India must abandon policies that prioritise staple foodgrains above all other crops. It must diversify its food systems
So successful have India’s food policies been that the country has regular bumper crops of wheat and rice. For instance, the nation’s foodgrain production is estimated to have touched a record 295.67 million tonne in the 2019-20 crop year (June-July) — the fourth-consecutive year that the country has witnessed record production — buoyed by good rains, according to Agriculture Ministry’s latest data. This is up by 10.46 million tonnes from the previous year.
Yet despite this major success in producing India’s staple foodgrain, and in part because of it, nearly 210 million Indians remain under-nourished, and many more suffer from other forms of malnutrition, like micronutrient deficiencies and obesity. The crux of the problem is that India’s agricultural sector produces more than enough foodgrain but fails to meet demand for vegetables, pulses and other nutrient-rich foods.
If the country is to make good on its commitment under the United Nations’ second Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) to achieve zero hunger and provide access to nutritious food for all, India must abandon policies that prioritise staple foodgrains above all other crops. It must diversify its food systems and focus not on the quantity it produces, but the quality.
This is the conclusion of a newly- published study, the 2020 Food, Agriculture and Nutrition in India, that provides a detailed analysis of the state of hunger and malnutrition in the nation. Using district-level data and maps, the report highlights stark geographical differences in the extent of the hunger problem and identifies potential paths forward.
Over the last four decades, the country has made significant progress in reducing hunger, at least in terms of meeting the minimum calorie requirements. However, as evidenced most clearly in the high prevalence of child stunting, micronutrient malnutrition is endemic. The needle on progress in the reduction of child stunting has hardly budged over the decades, with 43.3 million stunted children in the country. Even as the nation struggles to tackle these problems, it faces an emerging threat in the rapidly rising number of adults who are overweight or obese, and consequently, in the prevalence of non-communicable diseases (NCDs).
Much of the disparity in nutritional outcomes in India can be traced back to different levels and rates of development among the States. In the underdeveloped, agriculturally-unproductive States of central and eastern India, cereal grains dominate diets and rates of undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies are high. States in the north and south of the country, with developed agricultural sectors and thriving manufacturing and services industries, have lower rates of undernutrition, but high rates of obesity.
Addressing both ends of the malnutrition spectrum requires enhanced availability and access to diverse and nutritious foods that are affordable for impoverished people. To achieve this goal, continued high-level investments in agricultural infrastructure and research are needed to sustain past gains in productivity growth and exploit new opportunities for growth, such as the renewed interest in millet and pulses. India must re-orient agricultural policy away from its traditional focus on staples and towards enhancing the productivity and supply of coarse cereals, pulses, fruits, vegetables and livestock products.
A successful re-orientation of the agricultural policy on the national level will require solutions at the local level. Localised cropping systems across the country must be rethought to boost productivity and increase crop diversity while prioritising sustainability. For example, in eastern India, where staple agriculture is less productive on account of poor infrastructure and agro-climatic conditions, less water-intensive crops, such as pulses, coarse cereals and oilseeds, should be adopted.
Not only will such changes increase India’s supply of nutrient-rich foods, helping to make them more accessible and affordable, it will also increase farmers’ incomes, empowering households to devote more resources to nutritious foods.
Farmers with small holdings also need support to overcome steep transaction costs due to low economies of scale, poor market connectivity, low bargaining power, and inadequate information about prices and quality standards.
This is particularly true for perishable products like fruits and vegetables, which are among the most nutrient-rich. By investing in rural market infrastructure, enacting market reforms and supporting
farmer aggregation, India can enable its small-holding farmers to
improve their livelihoods while producing more diverse agricultural products.
Research also shows that empowering women to play a greater role in agriculture and household decision-making improves nutrition outcomes. Likewise, improving infrastructure for clean water and sanitation leads to better health and nutrition results. These strategies should be pursued in conjunction with changes in agricultural policies. Additionally, food assistance programmes should be reformed to offer more nutritious foods. Household diet preferences suggest a move away from staple grains but the Public Distribution System (PDS) is still limited to wheat and rice. By building the market infrastructure to support the production and procurement of non-staples, the Government can diversify the PDS to include nutritious foods like coarse grains and pulses.
The zero-hunger challenge is a multi-sectoral task and requires explicit strategies for convergence of policies and programmes across Ministries at the Central, State and local government levels. Breaking out of disciplinary and organisational silos is crucial for ensuring success.
Achieving zero hunger in India is a significant challenge but can be met if the country re-orients its policies to unleash the full, untapped potential of the agricultural sector, with an emphasis on producing nutritious, non-staple crops.
(The writer is Founding Director, Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition)