By Patricia Ngwale:
Jane Mwambene, 67, has been growing rice on expansive paddy fields along the M1 Road in Karonga District for over three decades.
Her desire is that one day she will be able to add value to the produce so that it can find space in upmarket malls and attract fairer prices.
In the meantime, she sells her rice to individuals seeking to add the aromatic food to their meals.
“The challenge is that, even after packaging the rice, it will not be easy to find markets where we can get good prices since there is a lot of imported rice which is very cheap,” Mwambene complains.
The semiaquatic crop, which is one of the most-grown in the lakeshore district, could even earn more for farmers if it found its way onto shelves of shops in countries such as the United Kingdom.
But concerns that one of the world’s most toxic elements infiltrates the farm produce and, thus, finds its way into prepared meals, mean the crop could be facing a crisis, especially when it comes to exports.
Mwambene is not aware of the element, called arsenic— which is one of World Health Organisation (WHO)’s 10 chemicals of public health concern—and, when informed about the possibility of her rice containing it, she brushed off the likelihood.
“What I know, as a farmer, is that if rice from other countries found its way into Malawi, ours too could find its way into other countries. Government must support us so that we export our rice,” she says.
According to the United Nations health agency, widespread pollution is raising levels of arsenic in foods, posing a serious health risk.
Inorganic arsenic, found in rocks and soil or dissolved in water, accumulates significantly in rice, scientists say.
Higher amounts are said to be acutely toxic and carcinogenic, causing serious health problems and even death.
A lecturer at Natural Resources College of the University of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Angstone Mlangeni, seeks to identify rice growing conditions that optimally reduce accumulation of arsenic and other toxic elements in rice grains.
Farmers like Mwambene would significantly benefit from such research considering that certified rice is deemed of high quality likely to fetch more cash.
“The work will help rice farmers adapt their agronomical techniques to produce safer rice, which does not only protect consumers from ingesting carcinogens but also comply with international regulations for safeguarding the safety of the global population,” Mlangeni says.
The researcher further states that his work will allow rice farmers to produce high-quality certified low carcinogen content rice for international trade.
Mlangeni’s other interests include screening imported rice bran-based baby food for elevated inorganic arsenic and investigating the quality of water sourced within the proximity of uranium, coal and gold deposits and mines which are precursors for arsenic.
“Eventually, the work will help reduce ingestion of toxicants which translate to reduction of likelihood of cancers linked to the studied toxicants, particularly arsenic, developing among consumers of rice and rice products at national and global levels,” he explains.
The researcher says he targets rice, among other reasons, because its plants efficiently take up and accumulate substantively higher amounts of arsenic from the soil into its grains compared with most cereal crops.
Additionally, he says, the European Commission legislated the maximum contaminant concentration of the toxicant in baby food or rice destined to produce baby food with the aim of protecting consumers from ingesting elevated arsenic.
“Therefore, screening rice laden with elevated inorganic arsenic is mandatory to make rice safer for consumption for both infants and adults as well as to open opportunities for rice exports,” he says.
With European Union countries being potential recipients of Malawi’s rice and rice products, the certification of the produce would allow farmers such as Mwambene to be at ease in their export pursuits.
Mlangeni further hopes that assessing the levels of arsenic in rice paddies may help not only screen contaminated rice fields for rice cultivation but also employ mitigatory agronomical practices that reduce transference of the carcinogens to rice plants in fields identified with elevated arsenic.
It may also inspire other precautionary measures, which, according to WHO, include washing rice using plenty of water when cooking rice; and practising alternate wetting and drying water management; and using sorbents in arsenic contaminated rice fields.
In terms of determining the amount of arsenic in water sources, it may help in coming up with ways of treating the water before it is consumed.
Under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the indicator of ‘safely managed drinking water services’ calls for tracking the population accessing water free of chemical contaminants, including arsenic.