THAR YAR SU, Myanmar—Opening the lid of her rice cooker, a luxury bought when power finally came to their village in central Myanmar three years ago, Tin Aye scooped out two fat ladles for breakfast.
“I cannot go without eating rice. Since the start of the day, all my stomach asks for is rice,” said the 52-year-old mother of three, laughing.
Myanmar is a nation obsessed with rice.
Its people eat an average of 155 kilos a year, according to a 2016 survey by the country’s rice federation and Yezin Agricultural University, ensuring Myanmar has one of the world’s highest rates of rice consumption.
For half a century, successive leaders anchored agriculture policies on rice. The government used loans, infrastructure, and services to farmers to push them to grow it and people to eat it, so rice is now woven into the fabric of daily life.
In place of “hello,” people greet each other by asking, “Have you had rice?”
It wasn’t always this way in Myanmar, where diets were once seasonal, diverse—and much healthier.
But a rice-centric policy that began in the 1960s during the socialist era led people to grow and consume more, said Tin Htut Oo, who has worked in the agricultural ministry and chaired an advisory body to the government.
“Our diets, especially in urban areas, are getting like Western diets. It has become more monotonous,” he said.
Rice—a starchy, high-calorie grain—accounted for at least a third of cultivated land in 2017/18 and nearly two-thirds of diets, government data shows.
But faced with malnutrition and worsening obesity and dietary-related diseases, the Southeast Asian nation of 54 million people is trying to diversify what it grows and eats.
The problem is not Myanmar’s alone.
Experts say if the world is to fight a growing malnutrition crisis, agriculture must shift from producing calories, through staples such as rice, to growing nutrients, such as fruits, nuts, vegetables and pulses.
Poor diet has overtaken smoking as the world’s biggest killer, according to the latest Global Burden of Disease study, causing 20 percent of deaths globally in 2017.
Myanmar has embarked on a five-year nutrition plan to alter the nation’s eating habits, which includes the need to diversify the nation’s agriculture so consumers can access a varied food basket and farmers can increase their incomes.
This includes growing pulses, vegetables and fruits, using better fertilizer and improving livestock production, Kyaw Swe Lin, director-general at the agricultural ministry’s planning department, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
It would also increase incomes in a country where two-thirds of households work in agriculture and are struggling to get by.
Decades of isolation and economic sanctions have affected food quality, safety and nutrition—and reversing this requires outside help, said Kyaw Swe Lin.
In February, Myanmar’s government signed an agreement with the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), with agricultural diversification as a major goal.
Myanmar observers—from aid workers to economists—said poor infrastructure, resistance to change, laws that encourage rice production and insecure land tenure all pose challenges.
But Kyaw Swe Lin said there was no other choice.
“If we don’t tackle this now, the impact is going to be very big and very negative.”
Myanmar’s emergence from nearly half a century of iron-fisted military rule less than a decade ago brought glitzy malls, smart phones, fast food and Western hotel chains.
Yet for the country’s women and children, particularly in ethnic and border areas, malnutrition persists.
One in four children under five and one in four adolescent girls are stunted due to chronic undernutrition, according to a government survey.
One in three adolescent girls are anemic, mainly due to iron deficiency, while more than one in five women are overweight, said the report, published in February.
All of this “poses severe risks to diabetes, hypertension and overall health,” said Anna-Lisa Noack, FAO’s food security and nutrition policy specialist in Myanmar.
A lack of diversified diets is a significant factor.
Emerging evidence suggests more than half the population cannot afford nutrient-rich foods, while consumption of oil, sugar and processed foods is increasing, she said.
In Myanmar, many of the 18,000 plant species so far recorded could be highly nutritious but are neglected, Min San Thein, deputy director at the agricultural ministry, wrote in a report.
One of them is zee phyu thee—Burmese gooseberry—which grows wild in the forests and is rich in vitamin C but is not cultivated, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“Nowadays, if you go to villages, you won’t see these trees anymore,” said Min San Thein, who heads the Myanmar Seed Bank.
There are now plans to breed and distribute them in villages, but much more needs to be done to conserve, use and raise awareness of such species to fight malnutrition, he said.
The Seed Bank is also working to expand its conservation work to reflect Myanmar’s rich biodiversity, he added. Currently, more than half of the 13,000 seeds stored are rice.
Education and innovation, including new ways of consuming protein-laden beans and pulses, are key, said Tin Htut Oo, who now heads the agriculture group in Myanmar’s Singapore-listed conglomerate Yoma Strategic Holdings.
Farmers, however, have voiced reluctance to grow other crops, citing government support for rice.
“We get loans of 150,000 kyats (US$99) per acre for rice. We don’t get it for other crops,” said Kyaw Lin, Tin Aye’s husband.
Another barrier to growing nutrient-rich but perishable fruits and vegetables is the lack of infrastructure such as refrigeration and transport networks, said Debbie Aung Din, whose company Proximity Designs make low-cost farm products.
Tin Aye, the farmer in Thar Yar Su, has no intention of cutting her rice intake but said many villagers, herself included, have started to eat more vegetables after reading warnings about bad diets on social media on their smart phones.
“There is more knowledge and awareness now,” she said.