The pandemic has signalled that strong immunity and adequate nutrition are two key pillars that determine the severity of a disease. Time to take a fresh look at our dietary choices, and impart good nutritional knowledge practice information to both consumers as well as producers
By Jaya Jumrani
Every year, around October, the attention of almost all the media houses and even development research geeks is drawn towards food—the most important element of human health and survival. This is mainly on account of two key factors: (1) marking the World Food Day on October 16, and (2) announcement of the often-cited Global Hunger Index (GHI). This year’s October, unlike previous years, has been both different and special.
It has been ‘different’ due to the unprecedented times that the world is witnessing because of the coronavirus pandemic. It is, however, ‘special’ on two counts. First, the World Food Day marked the 75th anniversary of the United Nations’ (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Second, the Nobel Peace Prize 2020 was conferred upon the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP), an organisation that works to combat hunger and promote food security. The WFP strives to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon in war and conflict situations. The Nobel to a food-based institution reiterates that it is not possible to attain peace on an empty stomach.
India continues to be in ‘serious’ hunger category, and is home to 14% of the world’s undernourished population. The country ranks 94th among 107, and is a poor performer in the BRICS high table. It is also behind its South Asian neighbours like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia and Nepal, among many others.
Nevertheless, there are a few green shoots in terms of India’s trajectory in the GHI. Over a span of 20 years, India has made progress in its GHI values and stunting rates amongst children. There has been a notable reduction in the under-five mortality rate—down to 3.7% in 2020 from 9.2% in 2000. However, we are getting worse in terms of wasting amongst young children—it implies that Indian kids are too thin for their height. There is a need to understand and investigate the reasons behind this situation. These statistics are projected to get worse in the near future in the wake of the pandemic as it is mainly the poor and hungry that are severely impacted. In India, the problem is not with respect to food availability, but inequitable distribution and massive food wastage.
Given the complex interplay of nutrition, food security, sanitation and healthcare facilities, it is important to acknowledge this interconnectivity. If one of these systems works in a non-synergistic way, all efforts can crumble down. The government at all the levels has recognised and adopted this multipronged strategy to tackle the malnutrition problem. A lot of work has started at the implementation level in the form of various schemes. Schemes such as the Mid-Day Meal and the Integrated Child Development Services operate in a symbiotic fashion, with coordinated efforts from concerned ministries. As high as 90% of the 23.5 crore ration cards have been digitised and linked to Aadhaar numbers of at least one family member. Moreover, soon the ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ policy shall be fully adopted, which would help not just in protecting the interests of poor and migrant beneficiaries, but also in capturing identity fraud. The celebration of the National Nutrition Month in September every year as part of the flagship POSHAN Abhiyaan (The Prime Minister’s Overarching Scheme for Holistic Nutrition, or National Nutrition Mission) is another step in this direction.
India recently launched the Eat Right India and Fit India movements to encourage a shift in lifestyle, and nudge the countrymen towards instilling physical fitness into their daily routines. There has been a rapid jump in the consumption of processed and ready-to-eat food products not just in urban but also in rural areas. This is largely due to their lower prices and easy availability even at mom-and-pop stores and online. In view of the rapidly rising rates of obesity and cardiovascular diseases, India has now publicly committed to eliminate trans fatty acids from its food systems by 2022. All-out efforts have been made to promote both production and consumption of millets (now known as nutri-cereals), which are often seen as a poor man’s food. Consumer demand for these is being triggered by introducing them in the public distribution system and as part of nutri-gardens. These nutri-cereals are not just good for human health, but also for farmers’ welfare and planetary health.
We are now just a decade short of reaching our end date of attaining the Zero Hunger target of the Sustainable Development Goal 2. It is imperative that this momentum of the ‘whole of the government’ approach is taken forward to all the future schemes. The coronavirus pandemic has been more than a public health crisis; it has had many indirect ramifications in different directions. The ongoing pandemic has signalled that strong immunity and adequate nutrition are the two key pillars that determine the severity of the Covid-19 disease. There are concerns that there may be more such pandemics in the near future. It is an opportune time to take a fresh look at our dietary choices, and impart good nutritional knowledge practice information to both the consumers as well as producers. Besides the traditional nutritional awareness campaigns, it can also take the form of subtle behavioural nudges towards healthier lifestyles—both for the rich and the poor. At the same time, it is critical to ensure that the producers have all the right incentives to produce these healthy crops or food products (such as micronutrient-rich fruits and vegetables), while consumers across the entire income distribution are able to afford these, and that their production should be sustainable. These nudges, despite being cost-effective and rapid, need to be deployed in a suite to be truly effective. To have the real big push in terms of these behavioural drivers, what is desired is an innovative and well-coordinated effort from all the stakeholders—government, suppliers, retailers and, most importantly, consumers. Unless consumers engage and participate with full spirit in such schemes or interventions, the goal of having a healthy, productive and nutritionally secure India might be difficult to attain.
The author is a scientist (senior scale) with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research-National Institute of Agricultural Economics and Policy Research (ICAR-NIAP), New Delhi. Views are personal