Skip to main content

Op-Ed: We’ll Be What We Eat

With a five-fold increase in food grain
production since 1947, India has moved away from its dependence on food aid to
become a net food exporter. However, the country still shares a quarter of the
global hunger burden.

By 2011, India had been able to achieve the
2000 UN-sanctioned Millennium Development Goals’ (MDGs) poverty reduction
target for 2015, but it had fallen far short of the hunger reduction target.
While undernourishment has gone down, it’s still around 15%, among the highest
in world.

To meet the 2015 UN-sanctioned Sustainable
Development Goals Target No. 2 (SDG 2) of ‘Zero Hunger’ by 2030, India needs to
reduce the number of its hungry by at least 200 million. This is going to be
one of the hardest challenges, requiring nontraditional intervention at the
policy level, including engaging agencies beyond government platforms.

Beyond access to sufficient food, SDG
2.1 specifically calls for access to nutritious food. Access to protein and
micronutrient-rich food has been lagging compared to calorie-dense staples.
While there are definite trends towards diet diversification, rising relative
prices of non-staples limit the affordability of a nutritious diet.


In rural villages, fresh vegetables, if available, are purchased at the weekly market day (Photo credit: Jessica Ames / Tata-Cornell Institute)

Over the past 50 years, India has seen a
steady decline in the real price of staple grains, but a sharp increase — and
high volatility — in the prices of fruit and vegetables, pulses and livestock

Rising relative prices of nonstaples — and,
hence, poor affordability of more nutritious food — has resulted in the high
incidence of micronutrient deficiencies in the diets of the poor, causing
what’s called ‘hidden hunger’. Hidden hunger is manifested in poor nutrition
outcomes such as child stunting and wasting, and high levels of anaemia for

Poor nutrition outcomes are known to lower
cognitive skills, educational outcomes, productivity and wages in adults who
were malnourished as children compared to adults who were not. In addition to
greater mortality risks for children, studies have shown that adults who were
undernourished in childhood have a greater incidence of non-communicable
diseases than those who were properly fed.

Given the close relationship between dietary
diversity of households and nutrition outcomes, ensuring that households can
access diverse foods requires interventions at two levels.

First, to ensure that there is greater
availability of food diversity within the local system. Second, to improve the
affordability of these diets. Hence, effective food policy becomes tantamount
to a nutrition-sensitive food system that enables transition towards a
healthier diet.

Policy debates around food security in India
have mainly focused upon ensuring adequate access to calories through
acontinued focus on staple grain production. But there is a compelling case for
questioning the existing paradigm and the need to open up conversations around
access to a goodquality and balanced diet.

Focus on staples has affected incentives to
develop markets for non-staples, thus affecting their supply and increasing
price uncertainty. Creating new opportunities for food system diversification
to cater to changing consumer demand should become a focus for policymakers.

The SDG commitments provide a great rallying
opportunity to address India’s chronic developmental problems. SDG 2 also
brings smallholder productivity and income growth to the centre of the strategy
to eliminate hunger, thereby directly contributing to rural poverty reduction
goals. GoI’s focus on doubling farmer’s income by 2020 is vital to ensure
tackling of malnutrition and hunger.

Smallholder agricultural production is closely
linked with nutrition and food security in three ways. First, it improves
household food security through own production. Second, it reduces the real
cost of food, thereby enhancing supplies and making it more affordable.

Third, it improves incomes of farming
households enabling them to access nutritious foods.


School lunches are often high in starch and low in protein and/or micronutrients (Photo credit: Christian DiRado-Owens / Tata-Cornell Institute)

Achieving progress on SDG 2 requires us to
channel public, private and civil society resources and expertise. It also
requires multi-sectoral coordination across ministries — agriculture, food,
women and child development, health, water and sanitation, and rural
development. Identifying ways of expanding rural non-farm employment
opportunities contributes directly to SDG 2.

Through an organised upstream and downstream
network of activities, agribusiness value chains could absorb surplus
agricultural labour and provide jobs, especially to the youth and women.

To achieve a geographical spread across the
subcontinent, the commitment to SDGs would need to be made at all levels, from
the Centre and the states to the local panchayats. Prospects for boosting
productivity in the lagging regions of India would be higher if the focus is on
promoting coarse cereals and pulses in these regions rather than on the big two
staple grains, namely, rice and wheat.

Finally, the political economy factors that
have impeded progress in tackling hunger and malnutrition in the past need to
be identified and redressed.

Note: This
op-ed originally appeared in The Economic Times commentary section.

By Prabhu Pingali

Prabhu Pingali is the Founding Director, Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture
and Nutrition and Professor of Applied Economics at the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, with a joint appointment in the Division of Nutritional Sciences, in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cornell University.


: Views expressed above are the author’s own.