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How to give rest to rice and wheat

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DR. S.K. MUKHERJEE

We had a very bad monsoon last year, resulting in negative, over-all growth in agriculture. While the northern States could manage with irrigation and groundwater exploitation, rain-fed areas of the east and other parts of the country were severely affected. Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee hoped that replication of the agricultural practices of the north in the east would augment production, provided that monsoon does not play truant this time round. The Prime Minister, however, felt that dry-land farming would help tide over the shortfall. The same suggestion for dry-land farming was made by Dr. M. S. Swaminathan, the doyen of agricultural revolution, in a recent speech.

Dry-land farming, however, would not produce the fine varieties of rice and wheat, which the urban population are accustomed to. It produces coarse grains like corn, millets, sorghum and other high-fibre crops. It is difficult to convince people accustomed to rice and wheat to switch to these coarse grains with undesirable tastes, palatability and texture. Acceptance depends on modern food processing practices, based on extrusion technology.

This can produce “ready-to-eat” shelf-stable, tasty, nutritious food based on dry-land crops of high-fibre content co-extruded with small portions of rice to manage the problem of high fibre. In fact, a high-fibre content food is recommended to mitigate the problems of coronary heart disease and diabetes — an impending danger in Indian health scenario. High-fibre, tasty, breakfast cereals of good taste manufactured in the West, are now imported at exorbitant cost for the urban population as health food.

There are other concomitant advantages of extruded high-fibre crops that serve as staple and snack foods for the populace. Coarse grains can be co-extruded with other minor crops, yams, legumes, special oil-seed meals (now mainly exported to make animal feed) to make “ready-to-eat” nutritious food.

The food economy is currently measured on the basis of the price of foodgrains at the grocer's shop. For all practical purpose, for the common man, the price of food should be based on its cost in the “ready-to-eat” form at the table-top (on the platter in poorer countries), because it includes the cost of fuel (the cost of cooking gas for urban area and wood in rural area). Fuel-wood is available free in rural area but at great environmental cost. Food-extrusion technology, mainly based on frictional heating, requires only 20 per cent of the energy required for fuel-wood cooking. In fact, we can claim adequate carbon credit for the environmental benefit accrued, for this technology. Also, extrusion cooking technology does not pollute the kitchen — a great health benefit too for housewives as it facilitates freedom from the drudgery of daily cooking.

There are other advantages arising from the application of cooking by extrusion. It allows the use of constituents like locally available medicinal herbs, supplementing nutrition and preventing and curing diseases.

Non-availability of machines

But the main constraints to extrusion technology — which is basically heating by friction and not by direct heating resulting from the burning of fuel — are the non-availability of proper, food extrusion machines and its application technology. Imported food extrusion machines are costly even for research institutions. Hence, food technology institutions and home science colleges should develop these types of “ready-to-eat” food, based on the locally available crops and extrusion machines.

To start with, we should develop machines suitable for application-oriented R&D projects to use the locally available coarse grains and natural herbs.

Many Indian research institutions have taken up these types of projects so that we can meet the challenges of irrigation and reduce the dependence on the water-guzzling rice and wheat. We must be prepared for the problems our progeny will face. After all, water, and not oil, will be the cause of next world war, they say.

(The writer is president, Nutrition Society of India, Kolkata Branch. email: drmukherjeesk@gmail.com)

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