Time to move away from staple grain fundamentalism to diversified crop system?

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India ranked 102 out of 117 in Global Hunger Index (GHI) right after it observed POSHAN Mah to promote nutritious lifestyle. Experts say there may be merit in revisiting strategies and linking nutrition intricately with agriculture 

The September campaign by Ministry of Women and Child Welfare on driving awareness about nutrition is remarkable, especially for the way it coalesced diverse stakeholders into believing that it was time for all to act. The Prime Minister’s Overarching Scheme for Holistic Nutrition or POSHAN Abhiyaan, also called National Nutrition Mission, is Government of India’s flagship programme to improve nutritional outcomes for children, pregnant women and lactating mothers. It was launched by Prime Minister on March 8, 2018 and in two years the campaign has achieved remarkable success in emphasizing on the need for social behavioural change and communication (SBCC). The emphasis could not have been more timely, given the severity of the problem, a fact that was in a way reinforced by the latest Global Hunger Index.

The GHI 2019 ranked India at 102 out of 117 countries and categorised the nation under “serious” radar of malnutrition with the GHI score 30.3. Experts believe considering the rigor of government policies and initiatives aimed towards fighting malnutrition and  the outcomes in GHI, there may be gaps in the approach to address the issue of malnutrition. Another irony is that India being the one the largest producers of food grains, has the highest number of people suffering from malnutrition. This, many believe, is reason for a rethink our agricultural policies – to shift the focus towards possibilities of creating a nutrition system that is environment friendly, sustainable and affordable to the poor and marginalized sections of the society. The best way to achieve this is through linking agriculture and nutrition. Noted economist, Founding Director of the Tata-Cornell Institute and a Professor in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Cornell University, Professor Prabhu Pingali says, “For many countries, food security still means adequate quantities of primary staple grains, such as rice or wheat. A holistic view of food security would require governments to ensure the availability of a wider basket of food, including food that is rich in micronutrients.”

Global Hunger Index, helps to highlight the areas and regions of the world that have severe cases of hunger and malnutrition. It not only draws attention to the extent of the problem but also helps generate awareness among the nation state by reflecting their status on a global scale for comparison. To achieve this purpose GHI utilises a comprehensive tool to track hunger at various levels- be it global, national or regional. The GHI score defines progress of the nation in combating hunger. For some countries, the score might reflect the lack of calorie intake due to unavailability of food. On the other hand, it might also reflect deficiency of micronutrients like vitamins and minerals in the diet leading to undernourishment, stunting and wasting in children, child mortality, poor diet quality and unhealthy environment and habits.

To cater to these diverse needs, government has initiated various programs and policy interventions to foster healthy and hygienic environment and lifestyle. This includes, the launch of Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana (PMMVY) in 2017 which is a conditional cash transfer scheme for pregnant and lactating women, which has proved to be beneficial for more than 98.16 lakh women. Government has also provided incentives to field level functionaries like Anganwadi Worker and Anganwadi helper to encourage Supplementary Nutrition Programme (SNP). Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is another thoughtful intervention of the central government to inculcate healthy lifestyle for better absorption of nutrients. However, the GHI mentions about Swachh Bharat Abhiyan stating: “Even with new latrine construction, however, open defecation is still practiced. This situation jeopardises the population’s health and consequently, children’s growth and development as their ability to absorb nutrients is compromised.”

“Much of India’s rural population suffers from malnutrition due to micronutrient deficiencies. India’s rates of childhood stunting and wasting as well as anemia in both women and children are among the highest in the world. Such trends signal the country’s urgent need to refocus agricultural policy to address contemporary nutritional challenges. Staple grain fundamentalism has constrained the ability of agricultural policies to achieve positive nutrition outcomes. The food security challenge has evolved in India and throughout much of the developing world. It is no longer about making enough calories available, but rather about enhancing food diversity to address malnutrition in its many dimensions,” says Prof Pingali.

So even as government works on creating right policies and programs, when it comes to nutrition, there are apparent gaps, and this could be owing to the approach. To acquire better nutritional levels, there is a need to make agricultural practices sound and viable. “This can be achieved by shifting away from ‘staple grain fundamentalism’ towards a diversified crop system” suggests Prof Pingali. A diversified crop system encourages small holding farmers to cultivate affordable and locally available micronutrient rich crops like fruits and vegetable for self-consumption. If the surplus is generated, it can be sold in local markets for additional income. Furthermore, crop diversification, proves to be crucial in making micronutrient rich food available, accessible and affordable to the households. As a part of smallholder agricultural production, each household could be encouraged to grow seasonal vegetables and fruits in the kitchen gardens, which could be easily set up in a small area near the house for self-cultivation of fruits and vegetables. This ensures availability of food throughout the year. As it is being cultivated at small scale and primarily for consumption purpose, the micronutrient-rich food is made affordable and accessible to the members of the household. Thus, smallholder agricultural production helps improve household food security through own production which in turn helps farmers save the expenditure on food and make it more affordable. Lastly, it provides and saves the income of the households enabling the members to access nutritious foods.

It is no longer about consuming enough calories, but rather about addressing issue of malnutrition in its multiple dimensions. It is therefore, crucial to ensure that the low socio-economic class gets access to adequate number of micronutrients like proteins and vitamins by making them easily affordable and available for consumption. “Linking agriculture to nutrition will not only help the poor get easy access to nutrient rich food and eradicate malnutrition, but will empower them with better income generation for their household,” says Dr Nikhil Raj, Director of TARINA (Technical Assistance and Research for Indian Nutrition and Agriculture), a consortium that connects policy-focused academics from diverse disciplinary perspectives with impact-focused non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and development partners to tackle malnutrition in India.

TARINA is running projects in Bihar, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh to showcase how a diversified crop system approach can yield positive results.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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