As the second goal of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals says: “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.”
The world’s population is booming. According to estimates, the global population is likely to exceed 9 billion by 2050, with 5 billion people in Asia alone. The capacity to produce enough quality food is falling behind human numbers. Food production in the region must keep pace, even as environment sustainability and economic development are ensured.
The answer to these challenges lies in research for sustainable development. As part of it, linking agricultural and nutritional outcomes is crucial.
Green revolution turned India into Food surplus nation, but malnutrition still prevails
India’s fivefold increase in grain production over the past 50 years is largely the result of strong scientific research that has focussed on high-yielding crop varieties, better agronomic practices, and pro-farmer policies. However, India continues to face challenges such as food insecurity andmalnutrition, particularly in rural areas.
Malnutrition refers to the situation where there is an unbalanced diet in which some nutrients are in excess, lacking or wrong proportion i.e. under nutrition or over-nutrition. Despite India’s growth in GDP since 1991 more than one third of the world’s malnourished children live in India.
The World Bank estimates that India is one of the highest ranking countries in the world for the number of children suffering from malnutrition.
The 2017 Global Hunger Index (GHI) Report ranked India 97th out of 118 countries with a serious hunger situation. Amongst South Asian nations, it ranks third behind only Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Government of India has launched several programs like ICDS, National Children’s Fund and National Health Mission to converge the growing rate of under nutrition children. Improving nutrition is a major goal of these agricultural programmes and policies.
However, substantial evidence confirms that increases in agricultural production alone and/or increased income do not necessarily translate into improved diets and nutrition without concurrent and well-designed nutrition education andbehaviour change approaches, women’s empowerment and inter-sectoral collaboration.
Growing focus on integrating agri production, nutrition and health
Though providing the world’s growing urban population with safe and healthy food is a huge challenge, it also provides an opportunity for creativity. Government and implementing organizations have been assisted to promote food and dietary diversification through integrated farming systems, including crops, orchards, livestock and fisheries.
Integrating agricultural production, nutrition, and health is emerging as a key focal point throughout Asia, with policymakers shifting their attention to the role of biodiversity and the power of local farming systems to improve nutritional status.
It is now well accepted, that in order to make agriculture work for nutrition, agricultural production and markets must improve access to diversified nutrient-dense foods from all the food groups, i.e. vegetables, fruits, animal-source foods, legumes, nuts, oilseeds and fats to balance and complement staples
- There is considerable potential in targeting underused crops such as millets, pulses, and vegetables as a sustainable means of increasing agricultural production andimproving nutrition and health in high-need areas.
- In one project, researchers tested the sustainable use of traditional crops, vegetables, and fruit trees, as well as greater livestock diversity, to increase income and improve food and nutrition security in rural India.
- This project demonstrated that in three Indian “agro-biodiversity hotspots”, home gardenscould provide households with up to 135 kg of legumes, vegetables, tubers, leafy greens, and gourds per year — more than double the amount of vegetables they were buying in local markets.
- These crops add value to existing farming systems by providing an additional source of income and/or more nutritious food for the family.
- The Food Security Act of 2013 was welcome, as was the inclusion of millets in the Public Distribution System as millets are superior to common grains in many ways and are also climate-resilient.
- Bio-fortification is also important in overcoming hidden hunger caused by micronutrient deficiencies such as iron, iodine, zinc, vitamin A, and vitamin B12.
How empowering women helps improved nutrition?
Studies show that women make up nearly half of agricultural labourers, yet they carry out approximately 70% of all farm work. Women areamong the most disadvantaged because they are typically employed as marginal workers,occupying low-skilled jobs such as sowing and weeding.
Empowering women is one of the best ways to improve nutrition. Research needs to continue focussing on the needs of women farmers toensure that they are the direct recipients of development impacts, such as access to markets and income, to improve theirs and their children’s access to adequate and diversified diets.
Several recent review papers have also concluded that interventions which promote good complementary feeding practices have a high potential to improve the nutritional status of children and should focus on improved access to complementary foods that are nutrient dense and affordable. Nutrition education, especially of women, is thus becoming increasingly accepted as a powerful intervention strategy.
Investing in Research
Most importantly, it is crucial to continue to identify issues and seek evidence-based solutions through research. Building on the momentum of recent efforts by the government to improve understanding of India’s nutritional situation, there is considerable potential in building partnerships to extend the reach of research for development and to improve the connections between agricultural and nutritional research with extension services and policy. Taking a multisectoral approach that links agricultural and nutritional outcomes will help India sustainably grow, feed its people, and maintain the agricultural sector over the coming decades.
India’s research community is poised to be a leader in meeting new food challenges by increasing food quantity and quality to improve food security and nutrition. The world needs to tap into India’s research excellence to experiment, innovate, share knowledge, and scale up effective solutions.
Along with investing more in research, following challenges to be tackled for food security.
- Increase yields, profitability and environmental sustainability simultaneously
- Develop the varieties and breeds needed for sustainable food systems
- Decrease food loss and waste through more efficient distribution systems
- Create and share resources that serve all populations
- Ensure inclusive and equitable food systems
- Address the dual burdens of under-nutrition and obesity to ensure full human potential
- Ensure a safe and secure food supply that protects and improves public health
Given that the emphasis on enhancing agriculture’s impact on nutrition is relatively new, some key knowledge gaps exist on the relative mix of components and the extent of their integration that make implementation most effective. The institutional aspects of programme delivery, technical capacities with major focus on research and intersectoral collaboration should be well understood. It is important to know which type of programmes delivers the greatest benefit to target beneficiaries and are likely to have the greatest impact.