Globally, food and nutrition security continue to be undermined by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, spiralling food inflation, conflict, and inequality. Today, around 828 million people worldwide do not have enough to eat and over 50 million people are facing severe hunger.
The Hunger Hotspots Outlook (2022-23) — a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and World Food Programme (WFP) — forebodes escalating hunger, as over 205 million people across 45 countries will need emergency food assistance to survive.
This year’s World Food Day (October 16) has been a reminder to ensure that the most vulnerable people within our communities have easy access to safe and nutritious food. Without food and nutrition security for all, there can be no peace and no prosperity. Only through collective and transformational action to strengthen agri-food systems, through better production, better nutrition, a better environment, and a better life, can we meet our promise to end hunger by 2030.
Adequate food production is fundamental to attaining the goal of zero hunger. India has had an inspiring journey towards better production and achieving self-sufficiency and is now one of the largest agricultural product exporters in the world. During 2021-22, the country recorded $49.6 billion in total agriculture exports — a 20% increase from 2020-21. However, recent climate shocks have raised concerns about India’s wheat and rice production over the next year. Given climate shocks and extreme weather phenomena, it is important to place a greater focus on climate adaptation and resilience building.
India’s agriculture sector primarily exports agriculture and allied products, marine products, plantations, and textile and allied products. Rice, sugar, and spices were some of the main exports. India is also a provider of humanitarian food aid, notably to Afghanistan, and to many other countries when the world faces food supply shortages and disruptions, such as during the current crisis in Ukraine.
By 2030, India’s population is expected to rise to 1.5 billion. Agri-food systems will need to provide for and sustainably support an increasing population. In the current times, there is an increased recognition to move away from conventional input-intensive agriculture towards more inclusive, effective, and sustainable agri-food systems that would facilitate better production.
Some initiatives by the Government of India on better production include Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana, which promotes organic farming; Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana, which focuses on more crops per drop for improved water use, and Soil Health Management which fosters Integrated Nutrient Management under the National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture. For improving food access, especially for vulnerable populations, the Government of India drives programmes such as the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY), the Pradhan Mantri Poshan Shakti Nirman Yojana (PM POSHAN Scheme), and take-home rations.
In this context, since 1948, the FAO continues to play a catalytic role in India’s progress in the areas of crops, livestock, fisheries, food security, and management of natural resources through the promotion of sustainable practices.
This year’s World Food Day is a reminder to ‘Leave No One Behind’ — and is an opportunity, perhaps the most urgent one in recent history, for nations to strengthen food security nets, provide access to essential nutrition for millions and promote livelihood for vulnerable communities.
One of India’s greatest contributions to equity in food is its National Food Security Act (NFSA) 2013 which anchors the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS), the PM POSHAN scheme (earlier known as the Mid-Day Meals scheme), and the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS). Today, India’s food safety nets collectively reach over a billion people. The WFP works with State and national governments to strengthen these systems to ensure they become more efficient and reach the people who need them most. The Government continues to take various measures to improve these programmes with digitisation and measures such as rice fortification, better health, and sanitation.
Food safety nets and inclusion are linked with public procurement and buffer stock policy. This was visible during the global food crisis of 2008-12 and more recently during the COVID-19 pandemic fallout, whereby vulnerable and marginalised families in India continued to be buffered by the TPDS which became a lifeline with a robust stock of food grains. For instance, the PMGKAY scheme introduced in 2020 provided relief to 800 million beneficiaries covered under the NFSA from COVID-19-induced economic hardships. An International Monetary Fund paper titled ‘Pandemic, Poverty, and Inequality: Evidence from India’ asserted that ‘extreme poverty was maintained below 1% in 2020 due to PMGKAY.
India must continue to lead by example on the principle of leaving no one behind. The upcoming G20 presidency for India provides an opportunity to bring food and nutrition security to the very centre of a resilient and equitable future and sharing its journey with the rest of the world.
Nutrition and agricultural production are not only impacted by climate change but also linked to environmental sustainability. The degradation of soil by the excessive use of chemicals, non-judicious water use, and declining nutritional value of food products need urgent attention.
Millets — which fell out of fashion a few decades ago — have received renewed attention as crops that are good for nutrition, health, and the planet. Millets are climate-smart crops that are drought-resistant, growing in areas with low rain and infertile soil. They are hardier than other cereals, more resilient to changes in climate, and require less water to cultivate (as much as 70% less than rice), and less energy to process (around 40% less than wheat). Since they need fewer inputs, they are less extractive for the soil and can revive soil health. Additionally, their genetic diversity ensures that agrobiodiversity is preserved.
India has led the global conversation on reviving millet production for better lives, nutrition, and the environment, including at the United Nations General Assembly, where it appealed to declare 2023 as the International Year of Millets. It is the world’s leading producer of millets, producing around 41% of total production in 2020. To enhance the area, production, and productivity of millets the national government is implementing a Sub-Mission on Nutri-Cereals (Millets) as part of the National Food Security Mission. State-level missions in Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, and Andhra Pradesh are a testament to India’s resolve to revive these indigenous crops because they represent an opportunity to guarantee food and nutrition security to millions while protecting the earth.
Millet conservation and promotion contribute to addressing food security, improved nutrition, and sustainable agriculture, which aligns with the Sustainable Development Goals agenda. Millet production has been proven to enhance biodiversity and increase yields for smallholder farmers, including rural women. For example, the International Fund for Agricultural Development’s (IFAD’s) Tejaswini programme with the Government of Madhya Pradesh showed that growing millets meant a nearly 10 times increase in income from ₹1,800 per month in 2013-14 to ₹16,277 in 2020-21, with better food security because millet crops were not impacted by excessive rainfall. Women were key to villages adopting millets, as they were able to demonstrate that millets were easier to grow and led to better outcomes.
The IFAD’s work with various State governments on millets exemplifies how getting the markets right to incentivise investment and to remunerate producers fairly can contribute to more inclusive and equitable food systems. India could use various multilateral fora, including the G20, to promote millet and agricultural biodiversity. A study by the FAO on millets in India emphasises strengthening value chains for enhancing nutritional benefits and increasing farmers’ incomes.
It is clear that the path to a better life resides in transforming food systems, making them more resilient and sustainable with a focus on equity, including by incentivising the protection of the commons; enhancing food and nutrition security and social protection networks, including by providing non-distortionary income support; promoting production and consumption of nutritious native foods such as millets, by investing in consumer sensitisation; investing in making the global and regional supply chain robust and responsive by strengthening transparency in the agricultural system through systems that promote labelling, traceability, etc.; and increasing cooperation for leveraging solutions and innovations. India can lead the global discourse on food and nutrition security by showcasing home-grown solutions and best practices, and championing the principle of leaving no one behind — working continuously to make its food system more equitable, empowering, and inclusive.
Konda Reddy Chavva is Officer-in-Charge in India, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Ulac Demirag is Representative, and Country Director in India, International Fund for Agricultural Development. Bishow Parajuli is Representative and Country Director in India, World Food Programme