Nothing to beat black rice

KP Prabhakaran Nair | Updated on March 09, 2018

Transition time Let's switch to black rice, grown the SRI way   -  THE HINDU

Arguably of Japanese origin, and full of therapeutic properties, it grows in Manipur. Why not popularise it all over India?

Rice is the staple diet of South Asia, in particular, the Indian sub continent. Like India, China, Japan, the Philippines and other neighbouring South and South East Asian populations also prefer rice to wheat.

Indians have, in general, a propensity for the colour white, whether it is skin tone or body wear. So it is not surprising that black rice is relatively unknown to most Indians.

In imperial China, black rice (Orayza sativa) was forbidden in China. Not because it looked poisonous because of its black colour, but because of its high nutritional value, which meant it could only be eaten by the Emperor.

For long, the nutritional value of this wild rice eluded the commoners.

It is only in recent times that rice researchers have begun to study the sticky varieties of black rice and discovered that it has several medicinal and nutritional properties.

It has anti carcinogenic properties and its bran soothes inflammation due to allergies, asthma and other diseases. Black rice is sold in local markets for as much as Rs 300 a kg.

Black rice is indigenous to north-east India and is extensively grown in Odisha, West Bengal and Jharkhand. It is commonly eaten in Manipur because of its medicinal value.

Called chak-hao, meaning rice ( chak) which is delicious ( ahaoba), black rice is eaten during traditional feasts. Chak-hao kheer is a popular pudding in these regions and the water in which black rice is boiled is used in these parts to wash hair, in the belief it makes hair strong.

Mystery surrounds its origin. Japanese researchers discovered that its genetic trait is traceable to a rearrangement in a gene called Kala4, which activates the production of anthocyanin, a water soluble pigment which might show different colours like red, purple or blue depending on the pH.

These researchers concluded that this rearrangement must have originally occurred in the tropical Japonica sub species of rice ( Oryza sativa. var. Japonica) and the black rice trait was then transferred to other varieties, including those found today, by cross breeding.

The findings of the origin of black rice help explain the history of domestication of black rice by ancient humans, during which they selected desirable traits, including grain colour.

Medicinal properties

Black rice contains more Vitamins B and E, niacin, calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc compared to white rice. It is rich in fibre and the grains have a nutty taste. The anthocyanins not only act as antioxidants, they also activate detoxifying enzymes.

The rice arrests proliferation of cancerous cells, by inducing death of cancerous cells (apoptosis). It has anti-inflammatory properties and has anti-angiogenesic effects (inhibition of the formation of new blood vessels which encourages tumour growth).

In fact, it prevents invasion of cancer cells and induces differentiation – the greater the differentiation in cancerous cells, the less likely they are to spread, and be harmful, as testified by Li-Ping Luo, a celebrated Chinese cancer specialist and his research team.

The research, in particular, shows that anthocyanins from black rice specifically arrest growth of breast cancer cells.

Scaling up

A Manipur-based farmer, Potshangbam Devakanta, whose rice germplasm collection is wide, attests to the drought resistance trait of black rice. The farmer received the prestigious “Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers Rights Act Award” in 2012 for conserving black rice varieties and promoting its cultivation in north-east India.

The prime constraint against the spread of black rice is that, as of now, it covers just about 10 per cent of the total cultivated rice area in Manipur.

And the prime reason for this poor spread in acreage is its poor yield. Black rice is best suited to organic farming, which consumes much less water than the hybrid rice.

But is labour intensive, it works well under the Madagascar-evolved System of Rice Intensification (SRI). SRI has grown in popularity in parts of India where water is a constraint for rice cultivation. Black rice could become a very welcome substitute provided there is a concerted effort by the agriculturel bureaucracy to promote it.

In contrast to the situation in Manipur, the situation in Assam is encouraging. Assam’s agriculture department is going in for massive cultivation of black rice as it brings a premium price as an organic product, and has great potential in overseas markets.

Way forward

Other State governments, where rice cultivation is a major enterprise, should take to black rice cultivation. A niche market can be established primarily for export purposes.

The recent successful venture of the Union Government at Amuguripara in Goalpara distrct in Assam, where a total of 12 tonnes of black rice was produced in 13.2 hectares, which comes close to a tonne per hectare, is an inspiring example.

It shows how, by providing infrastructure, market support and financial incentives, black rice can, indeed, be good bet for Indian rice producers and consumers, domestic as well as foreign.

Black rice germplasms must be included in the all-India rice research project based in Hyderabad, which will not only show its potential throughout India, but also open the eyes of enterprising farmers. There is no time to waste.

The writer is an agricultural scientist

Published on February 09, 2016

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