Good nutritional status is an important indicator of development. Despite an apparent surplus of food grains at the national level, and several efforts being made through favourable public policies, malnutrition persists.
India is challenged with 43.5% children under the age of 5 being underweight (the highest rate in the World) and 50% of pregnant women being anemic. This is more true especially with the poor and vulnerable groups. This highlights that national food security alone is not sufficient to attain to nutrition security, especially at the household and individual level. Ironically, this is the situation, in spite of being the World’s largest producer of milk and second largest producer of fruits and vegetables.
Nutrition security is dependent on several inter-related factors such as food production, community and household level food distribution, poverty, equity, access to health services, education levels, access to safe drinking water, environmental sanitation and hygiene and cultural beliefs and practices. In India, several pioneering efforts are being made through public policies to address the challenge – eg. National Food Security programmes, Public Distribution Systems focusing on food entitlement and access; social health care and hygiene programmes; National Rural Employment Guarantee programmes. However, nutritional outcomes, seem to be less defined.
Agriculture is fundamental to India’s inclusive and sustainable structural economic transformation. According to IFPRI, ignoring the agriculture –nutrition pathways in India will have enormous economic and social costs. One solution lies in strengthening small holder agriculture and household food and nutritional security. The examples in the issue illustrate, small is not only beautiful but also healthy and sustainable. The producer, the small holder farm families, who constitute the majority of the rural poor and vulnerable in India and South Asia, produce healthy produce for self consumption as well as contribute to marginal surpluses.
Nutrition from nature
Our culture and our ecosystems provide us the necessary nutritious food. It is important that we do not lose our connection with our roots. Our tribal communities still have a strong communion with Nature, and know the value of each plant. Deforestation, displacement, urbanization, big dams, industrial mining, megaplants, the spread of cash-crops and monocultures – all have contributed to the assault on the biological and socio-cultural habitats of our enormously rich diversity of uncultivated foods, evolved over millennia. We have lost track of thousands of edible species, not even aware of them. (Bharat Mansanta, p.15).
Dominated by horticultural knowhow, supermarket convenience, food fashions, we have lost connection with forest, mountain and sea. We need to refocus on dietary diversity, need to celebrate local diversity and medicinal uses of the diet, respect contexts and cultures, rediscover recipes for better health and higher self esteem and pride. (Zayan Khan, p.29).
Expanding the food basket
The enormous focus that very few crops like rice and wheat gained during the green revolution period, has systematically replaced all other local food grains. Traditionally, food habits in each region were primarily determined by the context, culture and food crops grown in the region. For instance, millets like ragi was a preferred food in Karnataka, jowar in Maharashtra, bajra in Rajasthan etc. But during the green revolution period, millets which are hardy and rich in several nutrients got systematically replaced by rice and wheat. Along with millets there has been a decline in the cultivation of pulses, which are the richest source of proteins, especially for the poor.
There are a number of initiatives, especially from the civil society organizations to promote millets like finger millet, proso millet, kodo millet and barnyard millet. Efforts are not only made on increasing the area under millets, but also trying to influence policy. Millet Network of India (MINI), an all India alliance of 65 institutions, individuals consisting of farmers, scientists, nutritionists, policy makers, civil society groups and food activists representing over 15 states of India, are relentlessly working for including millets in the Public Distribution System in India.
A change in the crop choice or just including a nutrient crop as a mixed crop can make a lot of difference. Integrating a pulse crop can address the protein deficiency in the family. Efforts to increase the area under pulses are being pursued to improve access to nutrition. Recognising the contribution of pulses for balanced nutrition, farmers in Orissa, guided by ICARDA, focused on pulses cultivation. They cultivated pulses in rice fallows, which added protein to the family diet, income to the family, while enriching the soils (Atul Dogra, p.9).
Backyard kitchen gardens are by far the most notable strategies adopted by women groups for easy access as well as widening food baskets. Importantly, while the women are victims of malnutrition and imbalances, when empowered, they contribute significantly to the balanced diet in the families and beyond, with their awareness of various species and their health benefits. This knowledge cannot be lost to few costly foods aggressively marketed as solutions for all deficiencies. For example, in Dharmapuri, women started kitchen gardens as an off season activity, and are now growing them all through the year. This they could achieve by recycling used water from the kitchen (Krishnan, p.13).
Integrating multiple enterprises is another way of meeting nutritional needs of the family. Many of the farmer groups are involved in cultivating vegetables, fruits, herbs, spices, mushrooms, livestock, fish, bees. Some of them integrate poultry, pigs and goats. They produce balanced meal from diverse produce, enriching it with their culinary skills and identifying suitable substitutes to address season specific health needs.
Kitchen gardens are perceived as a solution to many nutrient deficiencies like Vitamin A, Iron and Calcium, as many vegetables are rich in these nutrients. For instance, Vitamin A and micronutrient deficiencies were addressed through cultivation and consumption of a mix of green leafy vegetables small animals, poultry and fish in the South Asian countries by Helen Keller International. When pursued as a programme for more than a decade with active partnership of 100 NGO partners, 900000 households could be influenced to change their food production and consumption habits. (Talukder, p.26)
Farmers, especially women perceive a lot of benefits from kitchen gardens, besides nutrition for the family. They are a source for generating additional income. Many of the households not only gained additional income by selling surplus vegetables, but they also saved money on buying vegetables from the market. (Krishnan, p.13, Raj Uprety, p.21). Some of the resilient farmer groups have addressed droughts and flood like situations by opting for vegetable farming and fish paddy eco systems and using the bunds for growing vegetables. For some farmers, vegetable cultivation has helped in gaining social recognition. Some of them have become resource persons and some also hold prestigious social positions, successfully. (Roshan Mehta, p.23).
Towards a healthy nation
For a billion plus population aspiring to be healthy and prosperous, these kind of examples offer hope. What is required is synergies among various actors, public, civil society, as well as private actors, with food sovereignty, access and affordability for the poor and the vulnerable, as corner stones. Of course, every consumer may be made more aware of what he is eating, the choices he is foregoing, the contribution made to food miles and lastly, how fast he wants to become (un)healthy.
– The Coalition for Sustainable Nutrition Security in India, Overcoming the Curse of Malnutrition in India: A Leadership Agenda for Action, September 2008
– T. Nandakumar, Kavery Ganguly, Pravesh Sharma, and Ashok Gulati, Food and Nutrition Security Status in India, Opportunities for Investment Partnerships, November 2010, ADB Sustainable Development Working Paper Series – No.16, Asian Development Bank
– IFPRI, Strengthening the Role of Agriculture for a Nutrition Secure India, IFPRI Policy Note, December 2011, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), New Delhi