Rice: Can India use this “black beauty”?
by K P Prabhakaran Nair on 05 Feb 2016 3 Comments

Rice is the staple diet of South Asia, in particular, the Indian sub-continent. In India, it is the basic ingredient of several south Indian delicacies, such as the ubiquitous idli, dosa, in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka and puttu, in Kerala. 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 to like the white colour, whether it is the choice of a bride for the son, or body wear.


Have you ever heard of the black rice? Not very long ago black rice (also Orayza sativa) was forbidden in China. Not because it looked poisonous because of its black colour, but because of its nutritional value. So it found place only on the Emperor’s menu. For long, the nutritional value of this wild rice eluded common folk.


It is only since very recently 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 that it makes hair strong.   


Mystery surrounds its origin. Japanese researchers discovered that its genetic trait arose due to a rearrangement in a gene called Kala4, which activates the production of anthocynin, the coloring pigment, the water soluble vacuolar pigments 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 as 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, have 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 arrests growth of breast cancer cells.


Agronomic benefits and how India can scale up cultivation


A Manipur-based farmer, Potshangbam Devakanta, whose rice germplasm collection is wide, attests to the drought resistance trait of black rice. He 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 is covering just about 10% of the total cultivated rice area in Manipur. And, the prime reason for this poor spread in acreage is its poor yield. Since black rice suits best to organic farming which consumes much less water than the hybrid ones, but is labour intensive, it suits best to the Madagascar evolved System of Rice Intensification (SRI) which has caught up with rice cultivation in other parts of India where water is the main constraint for rice cultivation.


Jhum or slash and burn farming is very popular in north eastern India. The black rice could become a very welcome substitute provided there is concerted effort by the agricultural bureaucracy. In contrast to the situation in Manipur, the situation in Assam is very encouraging. Assam’s agriculture department is going in for massive cultivation of black rice as it brings premium price as an organic product which has great potential in the foreign market.  


The way forward to plan for India


Other state governments, where rice cultivation is a major enterprise, such as Andhra State, 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 district in Assam, where a total of 12 tons of black rice was produced in 13.2 hectares (close to a tonne per hectare), is a brilliant example of how providing infrastructure, market support and financial incentives can make black rice a good bet for Indian rice producers, consumers, as well as foreign consumers.


Without further delay, 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 farmers who are enterprising. There is no time to waste.   

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