Corn-rice mix answer to food security, malnutrition amid rice supply threats due to China’s dams in Mekong River

December 30, 2019

Food security perils resulting from threats of severe drought in rice-exporting countries due to dams being built in  Mekong River should prompt Philippines to introduce corn grits into daily rice meal.

   The mix of rice and corn as staple may still be new to most Filipinos, particularly Luzon natives.

   However, the rice-corn mix endorsed as staple by the Department of Agriculture (DA) should be consumed more now amid threat of declining supply of rice in the world market, according to experts at the Institute of Plant Breeding (IPB).

   The Mekong River recorded in July 2019 an all-time low water level in 100 years, causing drought among rice-exporting countries. 

   This should prompt government leaders to adopt  the program of using nutritious Quality Protein Maize (QPM) as a well-suited mix to rice, according to Jaia Gabrielle L. Lapiz,IPB research associate.

   The Mekong River is recognized as the most important river in Southeast Asia.  Its water irrigates agricultural lands throughout China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

   It is foreseen that droughts may turn worse as some 300 dams are reportedly being built or proposed in China and Laos.

   “Why would the drought in the Mekong River be of concern to the citizens of the Philippines? Because we get 91% of our imported rice from the countries (mainly Thailand, Vietnam) sitting on the Mekong River,” said the IPB researcher.

   IPB of the University of the Philippines-Los Banos (UPLB) has repeatedly proven viability of the rice-corn mix as a palatable substitute to the regular rice on the Filipino table.

   “Eating corn grits in not an unfamiliar topic. When the Marcos Administration was hit with a rice crisis that almost depleted the national stock, they had to add corn grits to the mix just to continue the supply,” said Lapiz.

Corn grits and corn grit recipes. Image credit: www.featurepics.com, http://www.taste.com.au, www.sidechef.com, www.howtofeedaloon.com

   “Today, eating corn grits is only unfamiliar to Luzon dwellers. Filipinos in Visayas and Mindanao continue to eat corn grits as their staple food.”

   Artemio M. Salazar, IPB rogram leader, said IPB has a seed production program to produce the QPM seeds in greater quantity.

   “Farmers in the uplands will most benefited.   IPB Var 6 gives a yield that is nearly comparable to commercial yellow corn’s yield,” said Salazar. 

  Based on a previous test, the yield of IPB Var 6 in Luzon was at an average of 5.84 metric tons (MT) per hectare; in Visayas, 5.45 MT per hectare, and in Mindanao, 4.47 MT per hectare.

  “ These seeds are distributed to DA’s regional offices.  IPB is tasked to produce foundation and registered white corn seeds which will be mass-propagated in the regions.

   “We aim to bring this technology to the uplands the boondocks where there are many people who don’t have anything to eat,” said Salazar.

   Lysine, tryptophan

   A unique nutrition advantage of the IPB Var 6 is its high quality protein.  It has high content of essential amino acids lysine and tryptophan.

    Unlike rice, white corn has low glycemic index (GI).  Low GI makes white corn slower to digest thereby releasing glucose gradually into the bloodstream.  Thus, the risk of diabetes, now among top 10 killer diseases in the country, is lessened.

   It has more dietary fiber found to enable the body to fight cancer risks.  It has more minerals and more antioxidants than rice.

Kwashiorkor

   The high protein in QPM becomes a solution to a nutritional case called “kwashiorkor” (African).  It is a protein deficiency problem that leads to brain use impairment.

   Lysine is an essential amino acid that plays a big role in muscle building and the body’s production of hormones, enzymes, and antibodies.  This white corn is also rich in tryptophan, another essential amino acid.

   Intake of a 3 piece of  20-gram IPB corn pan de sal with 20% corn grit supplies 25 percent of a two-year old child’s daily nutritional requirement out of the required 44-64 milligrams per one kilo of weight.

   Lysine contributes to the production of carnitine which helps lower cholesterol. It is important for the absorption of calcium and the formation of collagen needed in building bones and connective tissues.

Agronomic advantages

   Growing corn likewise has huge implications in agriculture.

   Corn has what is known as the “C4” biochemical photosynthetic pathway. That enables it to more efficiently collect energy from sunlight that is converted to biomass.  Rice has the less efficient C3 biochemical photosynthetic pathway.

   “The Holy Grail in rice breeding is genetically transforming the photosynthetic pathway of rice from C3 to C4 in order to increase grain yields,” said IPB Founder Dr. Emil Q. Javier

   Corn also requires less water to grow, bearing higher drought tolerance with its more efficient water use.

   “Corn requires much less water to produce a kilogram of grain compared with rice. Corn therefore is the better alternative in farms without irrigation which constitute the majority of our arable lands,” he said.

  What is good about corn is it does not need capital-intensive irrigation facilities, unlike rice.  For corn grows wherever there is rainfall. UPLB and IPB have also developed a corn mill that may be portably taken to upland areas for processing of the QPM.

     The white corn variety used is an open pollinated variety.  That means seeds can be repeatedly used by farmers for free. The OPVs, developed by IPB, yield a relatively high four metric tons (MT) per hectare, still higher than most OPVs yielding two to three MT.

   The availability of the portable corn mill is expected to encourage farmers to plant  white corn,.

   “If there’s a small machine, farmers have an assurance of a market for corn,” said Salazar.

    At approximately just P100,000 per unit, its benefit to the rural poor will be immense.

Supply problems

   As corn grits are hardly available in Luzon, government (a function used to be with the National Food Authority) may take on tasks of  grain purchasing, storage, milling and distribution of white corn grits and rice-corn grit mixtures.

   DA has been funding the seed production of the  QPM.  

      An earlier proposal of the Philippine Maize Federation Inc. (PMFI) is for government’s initial release to market of 300,000 MT of rice-corn blends for 5 years.

   It will be consumed by constituents of subsidized food at the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology,

   It will also be used for the school/nutrition feeding of the Department of Education, Department of Social Welfare and Development, Department of National Defense, and Department of Health.

Taste tests

   Based on tests, a mix of 70:30 (rice-corn) has been found by nutritionists at UPLB to be acceptable to common rice consumers in Luzon.

   The corn grit part to the blend may be raised as soon as consumers get used to the texture and taste.

Malnourished

   The last 2008 National Nutrition Survey (NNS) of the Food and Nutrition Research Institute indicated that underweight children aged 0-5 affected numbered 3.35 million, an increase of 26.2 percent from the last NNS held every five years.

   For aged 6-10, underweight prevalence also rose from 22.8 percent to 25.6 percent, affecting 2.6 million kids.

Pan de sal

   As corn may be mixed with rice, corn may also be used as substitute for wheat flour up to 20 % based on an IPB bread program.

   Salazar said Philippines can save P5 billion yearly if it can replace wheat flour by just 20 percent.  IPB Var6 has been used on commercial scale production of pandesal in a community in Calauan, Laguna led by the Salesians of Don Bosco.

African program

   IPB Var 6 is a corn variety developed for local growing conditions by a team of IPB breeders led by Salazar.

   Its original parental lines came from a program of CIMMYT meant to aid Africa to feed malnourished children with QPM. Since corn has been a staple in Africa, it wasn’t too difficult to introduce QPM there.

   “Actual nutrition trials in Ghana and several other countries have demonstrated that

children fed with QPM corn were healthier, suffered fewer fatalities and had better growth rates

than those fed with normal corn,” said Javier.

   The same was true with parallel tests with animal feed rations. Tests in El Salvador

showed that as much as 50% of the soybean meal can be replaced with QPM corn resulting in

savings of 3–5% of feed cost.

   These were the foundation genetic materials out of which Dr. Artemio Salazar and his

team at IPB developed a Filipino version adopted to Philippine growing conditions and tolerant to prevailing pests and diseases. Melody Mendoza Aguiba

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