Rice plays a pivotal role in the diet of over half of the world’s population. Without it, many people in Africa and South East Asia would simply starve.
But overdependence on rice in the diet comes at a price. Whilst it is rich in carbohydrates, rice is also poor in nutrients, and relying upon it as a principal food source can lead to vitamin A deficiency. In children under the age of five vitamin A deficiency can cause blindness and even death.
It’s a problem which aid agencies and developed nations need to work together to address, for example by adopting the World Health Organisation’s proposal for a programme of vitamin A supplements in poorer countries.
Even better would be a campaign to encourage farmers in these countries to grow crops rich in vitamin A alongside their rice crops. This latter approach was adopted successfully in Bangladesh some twenty years ago. Back then, vitamin A deficiency was a major public health problem for Bangladesh but today the problem has been eradicated, principally by encouraging greater crop diversity on the country’s farms.
But never one to miss an opportunity, the global chemical company Monsanto has been pressing for the introduction into these poorer countries of a form of genetically modified rice, which it claims is a “solution” to the problem of vitamin A deficiency.
Created by splicing a rice gene with two other genes (one from a variety of daffodil, the other from a soil bacterium), Monsanto’s GM rice does at least contain vitamin A. However, the splicing process also gives the resulting GM rice a strange, unnatural colour. Monsanto has since tried to turn this negative into a positive by marketing their creation as “golden rice”.
Many environmental groups are strongly opposed to the introduction of “golden rice” into the world’s poorest countries, but strong political lobbying by Monsanto has ensured it has the support of some key western governments.
One of Monsanto’s principal cheerleaders in the UK in recent years has been the UK’s former Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson. Pro-fracking, pro-fox hunting, pro-badger culling, and of course pro-genetically modified foods, Mr Paterson was surely the most inappropriate individual ever to hold the post of Environment Secretary.
In a notorious interview a couple of years back, Paterson described opposition to “golden rice” as “wicked”, and went on to say “it’s just disgusting that little children are allowed to go blind and die because of a hang-up by a small number of people about this technology.”
The truth is that golden rice is an opportunistic diversion away from the real solution, which is giving people the means to grow foods which will provide them with a balanced nutritional diet. “Golden rice”, like other Monsanto genetically modified seeds will simply lock poor farmers into a cycle of dependency and, of course, boost Monsanto’s profits.
What is truly “wicked” is those politicians, like Owen Paterson, who misuse their positions of public responsibility in order to promote the interests of big business over those of the environment and the world’s most vulnerable.
On my allotment plot, the Circus Garden, I deliberately choose to grow a number of rare and endangered varieties of vegetables that are effectively outlawed under the European Union’s draconian seed legislation. It’s my way of putting up two fingers to that legislation and to those greedy multinational companies like Monsanto, who benefit most from it.
Two of these are rare varieties of pea – Victorian Purple Podded, upon which I have eulogised in several previous posts, and Harbinger, a variety which dates back to 1872. They are producing pods in abundance right now, and I am using both varieties in this week’s recipe.
This is a dish which began life a couple of years back as an idea for one element of a deconstructed matar paneer (Indian cheese and pea curry). However when I made it, this green pea and coconut dhal was just so stunningly good on its own that I decided it didn’t need the paneer masala that I had planned as an accompaniment.
Serve it with flatbreads such as paratha* or chapati or, of course, with rice – but if you do, just make sure it’s the right colour.
* there’s a quick and rather good recipe for paratha at the foot of my recipe for tomato, lentil and tamarind soup, here.
green pea and coconut dhal
1 tsp black mustard seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
500 g freshly shelled peas (if not available use the same weight of frozen peas)
1/4 tsp asafoetida
1/2 tsp sea salt
1 can coconut milk
1 onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 green chilli, seeds in, roughly chopped
2 cm piece of ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
2 tbsp groundnut oil
1 tsp garam masala
1 tbsp fresh coriander
1. Steam the peas for 2 minutes and then drain and refresh under cold water. Place approximately a third of the peas into a blender with 150 ml cold water and process to a smooth paste. Put to one side.
2. Put the garlic, ginger, chilli and salt into a blender and process to a paste.
3. Heat the groundnut oil in a pan until hot. Add the mustard seeds and cumin seeds. Allow them to sizzle for 30 seconds before adding the asafoetida. Fry, stirring constantly, for a further 30 seconds before adding the onions.
4. Cook the onions with the spices for 4-5 minutes until they are soft and translucent. Add the chilli, garlic and ginger paste. Cook for another 3 minutes, stirring frequently, and then add the coconut milk, the pea purée, the peas and the garam masala. Stir and reduce the heat to low. Bring to a simmer and cook for a further 20-25 minutes until the liquid has reduced, stirring occasionally.
5. Remove from the heat and sprinkle with the chopped fresh coriander. Serve the dhal with Indian flatbreads or rice.