Nicknamed “India’s Rice Warrior”, a plant scientist-turned-farmer, Dr Debal Deb on Saturday said he has discovered a traditional rice variety from West Bengal that contains “silver” and has medicinal properties.
Addressing an audience at a private management school where 1200 traditional varieties of rice conserved by Deb since 1996 are on display, the popular conservationist said, “Some time back, I got a rice variety from a farmer in Birbhum district of West Bengal. We found that this variety — Garib Sal — contains 15 milligram/kilogram of silver which it assimilates directly from the soil. No other plant species is known to assimilate silver naturally,” said Deb who is a member of the expert committee on agrobiodiversity at the National Biodiversity Authority (NBA) and has also founded “Virhi” (Sanskrit for rice) — India’s largest nongovernmental folk rice gene bank that conserves traditional rice varieties.
He said that the discovery happened by chance as he and his three-member team were searching of various properties of this rice variety. “During the last 11 months we have done a number of tests with this variety and we have found that the silver absorbing properties of this rice variety does not change,” he said, adding that Garib-Sal was once grown in West Bengal and was recommended as a diet for patients with gastrointestinal infections and the presence of silver in rice might have had a therapeutic effect by killing pathogenic microbes in the human gut.
A Fulbright scholar, who has done post-doctoral ecology work at the University of California at Berkeley, Deb spoke of several traditional rice varieties conserved by him that have high “nutraceutical value.” “Some of these rice varieties like Kalabhat (39 mg/kg), Parmai Sal (42.5 mg/kg), Navara, Norungan, etc contains high amount of iron and were given to women to cure anaemia during pregnancy,” he added.
Deb himself has 67 varieties of rice in his repository that have sizeable presence of iron. He told the audience about a rice variety – Badshah Sal – that has 138 mg/kg of iron and is much better than Monsanto’s MS-13 that has an iron content of 7 mg/kg.
“Similarly, there are rice varieties with anti-oxidant properties that can prevent cancer, omega-3 and minerals like zinc and magnesium. But the sad part is there is no policy or mechanism in our country to make it possible to grow and market these varieties,” said Deb who is currently working with 14,000 farmers in 12 states to popularise these local varieties of rice that have almost disappeared.
“Multinational companies are spending billions on gene mining, but even after 65 years of research, they still do not have one variety that can withstand a drought or a flooding or salinity. But all these characteristics are available in the local varieties,” he added.
Deb who is the last repository for over 400 varieties of rice, said that he has two species that can grow in 12 feet deep water, 16 varieties of rice that are drought tolerant and can survive without irrigation, 11 varieties than can grow in salinity affected areas and 200 varieties than can grow in 4-5 feet of water and 152 different aromatic varieties. “These are their natural properties than can never be imagined by genetical engineers,” he added.
According to this expert, rice was domesticated in India over 12,000 years ago and today only 7000 of the 1.1 lakh rice species exist in the country.