India cashing in on Black Rice, the new superfood

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Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

Black rice — nutty in flavour and deep purple in colour — once rare and “forbidden” to all but the Chinese emperor is globally charming its way into gourmet stores, fine dining restaurants, and health conscious foodie sites.

In India, black rice or Chak-hao (delicious rice) has been indigenous to the northeastern state of Manipur for centuries. Till some years ago, the crop was mostly consumed locally and little was exported.

However, better price realisation and growing demand for this paddy internationally has been enticing farmers across the country to look at rice grains of a different colour.

Compared to white or brown rice, black rice is more expensive. For the farmer, per kg price of paddy is Rs 85 and after processing it is Rs 160. “Depending on the quality, one kg of black rice fetches Rs 100 or more in the market, which is twice as much as any other local variety of rice fetches,” says Mani Barua, a paddy grower in Upper Assam’s Golaghat district.

Today, Assam, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Odisha, Karnataka are all cultivating this nutrient-dense rice and boosting their farm incomes considerably with exports to Australia, UK, USA, Thailand, Denmark and Malaysia among others.

Assam, for instance, has had a good run in cultivating black rice in the last five years. Priced at a premium as an organic product, it has shown great potential in overseas markets.

Also, black paddy has shown itself to be climate-resilient, as witnessed during the recent floods in Assam.  

In an effort to promote cultivation, the Central government has distributed 750 quintals of black rice seeds to farmers in the Brahmaputra and Barak valleys of Assam.

In Shivamogga and in many districts in Karnataka stretches of paddy fields today looks distinctly black, thanks to the renaissance of heritage black rice brought about by the Organic Farming Research Centre’s efforts.

The Uttar Pradesh try-out

Late 2019, a farmer in Prayagraj, reading about the medicinal benefits of black rice decided to cultivate the black paddy as an experiment. He did so successfully and for the first time in Uttar Pradesh (UP) black rice was grown.

Since then, many farmers in UP have jumped on the wagon to earn a pretty penny.

Recently, a group of 300 farmers in UP’s Chandauli district – known as the rice bowl of eastern UP – not only harvested 900 quintals of black rice efficaciously, but are also priming their produce for exports.

According to CP Singh, general manager of Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA), a formal meeting between the exporter and farmers was organized in the district so that the farmers could directly negotiate with the exporters.

The effort paid off. The initial exports are slated for Australia and New Zealand and then to other countries.

APEDA is now motivating more farmers to grow black rice because the soil in Chandauli district is particularly favourable to paddy farming.

Why Black rice?

Black rice, belonging to the Oryza sativa family, is a medium-sized grain with a black husk on the outside and surfeit of health benefits inside. 

It is low on carbohydrates and very high on fiber, iron, and protein. Each grain contains anthocyanin, which gives it a distinct colour and is a powerful antioxidant.

The rice is also known to be a natural detoxifier and its consumption aids in the prevention of ailments such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, Alzheimer, hypertension, high cholesterol, arthritis, allergies, aging signs, and even cancer.

Naturally, this health powerhouse when first cultivated in Ancient China was accessible only to the elite and the Emperor. In fact, it is said that the Chinese Emperor restricted the cultivation of black rice and even put a death penalty on anyone growing it without his knowledge. Hence, the name, Forbidden Rice.

Today, with the Superfood tag and awareness campaigns promoting its many health benefits, black rice is gaining celebrity status among cereals. It is replacing white and even brown rice for the health conscious in countries like the US, New Zealand, Australia, UK, Belgium, Denmark and others.

According to a recent Superfood Market report by Brand Essence Research, the global Superfoods market, valued at $166.80 billion in 2018 is expected to reach $274.21 billion by 2025 with a CAGR of 7.36 per cent over the forecast period.

This is good news for black rice growers in India, as it ups their export potential.  

Manipur stakes a claim

Indigenous to Manipur, Chak-hao has cultural and traditional significance to the state. No celebration is complete without a serving of the black rice kheer.

“The pleasant aroma and stickiness of the rice is unique to this region and not common to other black rice varieties cultivated in other states. The composition of anthocyanin varies depending on agro-climatic conditions,” says Dr. Elangbam Geetanjali, Department of Botany, Miranda House, Delhi.

In May 2020, Chakhao was awarded the Geographical Indication (GI) tag, bringing much cheer to the state.

The GI tag gives Chak-hao and edge, improving its potential for commercial trade. Further, seeds and grains can be sold with a royalty fee to any parts of the globe.

Many value-added products are also being considered by Manipur Organic Mission Agency, like rice powder, suji (flour), syrup, chocolate, beer, wine, cake, bread, flattened rice, paratha, ladoo, and cosmetic items to further commercialize the produce.

Niche Market

Though grown in limited quantity in the country and is labour intensive. The high price point makes it lucrative.

Industry experts say that, governmental infrastructure, market and financial support can go a long way in upping the production of black rice, which will be a good thing for Indian rice producers and consumers, domestic as well as global.

For the consumer, black rice on gourmet store shelves or e-commerce platforms costs anywhere between Rs 200 to Rs 500 a kilogram (kg)offered by brands like Patanjali, Sri Sri Tattva, Natureland Organics, Pekkoy Black rice among others. 

“Nonetheless, we expect prices will come down with bulk production of more nutritive black rice” says an official of Caprine Agrotech, an exporter supplying organic black rice in the European Market.

Shampa Bahadur has been a business journalist for more than two decades. She has written for Business India, PTI Media TransAsia and India Infrastructure Publication Ltd among others. She has also written coffee table books. She can be reached at shampa@indoasiancommodities.in

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