seek accountability for the potential impacts? How is India’s Climate Change strategy positioned in the context of this decision to explore and extract shale and coalbed methane? How this decision going to ensure “climate justice”? These are questions that will have to be pursued assiduously and posed to the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change as this process moves forward.

The pattern unfolding in India is not very different from what is happening in the United States. President Obama is visiting Alaska to highlight the dangers of climate change on the Arctic, its inhabitants and ecosystem. At the same time, the US administration has cleared explorations by Shell in the Arctic Ocean.

In both cases – is this climate justice? All this is happening just ahead of the Paris meeting on climate change. What does this mean in terms of India and the US’s official position at Paris? What climate justice are we going to see there?

Trade Secrets – Why is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) being negotiated under wraps?

Negotiating trade agreements in secret seems to be the order of the day: whether it is the Trans Pacific Investment Partnership (TPIP) or closer home the RCEP. While all trade agreements in today’s globalised world have a direct or indirect impact on all of us the RCEP should be of greater concern to us since India is a direct party in these negotiations. The RCEP is being negotiated between 16 governments i.e. 10 ASEAN countries and their trading partners Australia, China, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea and New Zealand. Its significance is akin to the large trade agreements such as the TPIP and Trans Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TATIP). What is disturbing is that even after eight rounds of negotiations very little information is available about this agreement in public domain. While the New Zealand and Australian Governments provide some level of detail about the scope of the agreement the GOI’s Ministry of Commerce website is silent on the scope. Sketchy information on the meetings is the only information available. Why the secrecy? Why the unwillingness for full disclosure?

As reported recently by G. Manicandan of the Forum against FTAs, the RCEP reportedly covers goods, services, investment, economic and technical cooperation, intellectual property, as well as competition and dispute settlement. Manicandan also asserts that the “RCEP proposes liberalization of trade beyond India’s obligation under WTO and existing FTAs with Japan, South Korea, ASEAN, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand etc. Further, it also proposes India to undertake legally binding obligations on investment and competition law and do away with public interest safeguards in intellectual property law such as Patents Act and Copyrights Act”.

Given the potential impact of such an agreement on the environment, livelihoods and lives of people in the negotiating countries it is only fair that we ask whether an environmental and social impact assessment was done for the RCEP. There is no evidence of such an assessment having been done for an agreement of this magnitude. Farmers unions and civil society in India have registered their protests against the RCEP but what is critical is that we demand a detailed impact assessment. We have a precedence for this in the impact assessment that was done for the EU-India FTA. Many civil society organisations in India participated in this assessment which warned of serious violations of the right to food, dairy and poultry farmers, street vendors and others. The impact of the RCEP could be much larger given that “it proposes liberalisation of trade beyond India’s obligations under the WTO”. What will the impact be on our ecosystems, on the health of our soils, forests, air and water? How will the RCEP affect the agrarian crisis and rampant malnutrition? There is an urgent need to demand for an impact assessment. The myriad ‘distractions’ in the form of Parliament disruption, obsession of the media and political parties with the IPL scam have successfully allowed these negotiations to go ahead without scrutiny. One wonders if this is the plan!

The Travails of Building a Toilet – Is this the road to a Swach Bharat?

As the Swach Bharat juggernaut rolls on, homes in villages across Andhra Pradesh (as I am sure in other States) are trying to build a toilet. Here is a glimpse of the process that is to be followed in Andhra Pradesh (or at least in Chittoor District of Andhra Pradesh). Families interested in building toilets must inform the Panchayat Secretary. Once their application is approved the Panchayat Secretary gives the family the go ahead. The toilets have to be built according to Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Department’s specifications which has to be communicated to the family. The conditions are – site must be located away from the house, it must be a brick and cement construction with an Indian Style latrine. A soak pit must also be constructed. The family contacts neighbours / masons / construction labour who have some experience building toilets and gets an estimate. This ranges anywhere from Rs. 25,000 to 35,000 (July 2015 figures) depending upon the size of the toilet and local costs and availability of cement, brick, sand, sanitary fitting, labour etc. Government will release funds of Rs. 12,000 – 15,000 (numbers are not clearly communicated to the family but the Panchayat Secretary) after completion of the toilet and when a photograph is provided as proof. How does the family raise the money to build this toilet? Women borrow from Self-Help groups, private money-lenders at high interest, friends and family etc. In almost all cases the costs incurred are at least Rs. 10,000 – 15,000 higher than the amount allocated by the Government. The actual cost is even higher when you factor in the cost of loan repayment. Take the case of a all women household – an old widow who receives an old-age monthly pension of Rs. 1000. She is 70 years old and therefore cannot be a member of the SHG and hence cannot avail a loan. Her widowed daughter is 40 years old with a daily wages job earning about Rs. 2000-3000 a month. They desperately need a toilet since the mother is ageing and cannot make that early morning trip to the fields to receive herself. Where are they going to get the money? Even if the daughter takes a loan from the SHG how is she going to repay it and feed herself and her mother. Where are the achhe din and swachh bharat for these families? If the Government is serious about improving sanitation it must (a) provide simpler toilet design options that are not so material intensive (let us learn from sanitation programmes in African countries, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka) and therefore cheaper to construct while being functional (b) create a cadre of on-the ground masons and construction workers who people can hire to build these units rather than be at the mercy of various contractors and (c) create a Fund for women-headed or elderly-headed households and other marginalised sections of society, which will provide interest-free loans with flexible repayment options. For once let’s really put our best foot forward and not resort to tokenism and political gimmickry!

A version of this blog is available on the Down to Earth blogs site.

Small is Cool!

Much has been written and said about the critical role of small farmers in our food production by advocacy groups such as GRAIN and more recently in a thought provoking piece by Gurumurthy. Apart from the fact that small farm holdings are more productive than large units and that most of our milk, vegetables, fruits and grains are produced by small and marginal farmers, the critical role of small and marginal farmers in climate change mitigation must be recognised. A compelling presentation by GRAIN clearly shows why and how small farmers can cool the planet! Food is not just about production and technology. It is a culture, a way of life, people’s livelihoods depend on it. It is about nurturing the health of living beings and the health of the planet. Food must be produced through agroecological methods which conserve and nurture soil – the bedrock of food production. Small and marginal farmers and indigenous communities have the knowledge to produce food this way. Every country needs to have a climate change mitigation plan that has small scale farming at its centre and more so India given the diversity of food crops, food cultures and knowledge systems that this country is home to. It is this knowledge and experience that we need to conserve and keep alive to address the challenges of climate change. It is only through the small farmer based food system that we will be able to set right our abysmal record of malnutrition.  The ridiculous notion that greater urbanisation is going to make us a superpower needs to be shelved!

Building strength through solidarity……

A lot has been written about the power of the collective and solidarity in the context of development particularly where human lives are intimately intertwined with that of nature – indigenous communities, small farmers, pastoralists etc. There are those who emphatically feel that this is the only sustainable way to engage with resources and there are others who dismiss the idea of the collective and its power as a romantic notion. Over the last six years I have been part of an unfolding experience in the drylands of Rayalseema – of people coming together in an effort to establish Manchi Jeevitham (the Telugu phrase for “Living Well” or “Bon Vivier” a political articulation of living with nature a life of self-reliance and dignity).

The coming together started in the form of weekly conversations: a few shepherds and goatherds came together with a few of us, we sat and chatted by the roadside as we tried to understand the challenges facing each of our lives. Some passers by sat in participating in the conversation. There were sceptics who wondered how conversation could change anything. There were others who asked if we were giving out loans and then quickly lost interest when they realised there was no money here. From periodic conversations which went on for close to a year emerged the need to meet more regularly in an organised manner. Fourteen shepherds and goatherds led by two dynamic young men decided to organise themselves into a collective. The reason was – these conversations had helped them articulate their main problems for which the solutions would also come from these conversations. The numbers rose to 28 members in a year. Strategies to manage their grazing lands, access their traditional grazing areas in the nearby forests were developed. The power of the collective began to be realised as they began implementing their strategies. Aikyamatham mahabalam – in unity there is strength, began to be oft quoted as they overcame several hurdles and moved forward with strengthening their livelihood. There were internal dynamics, political pressure from the outside to try and destabilise the group but they have managed to stay focussed on their goal – bring honesty, dignity and self-reliance to their lives. Banks and Government agencies became more accessible when they approached them as a collective. Today the group is registered as a mutually aided co-operative society. The collective has also produced young leaders who are now working at bringing like minded young people together at the Panchayat level to strengthen grassroots democracy.

What triggered this post was a morning out on the hills in the remote hamlet of Pulusugunthalu to discuss the problems faced by the pastoralists in accessing traditional grazing lands, growing food in an increasingly water-scarce situation. I heard one of our young leaders from the collective articulating his experience of how coming together provides strength to face the challenges. His articulation, his conviction, the energy that seemed to come from working together was a learning experience for me. The young man said that coming together is not about agreeing on everything, not about consensus but it is about talking to each other, listening, understanding our problems more clearly, struggling for solutions, emerging stronger from the effort and at the end of the day being part of it because we have a shared vision – a life of dignity – Manchi Jeevitham.

I knew about the power of the collective intellectually – I had read Ostrom and stories of movements – but that morning’s conversation was my own experience. To hear the articulation of the young leader was inspiring.