A Food for Thought for All on 13th National Rice Day (Commentary)

Paddy FieldDeepraj Sanyal / Kathmandu: Have you had your meal today? If yes, you most likely had the common Nepali dish, i.e. dal-bhat-tarkari-achar. Bhaat or rice is the staple food for most Nepalis, and for that matter most Asians. We have so great a penchant for rice that if for some reason we had not eaten rice in the day’s lunch or supper, then, there’s this feeling somewhere inside you that your meal is incomplete. Such is our gastronomy that we cannot do without this cereal.

Why this mention about rice here? Well, for the simple reason that today happens to be the 13th National Rice Day. The Day is marked on the 15th of the Nepali month Asar every year. This is the Day that calls upon all – politicians, policy-makers, peasants and the people at large – to celebrate our staple food as we take a mouthful of it. Although we all should be concerned about our meal every day every time, today is the special occasion that is set aside for our ‘Food Number 1’, if you may call it. However, even as we celebrate the National Rice Day, there are many people out there who might not even have had their meal. What does the celebration of the National Rice Day hold for this lot? The National Rice Day, therefore, should be a sombre occasion for the State and its citizens to ponder as to how the slogan of ‘food for all’ could be best materialized, now that ‘the right to food’ has been guaranteed even by the constitution.

The main concern this year as Nepal celebrates the Asarko Pandhra or the 15th of Asar, is the decline in the production of rice and the growing encroachment of human development on our rice paddies each passing year. Coupled with this is the burgeoning problem of the farmer’s disinterest in agriculture and paddy cultivation in particular. The younger generation is shying away from agriculture. They would rather opt for foreign employment or other professions than take up farming. This phenomenon is already visible in the villages and countryside. There is already a dearth of agricultural labourers in the villages. Mostly, people from only the older generation can be found working in the fields. Another matter for concern as Nepal marks the Rice Day is that over the years, agriculture has become less and less attractive a vocation and Nepal, which was a net exporter of rice some four decades back, has now become the net importer of this commodity. Nepal on average imports about 700 thousand metric tonnes rice grain every year. This is a tell-tale fact that should be the ‘food for thought’ for us Nepalis on the occasion of the National Rice Day.

There is one telling statistics that the land under tillage of farming family has reduced by 129 thousand in a decade (2058 -2068 BS) and the proportion of agriculture technician to farmer is one agriculture scientist for 2,300 farmers’ families. As per the data made public in the Economic Survey for the Fiscal Year 2015/16, irrigation infrastructure was developed in 1,374,869 hectares out of 2,641,000 hectares of arable land in the eight months of fiscal year 2072/73 BS, which means that land under irrigation increased by 18,083 hectares. It is also mentioned in the Survey that fertilizer use has increased by 29 per cent, thanks to subsidies. The use of fertilizer per hectare increased from 75 kg to 97 kg. Likewise, statistics shows that the volume of agricultural loan disbursed has increased and the Nepal Agricultural Research Council increased the production of source seed from 225 to 413.

Against this ‘improved’ scenario, the Ministry of Agricultural Development, this May 14 came up with this bleak announcement that the production of rice, millet, wheat, potato, vegetables has decreased this year. It mentioned that food grains production has gone down by 650 thousand metric tonnes. It stated that there is seven percent decline in the overall production. Total rice production was four million 292 thousand metric tonnes last year. Why is the production decreasing despite the claim of increase in the above-mentioned facilities?

Nepal has released and registered 107 rice varieties in the last 50 years. As per the 2013/14 statistics, the coverage of improved varieties of rice in Nepal was 93 percent.

The country is celebrating the National Rice Day today in this background around the slogan -Expansion of Community Nursery – the Basis for Commercial Rice Cultivation. Joint Spokesman at the Ministry of Agricultural Development Shankar Sapkota says the government has implemented three special programmes for boosting rice output. These programmes include Dhaan Mission (paddy mission), the extensive paddy production programme under implementation in 15 districts of the Tarai and the Fine-grained and Scented Paddy Production under implementation in 20 districts of both the hilly and Tarai region.

However, these programmes are far from producing the expected outcome and food problem has been worsening. Food scarcity is a result of various other problems including rising population, rapid urbanisation, lack of crop diversification, climate change and low investment in agricultural research and development. Crop yields are low as compared to the developed countries and a large yield gap exists between farmers’ annual harvest and the research outcome. So there is a need to meet the growing food demand by developing and practicing appropriate technologies to narrow the yield gap, prominent agriculture scientists and agro-economists have pointed out.

“As per the preliminary estimate of the Fiscal Year 2014/2015, rice was grown in 1.425 million hectares in the country with an average productivity of 3.36 tonnes/hectare. Rice contributes more than 20 per cent to the agricultural gross domestic product and fulfills more than 50 per cent of the total calories requirement of Nepalis. But since we have little possibility of increasing the size of arable land in our country, it is important that we increase the productivity per hectare by using technology and innovative farming methods,” Sapkota shared.

In a country like ours, increased rice production is closely related not just with the national economic health but also with less hunger, better nutrition, lower levels of poverty and a better quality of life. Furthermore, increasing rice yield also helps tackle the inflation problem induced by food crisis. It is high time the government has a concrete plan of action to cope with the problem. Rice (food) self-sufficiency is the urgent demand of our time. Because food grains cannot be produced overnight, the global food crisis like the one the world experienced in 2007/2008 can have an adverse impact on our population. If Nepal does not achieve self sufficiency in food grains, a situation may come when we cannot buy them even if we have money in our pockets.

8 interesting facts about rice

1. Rice makes the world go around.

According to International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) half of world’s population, three and half billion people depend on rice. China is the leading rice producer in the world.

2. Too many rice in supermarket? Think again.

There are more than 40,000 different varieties of rice. Of the 40,000 varieties, more than 100 are grown worldwide, but only around 10 percent are marketed and sold.

3. Wondered why rice grains are thrown during puja?

Rice in many cultures including ours symbolizes prosperity and fertility. Thus the practice of throwing rice during pujas and notably at brides and grooms during weddings. Also, it is the first food given to newborn babies — pasni, as it’s considered auspicious for future prosperity.

4. Want to preserve nutrient? May be you shouldn’t wash your rice.

“Wash it till water is clear,” is often the rice washing advice we hear. It definitely will give you nice and fluffy rice, if that’s what you prefer, but if like your rice on the little stickier side, hold off on washing those starches away. Also, if you use enriched rice, you might not want to wash them. Nutrients lost during milling are added back to enriched rice, which will be lost during washing.

5. White Vs Brown

The difference between brown and white rice lies in the way they are milled. When the first outer layer, husk of rice is removed, you get brown rice. When you further mill it and remove bran and germ layer, then polish or bleach it, you get white rice.

Nutritionally brown rice is richer of the two. White rice does contain most of the essential vitamins and minerals, including B-group vitamins (thiamin, niacin) zinc and phosphorus found in brown rice, though in lesser quantity. However, they differ significantly in terms of their fiber content. A cup of brown rice content 3.5 grams, while an equal amount of white rice doesn’t even content 1 gram. Fiber is not only filling, but is recommended in the prevention of major diseases such as certain gastrointestinal diseases and heart diseases.

A cup of brown rice (232) has slightly more calories than white rice (223). And surprisingly white rice has less fat than brown rice, (0.2 grams per cup vs. 1.2 grams per cup).

6. We don’t call ourselves bhatey for no reason.

The average Asian consumer eats 150 kg of rice annually compared to the average European who eats 5 kg. According to CIA – The World Fact Book, annual rice consumption per person in Nepal is 78 kg.

7. Size matters

There are three types of rice grain: short, medium and long. Long grain white rice like Basmati, Jasmine popular in Asian cuisines is light and fluffy. Medium grain rice is used mostly in dishes that require creamier consistency like risotto, paella and kheer. Shorter than long grain they are plumper in shape and have slightly more starch in them so are more sticky. Short grain rice like one used in sushi is almost round in shape and has a higher starch content which makes it stickier.

8. Is it still good? Rice has shelf life.

Uncooked white rice has long shelf life, about eight to 10 years. However, uncooked brown has shelf life of only three to six months, primarily due to bran and germ being intact. It’s also a good idea to store the rice in a cool dry place, or better yet in your refrigerator or even freezer. RSS

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