Even in the 21st century, food evokes heated discussion and debate in Sri Lanka. If one goes through any election related material, food on one’s plate would have figured in heavily.
The discussions are usually the cost and the availability. No real serious discussion of the process or on the extended chain of production and supply, the discussions are usually kept very simply on simple facts of quantity and price. If any material has enjoyed the centre stage in discussion, it is usually rice and seldom has the topic shifted to bread. However lately there has been the entry of bread from wheat flour on the scene.
Economists may talk of elasticity of demand and point out that with each price increase after a few days of reduced demand, bread is back on stage enjoying the usual demand. One may see the year-on-year wheat prices in the global market have not shifted in relation to the cost of a loaf of bread in our country. I have not seen any serious study by our economists on this subject.
Today, however, there appears to be a concerted effort to move rice into the bread stage. We are quite keen to wean our self from this addiction to wheat flour. Dare say that is a welcome move though the entry is scientifically challenging.
This gap has prevented rice flour making an almost automatic entry into the bread arena. The gap is in the absence of gluten in rice, which seriously inhibits the shape, and texture of bread being realised when rice flour is used as the source of raw material.
Global grain leader
Rice is a wonderful tender grain and a global leader among grain varieties. At one time the Sri Lanka was considered to be the granary of the east mainly due to her prowess in paddy production backed up by innovative irrigation mechanisms.
We still use those wewas and canals but the situation is far from exciting. Prior to Yala or Maha, it is a tug-of-war between price mechanisms, availability of funds and space for storage.
There have been media reports which have carried bold statements to the effect that even though the stores are old and dilapidated, one would go on purchasing paddy from the producers; hardly the type of behaviour that generates confidence and efficiency.
The effects are laid bare when you read on another day about the stores that have collapsed and the hurried movement of stocks to another destination to prevent additional spoilage. These are actual events that made headlines in our press recently.
There are serious post harvest losses in storage and subsequent movement; quite a waste of money and effort of a sizeable community which engages in this noble profession of agriculture and also a parallel group in administration running subsidy schemes and extension services.
It is important to consider why technology upgradation has not been given to the paddy value chain. Why not process paddy into a variety of products? Why not produce meal packets that could be kept for more than one year?
Many occupations need ready-to-eat meals or easy-to-prepare meals. Sri Lankan rice has been struggling in this regard. There is great benefit if one moves ahead in this area. Why don’t our farmers come together in the style of Riceland in USA, or am I being naïve to pose that question?
Why don’t we utilise vertical silo systems for storage and use the cluster method in accommodating produce upon harvesting? Do we engage in supporting the farming community only to serve the vocation to survive rather than to excel?
Rice has wonderful properties. It can be useful in many ways. Speed in this demonstrating this is important. There are plenty of newspaper articles to show at various time points about rice almost replacing bread – A topic that frequently surfaces when the price of bread rises.
We know that the issue with rice flour is the absence of gluten that prevents the typical structure that we are used to with bread (or is it addicted to?) being difficult. The absence means that bread made with purely rice flour may not have the structural integrity and would collapse and would not be aesthetically pleasing as we know it.
Food is an extremely tricky subject. National needs are pushed backstage over acquired tastes and other hedonistic preferences and that is why those in food marketing work with developing minds at an early stage. You would like very much to see your market base growing with you.
There is multitude of research going on today for gluten-free as well as gluten added rice based bread and one should really hope for this day. A concerted effort backed by the industry could bring this day forward.
We must also be concerned when the demand for rice to make bread and related products goes up, as there will an equal pressure on rice. The interest in pushing up the bread prices may actually result in rise in rice prices as well. Adding the per capita consumption of wheat to rice generates extra rice demand of 30-33 kg/year per person.
Today the statistics reveal and interesting story. We are self sufficient in terms of our production and demand. Yet we still import a sizeable quantity of rice – approx 2-3% extra based on the demand last year. There is demand for some special varieties, which necessitate imports yet over production, and external sourcing implies losses are taking place.
A matter of gluten
A unique aspect to understand is that it is gluten that gives the elasticity and structure in bread and rice has no gluten. Wheat is the source of gluten. Hence when gluten is added to rice to make bread, gluten is extracted from wheat. There are additional scientific efforts in getting paddy to produce gluten – a far more challenging scientific enterprise. Some rice does carry the tag of glutinous rice but that is a misnomer chemically and only signifies stickiness due to a compositional change.
As most of the advanced nations deal with wheat, there is little or no scientific interest to engage in research of this nature. Certain other food additives have also been identified to support rice bread. It is bread and bread alone that gives this challenge from a consumer perspective.
Other wheat based products can be substituted with more ease with rice as it has happened with string hoppers in a big way. Sri Lankan chefs should be challenged to create unique products and this well could be a national competition as Napoleon once did.
Our own attempt to generate rice based bread is shown in the inset. We may fight for the Guinness record with milk rice and hope more such quests take place to raise rice to a central position.
The unique test is with bread but there is the need to demonstrate the potential across from simple to complex range. I certainly would like to buy a gift pack-containing a multitude of rice-based products.
Today in our serious quest to wean ourselves from wheat flour, rice just cannot rise up to the task unless innovative help is provided. There may also be the question in front of us. Do we really need to fight to get that perfect loaf of bread?
The answer to that question lies in developing an alternative packed with convenience and taste plus the appeal. This is certainly not an impossibility. It is high time that we in Sri Lanka think not only on what directly rice can do for us but what we can innovatively do to rice to serve us better.
(Professor Ajith de Alwis is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is a Science Team Leader at the Sri Lanka Nanotechnology Institute. He can be reached via email on firstname.lastname@example.org)