Two ills, two cities: a tale of prudence

Malnutrition and environmental pollution are two major problems the world is facing. "The double burden of malnutrition is characterised by the coexistence of under-nutrition along with obesity, or diet-related non-communicable diseases, within individuals, households and populations, and across the life course. Eleven per cent of GDP is lost every year in Africa and Asia due to malnutrition," a WHO report said.

A recent article published by Laura Parker in National Geographic says of the 8.3 Billion metric tons of plastic produced, 6.3 billion metric tons end up as trash. Most of it is in disposable products. Plastic takes more than 400 years to degrade.

Environmental pollution from non-biodegradable plastics has a serious impact on the quality of life. Several epidemiological studies and controlled animal experiments on health effects of plastic used in food packaging and storage, showed its destructive effects on health and reproduction, such as early sexual maturation, decreased male fertility, aggressive behaviour among others.

Both malnutrition and environmental pollution are preventable, yet two billion people are affected by them. Although many well-funded research organisations in the world are working towards eradicating these threats, serendipitously, I found a good solution for these problems in two small towns - Trento, Italy and Tiruchengode, India. They have the potential for realistic, affordable solutions for malnutrition and environmental pollution.

Fortified rice

Insufficient intake of dietary iron results in anaemia, a common form of malnutrition. Rice, a staple food for nearly half of the world's 7.59 billion people, is low on iron. It can give only 10% of the total Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of iron. Therefore, anaemia is prevalent in rice-consuming populations.

We must enrich rice with iron and other micronutrients to improve the health of the public at large. Plant breeding approach to increase the micronutrient content of rice takes a long time. Genetic engineering methods can achieve this faster, but they have some scientific, regulatory and political hurdles.

There is another way to enhance the nutritive value of rice rapidly. We can make micronutrient-enriched rice by physically adding the nutrients to the rice flour and produce them as rice kernels. When I pitched this idea, my friends at Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH), a Seattle-based nonprofit organisation, suggested me to meet the Tiruchengode team.

Tiruchengode near Coimbatore. On my visit to the rice mill, Elaumalai and Dhanaselharan, two people who work there, introduced me to the team that makes fortified rice.  

They are making the rice I am looking for - micronutrient-fortified rice to address malnutrition. I learnt that not only micronutrient-rich rice, they can also make macro-nutrient-rich rice, quickly and sustainably, that can be given to the malnourished. There is no need to wait several years for R&D, political acceptance and regulatory processes. The WHO and the Government of India have given the necessary approvals for the use of fortified rice in India. This is a remarkable feat for a small town such as Tiruchengode.

Edible plates

If cutlery is made with food items that we can eat a good percentage of, the unnecessary plastic waste can be reduced. This is exactly what a Trento-based company does. They have developed sturdy, good-looking edible plates out of non-plastic materials. The plates are made with pre-gelatinised wheat flour.

The entire operation is quite big and elaborate - like making biscuits. It involves dough mixing, mould operation, drying, among other procedures. Taste and the nutrients can be adjusted or added as needed.

Search for this plate took me to Trento near Milan, Italy. Mauro Vicenti, the principal of the company, welcomed me wholeheartedly to see what his company does.

I realised that Tiruchengode can produce various food materials that can be used as raw materials for making the edible plates, cups and cutlery by Trento. It dawned on me that the collaboration between the two ideas from these two small towns in two different continents - food as medicine and food for solving plastic pollution - can help solve the riddle of both malnutrition and environmental pollution.

(The writer is a scientist based in New York)

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