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Sowing a loss

Mar 13 2014, 03:21 IST
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SummaryThe urgent need to end world hunger appears to have promoted superfood crops at the expense of nutritional diversity

Finally, we know why India is facing a spurt in diet-linked lifestyle disorders while it continues to struggle to feed the hungry. The paradox is seen in several developing economies, the answer is easily hazarded but now, for the first time, a formal study by the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) has established that the drive to feed the millions cheaply has attenuated the spectrum of foods globally. While magazine journalism celebrates the rise of world food—and indeed, it is common to find restaurants offering cuisines separated by thousands of miles located within metres of each other in big cities—the sources from which those foods are made have dwindled. This has implications not only for health and nutrition but, more importantly, for the future of agriculture and for food security. The CIAT study authored by Colin Khoury and others, which appears in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has flagged several risks.

Just as the drive to eradicate polio in India may have had the unfortunate side effect of derailing other routine immunisation programmes, the urgent need to end world hunger appears to have promoted superfood crops at the expense of nutritional diversity. The use of wheat has grown at the expense of older grains like barley and millets. In Asia, the primacy of rice is receding as corn and wheat, which command larger markets internationally, become increasingly popular. Cooking media like soya oil and olive oil are gaining at the expense of old local favourites like coconut and mustard oil. This change is being driven by governments eager to achieve or support internationally agreed policy goals, and by the tendency of mass selling to seek larger volumes and revenues by standardisation.

The popularity of a food crop depends on two factors—the efficiency with which they can be grown and consumed, and the variety of uses to which they can be put. Apart from sheer productivity, wheat has trumped other grains because it generates a wide variety of product, from bread to beer. Besides, if uses are standardised and mechanised on a mass scale, as in the potato chips industry, crops play much better in the international distribution system. Economies of scale produce cheap convenience food suitable for urban populations which cook less and need energy foods to go.

But these efficiencies come at the expense of nutritional diversity. Local produce used to fulfil nutritional needs that mainstream

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