WASHINGTON, July 27, 2016 - Impoverished populations around the world suffer because they’re not getting the vitamins and nutrients they need even if they are managing to eat. It’s a vexing problem, but U.S. rice farmers are certain they can soon be a major part of the solution.
The lack of folic acid continues to cause birth defects. Not enough zinc weakens immune systems and causes diarrhea. Too little niacin leads to skin diseases. Lack of vitamin A causes blindness. These are just some of the problems plaguing the poorest regions of the world, and those problems often can’t be solved by food donations alone, according to the international Food Fortification Initiative.
Rice that is infused or coated with these beneficial ingredients may be the answer, and USA Rice Federation officials say they are hopeful that the United Nations’ World Food Program (WFP) will soon give its approval to a new technology for use by U.S. rice processors.
If they’re right, it will be a “game-changer” for U.S. rice farmers who supply much of the food aid that the nation donates every year. Beyond just supplying sustenance, they’ll be able to supply those missing vitamins and nutrients on a massive scale, said Rebecca Bratter, a USA Rice consultant.
“This is the top-notch commodity that’s consumed by over 3 billion people around the world,” Bratter said. “People are already eating it, so you don’t have to twist their arms because they already like it. You fortify it, and then you have a very easy delivery device to address malnutrition, or what is known as hidden hunger.”
At present, only one U.S. processor, Illinois-based Heartland Harvest, is producing rice using a technology called extrusion, which has been approved by WPF and which fortifies the grain with iron, folic acid, B 12, vitamin A, thiamin, niacin, and B6. USA Rice officials say they are hoping for WPF approval of another process, called rinse-resistant coating, which could substantially increase the amount of fortified rice available for export.
The U.S. will donate about 50,000 tons of rice this year, said Bratter, but if the WFP approves coated rice and processors can boost supplies, that amount could eventually double. She said that ideally USA Rice would like to see as much as 200,000 to 300,000 tons donated annually.
That would be a major boost for rice farmers who export about half of their annual production.
USA Rice estimates that roughly 3 percent to 5 percent of U.S. rice exports are shipped in the form of foreign food aid. The amount of rice that the U.S. donates overseas is directly tied to requests from private voluntary organizations, or PVOs, that operate in impoverished regions to help distribute the aid.
The WFP has been studying this new coating technology for more than a year, said Bratter, and a decision is overdue. The primary concerns of the WFP, she said, are whether the added nutrients will hold fast to the rice instead of washing off and whether people will accept the fortified rice as just as tasty as unfortified.
The potential for the coated nutrients to wash off is a valid concern, said Scott Deatherage, general manager for Heartland Harvest. The Illinois company has the capacity to fortify about 20 million pounds of rice a year through extrusion, he said. That’s much less than the industry, as a whole, wants to be contributing to international food aid.
The WFP was expected to finish the study in December, but farmers and processors are confident that the results will be positive, USA Rice spokesman Michael Klein said.
“Work still remains to be done on the procurement and logistical side for this new product to gain traction in the food assistance supply chain,” says Jamie Warshaw, chairman of USA Rice’s Food Aid subcommittee.
“We believe that fortified rice will increase the demand for U.S.-grown rice and will be a game changer – for rice growers and processors, for global feeding programs, and most importantly for the beneficiaries of the improved nutritional qualities of rice. USA Rice is committed to this effort and is working closely with U.S. government entities to ensure that fortified rice has the maximum impact on those in need.”
While there has been no decision from the WFP on nutrient coating, the organization is completely sold on the benefits of fortifying rice in general.
Using a $2.7 million grant from the USDA, the WFP, the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement and PATH, a non-profit anti-poverty organization, conducted a study from 2012 through 2014 on 10,000 school children in Cambodia that showed that students who were fed fortified rice not only suffered less disease, but also did better with their studies.
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