Govt begins hunt for arsenic-resistant rice

Govt begins hunt for arsenic-resistant rice

New Delhi: Scientists in West Bengal have embarked on a five-year project which, among other things, would develop new types of rice that would absorb less arsenic, a cancer causing agent from ground water, a growing problem in the region.

While groundwater contamination by arsenic in West Bengal and Bangladesh is well-known, recent research suggests that the chemical, which is a known carcinogen, may have seeped into rice, wheat and other vegetables, thus spreading its potential reach.

“Where concentrations of arsenic in soil and water are high, we found a correlation with high arsenic content in crops," says Sasha Koo-Oshima, a water quality and environmental officer with the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. “Several studies have also reported a correlation between arsenic in soil and reduction in crop yields, particularly in rice. Since rice is the region’s staple food, arsenic contamination could also negatively impact food security if concentrations reach levels toxic to crops."

As reported in Mint on 10 September, the Union government has made little progress in its ambitious plan to treat groundwater for arsenic, fluoride and salinity under the Bharat Nirman programme, having covered only 7,300 of the 210,000 habitations affected by these problems.

The latest project will start in the Nadia, Hooghly and Malda districts of West Bengal. According to the ministry of agriculture, the state is India’s largest rice producer and accounted for 16.61% of the country’s total production in 2005-06.

The Rs6.23 crore project, jointly funded by the Union government and the World Bank, will attempt to identify genes that cause certain rice varieties to absorb arsenic. It is part of a $250 million (Rs993 crore) National Agricultural Innovation Programme that is also funded by the World Bank.

A document put up on the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (Icar) website says the Indian Veterinary Research Institute’s regional station in Kolkata; Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute, Barrackpore, universities, including the Bidhan Chandra Krishi Viswavidyalaya, Mohanpur, and Uttar Banga Krishi Viswavidyalaya, Pundibari, and a non-governmental research organization, DN Guhamazumder Research Foundation, Kolkata, have been identified for the project.

S. Sarkar, who is the principle investigator in the project, declined to comment for this story, saying he required prior permission from the Viswavidyalaya management to speak about the issue.

FAO has extensively studied arsenic contamination of water in Bangladesh, the first region that reported extremely high levels of arsenic in water, as well as cases of arsenicosis—a disease triggered by prolonged exposure to arsenic.

Though FAO’s reports are voluminous, its reports on the food contamination in West Bengal are scanty.

“Which is why we are commissioning this study," said a senior scientist in the agriculture ministry requesting anonymity. “We are seeing that the arsenic problem is no longer restricted to West Bengal, but is spreading to Uttar Pradesh and some parts in the North-East. It’s time to take urgent steps. We need to get the science right, and figure out appropriate measures."

Independent scientists say not only rice, but even wheat may have been already accumulating arsenic. D. Chandrasekharam, professor, department of earth sciences at IIT Bombay, in the peer-reviewed Journal of Applied Geo-Chemistry, said his investigations with a German research team showed that the roots of rice and wheat grown in contaminated fields had 169-178 mg/kg of arsenic, nearly 20 times higher than the 7.7 mg/kg in an uncontaminated location.

The paper, however, emphasizes that no arsenic was found in the rice and wheat grain, “but it’s still a matter of concern because the non-grain parts of the plant are often consumed by animals, which may thus find its way into the food chain", he said.