Healthy rice for humanity

Food can be therapeutic. A lot of our drugs are derived from food. I should know. As a medical student, I chew and digest these things every day.

I should also know that one of the most pressing issues in public health now is malnutrition. Malnourished individuals are susceptible to infections or other diseases. During my immersions in urban poor communities, families living below the poverty line would survive with rice and salt. If they’re lucky, they will buy soy sauce or ketchup for more flavor.

This presents a current gap where interventions are much needed. One of this includes rice fortification with vitamins, especially micronutrients. Nationwide standardization of this process would improve the status of nutrition for the Filipinos. Given this, rice will not just be a source of sugar but also of other nutrients that their viands can’t even provide.

Other possible challenges the Philippines as a rice-dependent country faces are lifestyle disorders. White rice and its sugar can be a reason for diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular diseases, etc.

You can’t just say no to merienda like malagkit in our kakanin and our other desserts. This is on top of our regular meals, which, for some, are not complete without extra rice.

What can we do? Should we take away rice? Well, that’s not necessary. We have a better and healthier choice—colored rice.

Colored rice has less sugar. This is better not just for those who love rice but also for thos who love their health more.

I can totally relate with lifestyle disorders. I was obese when I was younger. I decided to exercise and change my eating habits. I dropped 30 kilograms in the process. I also have clinical depression. I eat rice when I feel sad. However, I tried to avoid rice because I don’t want to be obese again. But, with the introduction of red rice, my meals feel more home-y. I can eat my comfort food without guilt.

See, rice is not just a potential source of nutrients if fortification is pursued. It can also be a source of psychological comfort, which a lot of people just like me need. It heals both body and soul.

I am lucky that my parents are farmers. They would really allot a few sacks of red rice for our family’s supply. However, they can’t plant that much. Our supply of colored rice is very reliant on the demand in our town. We only farm some because we don’t have a market where we can sell the rice to.

Aside from the expensive colored rice seed, the people in our town don’t like to eat red rice just because it is not white. It doesn’t look delicious. So, there’s low demand. This does not help the production of this healthier variant of rice. If there are government programs, it’s not promoted well to and utilized by our farmers.

It just saddens me how we can’t appreciate the beauty and health benefits of our colored rice.

The current prices of colored rice variants nowadays are higher than white rice. Consumers, especially people living below the poverty line, are then forced to buy the cheaper white rice. According to the law of supply and demand, if there will be more supply of red rice, its price can level with or be lower than that of the regular rice. A lot of households can then afford these healthier variants.

This can be done through the cooperation of institutions. The government can give financial support to the farmers to increase their capacity of farming healthier variants of rice. IRRI, together with the Department of Health, can implement research on which vitamins are appropriate to fortify the Filipino population. Private and public institutions should educate consumers about the health benefits of colored rice. This can increase demand of healthier rice, which could motivate more farmers to plant this rice variant.

Increasing the yield of colored rice could be done through scientific innovations. Just like Filipinos, colored rice can be made more resilient to disasters and pests. You can also use nutrient fortification to make colored rice healthier. This takes care of the quantity and the healthier quality of rice, which is a key to food security. This could lower down the price of rice. More families can afford rice and more dinners will be shared happily.

It may not be a popular perspective to work with but innovations are not just limited to scientific discoveries. We should take into consideration the social aspects of the innovation. Social innovations try to solve societal problems. And, the thing that we are trying to solve here is the gap which farmers don’t see. We should translate the problem to which farmers can relate—that colored rice is a healthier choice even for them. Also, there’s a market of people who would prefer colored rice. We provide more opportunities for them.

We try to innovate more resilient rice or to increase its yield. But, let’s not forget why we invest so much in innovation. Is it just to produce more?

I believe it’s more than that. At the heart of our efforts is the people. We innovate to make people’s lives better. It is a great reason why we should be confident about our colored rice, appreciate its beauty, and know that it’s also good for our heart.

Note: The views and opinions on this essay are those of the author's and do not reflect those of the institute and its partners.

Manuel Mendoza JrManuel Mendoza Jr

Manuel ‘Wel’ Mendoza Jr. is a second year medical student from the Ateneo School of Medicine and Public Health in the Philippines. He believes that health is a system and is also part of a bigger one affected by law, politics, economics, and other fields. He uses his perspective to create human-centered innovations.