Thursday, June 22, 2017

[Second Opinion] Unlimited rice, empty stomachs

by Gideon Lasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer

I don’t think Cynthia Villar anticipated that her comments on prohibiting “unlimited rice” will draw so much resentment and ridicule. But as she probably knows by now, “unli rice” is not just a gluttonous indulgence for Filipinos but also a compensatory recourse for those with limited means. I hope she also realizes that prohibitionism is not always the answer to our health problems.

To be fair to the senator, however, the idea of discouraging Filipinos from eating too much rice has been raised by experts for many years. In 2012, PhilRice lamented that each Filipino wastes two tablespoons of rice every day, “which, when not wasted, could result in import savings as high as P6.2 billion and could feed 2.6 million hungry Filipinos in a year.”

Her pronouncements mirror PhilRice’s lament and actually sound like something a nutritionist would say: “If possible, we should shift to brown rice so Filipinos would eat less and so that finally, we can be self-sufficient… Unlimited rice is bad for the health. We should learn how to eat more vegetables.” In this, the doctor in me heartily agrees with her.

Of course, what drew the most attention was her misguided suggestion that fast-food chains’ offerings of “unli rice” be prohibited. But now that she has backed down from it, her overall concerns remain salient. Leaving the specifics of rice sufficiency to the economists and agriculturists (which Cielito Habito discussed in his latest column here), what can we do to improve our state of (mal)nutrition?

To appreciate the magnitude of the problem, we have to bear in mind that one in three Filipino children remains stunted. Aside from making Filipinos among the shortest in the region, stunting has dire consequences for children’s health and overall development. Rice, in this context, remains very important because for many Filipinos, it is the main source not just of carbohydrates but also of protein. Ironically, while many are eating too much rice, the poor need more of it.
Instead of prohibiting unlimited rice, a more positive approach is to incentivize the offering of whole-grain (i.e., brown, red, or black) rice, which satiates the eater faster, has more fiber and vitamins, and is easier to produce (even if longer to cook). Surely, increased demand will lower prices.

Another is to go beyond rice and encourage the consumption of other kinds of carbohydrates. Granted, our very word for eating, “kain,” is linguistically and cognitively related to the word for rice, “kanin”—many Pinoys don’t feel full if they don’t eat rice. Also, our viands are prepared in such a way that their flavors are balanced by rice: Can you imagine eating kare-kare by itself?

There are alternatives, however, that can take the place of rice—though we may need to  develop more recipes for them. Despite their lowly reputation, root crops like kamote, gabi and ube are uber-healthy, not to mention easy to grow. There’s white corn, too—which UP Los BaƱos scientists recommend mixing with rice.

But beyond carbohydrates, a big problem is protein energy malnutrition—the lack of ulam caused by the prohibitive cost of meat and fish. In olden days, Filipinos had more diverse sources of protein: Even insects (now recommended by the World Health Organization) were part of the diet.

What may be more culturally acceptable and practical today, however, are beans and legumes. As the Food Nutrition Research Institute’s Charina Javier tells me, farmers usually plant these in between rice cropping cycles to enhance soil quality. Encouraging the public to embrace beans and root crops, alongside being “rice-ponsible” (as the Department of Agriculture puts it), will surely go a long way.

But what of the urban poor with nary a place to lay their heads, let alone plant crops? Ultimately, we must also address the structural causes of hunger and malnutrition, which include the flooding of our markets with cheap but unhealthy food, the miserable plight of our food growers, and, above all, the extreme poverty that leaves people with no choice but to eat what little — if any — food they can find.

In this age of “unli rice,” no Filipino should have to live with an empty stomach.

Originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer:

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