How traditional varieties of rice staged a revival among farmers, consumers

Topics Weekend

Shobana Kumar decided to go completely organic in her food choices three years ago — a switch that meant discovering rich flavours and health benefits in something as basic as rice. A writer and educator based in Coimbatore, she is among a growing segment of rice consumers who are conscious of not only their own health but of the interests of farmers and local ecologies.

Kumar found special kinds of rice for women. Her favourite is illuppai poo samba, a fragrant pearl or brown coloured rice variety. “It really helped boost my energy when I was suffering from arthritis.”

“I now buy about four kinds of rice every time I place an order. You don’t have to experiment much or be extravagant with cooking, because they are so flavourful,” she says. The different varieties of rice take care of the micronutrient needs of the family that includes her husband, son and daughter, and prevents monotony on the plate.

Brown: (Kichadi Samba ) A variety native to Tamil Nadu, it has a relatively low GI of 50 and was preferred by royalty. The unrefined brown raw rice has all of its bran intact, and is more nutritious than parboiled rice.
India is the second largest consumer of rice after China, with close to one lakh metric tonnes in annual consumption. Rice is the staple food for more than half of India’s population, while the government has a large role in its procurement and distribution. Even as the bulk of consumers is accustomed to primarily having polished white rice, there are signs of revival of traditional varieties.

Folk rice is catching on in retail as well as online stores. For instance, Safal, the Delhi-headquartered Mother Dairy brand that retails fruits and vegetables, has forayed into organic foods. In December 2018, it launched in Delhi and areas around it a black rice that is native to the Northeast.

Pradipta Sahoo, business head, Safal, identifies a trend of products with high health quotient — be it millet or black rice — turning into “super foods”. “The section of consumers that can afford to spend is going for the goodness of nature and seeking products, like black rice, that are gluten-free, have high fibre and protein content and are rich in antioxidant.”

The Safal booths are selling the black rice at Rs 450 a kilo. The organic brand plans to take it beyond the capital, and also add the Kerala matta rice, an indigenous red rice grown in Palakkad, to its inventory.

Mumbai-based organic food company Conscious Food sells rice varieties grown by a tribal community in Thane and Pune. Says executive director Sanjeev Azad, “The focus is not just on promoting particular rice varieties, but also on the consumption of brown and red rice as opposed to white rice.”

Black: (Karuppukavuni) Black rice is excellent for preparing desserts. It is sticky and turns almost purple when cooked. It has medicinal qualities and is high in antioxidants. It takes longer to cook and tends to be chewy.
According to Rajen Sundaresan, former executive director of All India Rice Exporters’ Association, the volume of traditional rice varieties has not been increasing because of sporadic demand and lack of steady supply. “They are grown locally in low volumes and in limited areas. Very often, they are not done in an organised manner.”

Thanal, a Kerala-based environmental voluntary group, is trying to change the fate of traditional rice varieties. Ushakumari S, the NGO’s executive director, says that in the context of climate change, these crops are more suited to rainfed hilly and coastal regions. Even in a state like Kerala, where red parboiled rice is commonly consumed, she says people had shifted to polished rice. “People used to take rice with bran, which has all the nutrients. If you eat white rice, you have to compensate for these nutrients by eating other foods, which is not possible for the poor,” she says, adding that the group is trying to introduce the idea of providing rice with bran, especially in the Integrated Child Development Services.

Thanal runs an organic outlet in Thiruvananthapuram. It attracts mostly young couples and mothers, and children, too, find such rice tasty, says Ushakumari.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN had declared 1966 as the Year of Rice. That year also saw the start of the Green Revolution (when high-yield or dwarf varieties of rice were introduced) and the Seeds Act. While the Green Revolution increased rice productivity, it did so at the cost of damaging foods and ecosystem with the use of chemicals and fertilisers, points out Sridhar Radhakrishnan, programme director at Thanal. “What we argue is that even among traditional varieties, there are high-yield ones.” 

The United Nations had declared 2004 as the International Year of Rice. The same year Thanal launched the Save Our Rice Campaign, inspired by the Asian Rice Campaign of the Pesticide Action Network-Asia and the Pacific. 

In December 2004, various stakeholders from 10 rice-producing states met in Kerala and framed a declaration that focused on conserving rice ecosystems and protecting traditional wisdom.

Today, the campaign has managed to revive 1,500 seeds in various regions, particularly in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. It has been setting up rice diversity blocks and seed banks. “Traditional food melas, or seed festivals, promoting indigenous rice is a critical element of the campaign,” says Radhakrishnan. He notes that one of the most popular folk varieties to have revived in Tamil Nadu is the mappillai samba, traditionally fed to prospective bridegrooms who are required to lift rocks as proof of strength.

“We are witnessing a gradual policy change. For instance, the Tamil Nadu government is procuring indigenous seeds from farmers. Last year, it procured 12.5 tonnes of two varieties,” says Radhakrishnan. The campaign has facilitated networks of seed savers that led to the emergence of local producer companies. One such firm is the Thirunelly Agri Producers Company in Wayanad. Rajesh Krishnan, its CEO, has been cultivating traditional varieties for seven years. He turned to farming after working for Greenpeace in Bengaluru for a decade. “There is a growing sensitivity and concern over control of seeds at a time it is being taken over by corporate powers. They control our farming, and thereby control our food, economy and politics,” he says.

Red (UMA) Uma parboiled rice is an improved red rice variety, highly favoured by Keralites. It is delicious, easy to cook compared to other red rices, and soft. Parboiled rice takes longer to cook than raw rice.
In the last 10 years, he says, farmers are veering towards traditional varieties and organic farming. His producer company began with 14 farmers three years ago. Now, it has more than 100 farmers cultivating in over 100 acres. His company grows six varieties that include a red rice and local aromatic rice. It sells parboiled red rice for Rs 70 a kilo, whereas in the regular market it costs Rs 40. For Krishnan, the difference is not just about organic or inorganic rice but also about fetching the right price for farmers — an area where the government fails them.

Sreedevi Lakshmi Kutty, co-founder of organic food social venture Bio Basics, says there has been a trend across Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka especially of organic shops stocking traditional rice varieties.

She has been associated with the Save Our Rice Campaign for over a decade and was keen on selling several traditional varieties. Bio Basics has around 25 rice varieties, many directly sourced from farmers. People do not usually experiment beyond red rice, so she feels the need to create a knowledge asset to help them appreciate a forgotten heritage. She writes extensively, posts on social media and sends newsletters to customers educating them about the rice varieties.

A mainstream brand will not pick up traditional varieties because it demands large volumes and at prices below that of the paddy, she says. “The large supply chain led farmers to produce high-yield varieties causing the decline of traditional ones.”

Red rice and most varieties that are unpolished have a higher amount of iron and vitamin B complex, and they have low glycemic index (GI, a relative ranking of carbohydrate in foods according to how they affect blood glucose levels), says Delhi-based dietician Shikha Sharma. “The blood sugar doesn’t jump up suddenly and because of that the body is able to digest red rice without destabilising the insulin. Secondly, a lot of chemicals and fertilisers are used in commercial rice, whereas in native varieties, they are not required.”

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