In the last few decades, with strides in technology, irrigation practices, and extension services, and with progressive agricultural policies, India has seen improvement in food and nutrition security . Agriculture, food grain production, and agricutlural export have grown. This is good news.
However, despite hunger (as measured by undernutrition) decreasing, the level of undernutrition remains unacceptably high in the country. India ranks 114th out of 132 countries in stunting among children aged less than five and 120th out of 130 countries in under-5 wasting, as per the Global Nutrition Report, 2016. The burden of vitamin and mineral deficiencies (‘hidden hunger’) is also considerable.
This is because a vast majority of Indians eat cereal-based food, mainly wheat and rice. There is an insufficient intake of food such as milk, pulses, and fruits and vegetables, which are rich sources of micronutrients. Women and children are the most vulnerable to micronutrient deficiencies. This has adverse affects on their health. Deficiency of iron in women not only reduces physical work capacity and causes fatigue, but could lead to depression and post-partum maternal haemorrhage. In children, it impairs growth and cognitive development.
What is ironic is that over-nutrition is emerging as an emergency in India. As per the recent findings of the National Family Health Survey -4 (2015-16), the Body Mass Index (BMI) of 15.5% of urban women was found to be less than 18.5 kg/m2, whereas 31.3% of urban women were in the category of overweight or obese (BMI of or more than 25.0 kg/m2). Around 15% of urban men were underweight, while 26.3% belonged to the category of overweight and obese. Dramatic changes in lifestyle and dietary patterns in recent decades have contributed to an increasing prevalence of non-communicable diseases. If this double burden of undernutrition and growing percentage of obesity and associated non-communicable diseases is not controlled, it can have serious implications for the economy.
How has this happened? While the Green Revolution phase saw new, fast-growing varieties of staples, especially wheat and rice, the following decades saw a steady decline in the food basket diversity, especially of traditional grains such as bajra and millet, which have high nutritional value. The 1990s, though, saw a focus on the role of micronutrients. Deficiencies of micronutrients such as zinc, folic acid, magnesium, selenium and vitamin D started receiving more attention.
The Sustainable Development Goal-2, which aims to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”, is a priority area for India. To ensure food and nutrition security, there is a growing need for a multisectoral approach. The policies and programmes of various ministries should be converged for better results. This will not only transform India’s agricultural practices, but also spread awareness about nutritious food among key target groups, including tribals, women and children.
Shyam Khadka is FAO Representative in India