Nutrition crisis, a failure of farm policies

G Chandrashekhar | Updated on January 16, 2018

Forgotten legumes: They can address our protein deficiency   -  KK Mustafah

Agriculture is basically cereals-driven. Pulses and edible oils should be included in the national food security programme

India is not only among the world’s fastest growing significant economies but also world’s third largest producer of food with abundant natural endowments.

Yet, agriculture growth rate has been rather low over last 15 years or so, falling well below the annual target of 4 per cent. In the country’s growth story, agriculture is a laggard.

The contribution of agriculture and allied sector to national GDP is a mere 14-15 per cent; but over 50 per cent of the country’s workforce is dependent on farms for livelihood.

Fix structural issues

Structural issues in agriculture — fragmented landholding, monsoon dependence, inadequate irrigation, lack of technology inputs, poor state of rural infrastructure and so on — have not been sorted out.

Far from strengthening the production base, our farm policies have resulted in unsteady output, low yield, non-uniform quality and volatile prices.

Besides, there are the upcoming challenges — land constraints, looming water shortage and climate change. India may not be food insecure today, but the signs are ominous.

Continued grain mono-cropping (rice-wheat-rice cycle) in certain regions has resulted serious deterioration of soil health and alarming decline in the water table. In other words, an environmental disaster is waiting to happen.

Again, our policies may have ensured overall ‘economic growth’; but there is no real ‘social development’. No wonder, India ranks rather low in Human Development Index and high on the Global Hunger Index.

What we have is ‘growth without equity’ and little distributive justice, an important cause of our poor nutrition status.

Agriculture and nutrition

There is empirical evidence to show that a sixth of the population is undernourished; a fourth of the children are malnourished; 190 million go hungry daily; 3,000 children die daily due to poor diet-related illness; a third of the children below the age of five are underweight; a quarter of global death of kids below five happens in India; and a third of global neonatal deaths occur in India.

There is pervasive under-nutrition especially in rural areas with PEM (protein and energy malnutrition). Government policies support subsidised delivery of calories but not proteins. Despite growing production, India’s protein use has gradually declined in the last 20 years.

The country faces the risk of moving towards nutrition insecurity. Inter-State variations in the nutrition status are stark. The long-term implications of under-nutrition are serious given the age profile of the population. The ‘poor’ are worst affected.

Malnutrition, as is well known, exerts long-term adverse effects on human health, labour productivity and general well-being. Perpetual under-nutrition results in low resistance to infections and increased morbidity.

There are multiple — about half a dozen — schemes to address malnutrition. These include Public Distribution System, Midday Meal Scheme, Integrated Child Development Programme and so on.

These are implemented by as many ministries as there are schemes but there is little coordination. Programme implementation is tardy and not uniform across the country.

Indeed, access to ‘nutritious food’ and affordability ought to be a guiding factor for policymakers.

What’s the way forward? First, we need to recognise the close relationship between agriculture, nutrition and health. Agriculture is a source of food, and thereby nutrition. It is also a source of income that helps buy nutritious food. Agriculture policies impact food output, availability and prices. We have the resources to fight malnutrition, but there is little coordinated effort among various departments.

Although the government claims to accord high priority to malnutrition, implementation of programmes and schemes is decentralised. Progress in promoting nutrition is not uniform across the country. The case for dovetailing the various schemes is strong.

Beyond cereals

Our agriculture and food policies (covering production, processing and consumption) in recent years have focused on two fine cereals, rice and wheat; and have paid considerably less attention to nutritious coarse cereals (nutri-cereals), pulses and oilseeds. The per capita availability of these food commodities here is rather low by world standards. Policy support, research support and investment support for the latter will help advance food and nutrition security.

India has a large and growing production base of major protein sources (animal and vegetable); yet, an alarming decline in per capita protein availability is seen. Also, there is a skew in food consumption pattern.

This skew can be easily addressed by appropriate agriculture and food distribution policies. But there is policy inertia.

For ensuring sustainable food and nutrition security of the nation, here are some practical policy recommendations:

Turn policy focus slightly away from fine cereals to nutri-cereals, pulses, oilseeds, milk, poultry and fish;

Include pulses and edible oil under the public distribution system and National Food Security Act;

Encourage food fortification; and

Raise protein and micro-nutrient content in MDM and ICDS foods.

If this involves some subsidy, so be it. The long-term economic and social benefits will far outweigh costs.

In sum, I would argue that the hope of ‘demographic dividend’ will remain a chimera unless our policies recognise the relationship between agriculture, nutrition and health, and are designed to address the issue of pervasive under-nutrition.

The writer is a policy analyst and agribusiness specialist

Published on December 13, 2016

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