Announcing in his Mann Ki Baat address that September is to be observed as ‘Rashtriya Poshan Maah’, Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged people to support the government’s nutrition campaign to ensure a healthier future for women and children. He said that both poor and affluent families are affected by malnutrition due to lack of awareness.
Concerted efforts by the government have led to a decline in malnutrition by two percentage points per annum. However, according to the 2017 Global Burden of Disease Study by the University of Washington, malnutrition is among the leading causes of death and disability in India, followed by dietary risks including poor diet choices. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that 194.4 million people in India, about 14.5% of the total population, are undernourished. The Global Hunger Index 2018 ranks India 103 out of 119 countries on the basis of three leading indicators: the prevalence of wasting and stunting in children under five years of age, child mortality rate under five years of age, and the proportion of undernourished in the population.
Poshan Abhiyaan, India’s flagship programme to improve nutritional outcomes for children, adolescents, pregnant women and lactating mothers, is an amalgamation of scientific principles, political fortitude and technical ingenuity. The key nutrition interventions and strategies, which form the core of it, contribute to the targets of the World Health Assembly for nutrition and the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly the goal of “zero hunger”.
Achieving zero hunger requires not only addressing hunger, but also the associated aspect of malnutrition. World Food Day is observed annually on October 16 to address the problem of global hunger. The theme this year is ‘Our Actions are our Future; Healthy Diets for a #ZeroHunger World’.
Healthy diets are an integral element of food and nutrition security. Food consumption patterns have changed substantially in India over the past few decades. This has resulted in the disappearance of many nutritious native foods such as millets. While foodgrain production has increased over five times since Independence, it has not sufficiently addressed the issue of malnutrition. For long, the agriculture sector focused on increasing food production, particularly staples, which led to lower production and consumption of indigenous traditional crops/grains, fruits and other vegetables, impacting food and nutrition security in the process. FAO’s work has demonstrated that dependence on a few crops has negative consequences for ecosystems, food diversity and health. Food monotony increases the risk of micronutrient deficiency. So, we must make food and agriculture more nutrition-sensitive and climate-resilient.
Overreliance on a few staple crops coupled with low dietary diversity is a leading cause of persistent malnutrition. Additionally, intensive, monoculture agricultural practices can perpetuate the food and nutrition security problem by degrading the quality of land, water and the food derived through them. Those who have the capacity to make active food choices will have to be more conscious of their choice of food and its traceability. Those who cannot choose must be enabled to exercise that choice. Lifestyles in cities pose other dietary problems. Urban food planning needs to incorporate nutritional security and climate resilience.
Agricultural biodiversity ensures a wider food menu to choose from. Small farmers, livestock and seed keepers in India are on the front-line of conserving the unique agrobiodiversity of the country. The loss of globally significant species and genetic diversity has an adverse impact on diets. FAO supports the government’s efforts to synergise biodiversity conservation, agricultural production and local development for healthy diets and a healthy planet.
Tomio Shichiri is the FAO representative in India