Noida: India has reduced the prevalence of undernourishment in the total population from 21.4% to 16.6% between 2004-06 and 2020-22, according to the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2023 report. However, there is no data on the prevalence of severe or moderate undernourishment in India. Nutritionists call this “hidden hunger”, a state in which the body consumes adequate calories but does not get the micronutrients it needs.

Micronutrient deficiency predisposes a person to neglected tropical diseases, in addition to affecting their physical and mental development. Biofortification is one of the ways in which this can be addressed, but existing resources can also be used to counter soil degradation and declining dietary diversity, said Shalander Kumar, a scientist at International Crops Research Institute for the Semi Arid Tropics and fellow of the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

IndiaSpend spoke to Kumar about the need for policy to address current and future challenges to food security. Excerpts:

Thanks to the Green Revolution, people in India eat enough calories, but they still do not get sufficient protein, vitamins, etc. Has nutrition not been one of the priorities of agricultural policy in India?

It is true that as a nation, we are food secure. However, our current nutrition indicators are not acceptable for a large section of the population. I will not relate this only to agricultural policy. It relates first of all, to the food policy, which covers the public distribution system (PDS). Then, the price policy or government policy for food procurement for the PDS, which ensures price for wheat and rice, but not for other commodities.

During the sixties and seventies, it was really important that we increase our production, because we were dependent on imports for our food security. For that, the government provided holistic policy support in terms of investment in agriculture research and development especially improved varieties, irrigation infrastructure, fertiliser, etc. on the supply side, and ensuring reasonably remunerative minimum support price for the outputs procured for supplying to the PDS. At present the government distributes cereals to 800 million people for free or at very little cost.

The government distributes what it procures, which is rice and wheat. The promotion of rice and wheat aided by enabling agriculture, price, and food policy has resulted in reduced the diversity of diet, even if you consider only cereals, which has considerably reduced compared to what it was in the 1990s, not just the 60s and 70s. Thirty years ago, for example, sorghum consumption per person was about 9 kg per year and now it is 2.5 kg per year. Improved PDS functioning led to changes in the consumption behaviour and increase in the consumption of rice and wheat. People’s access to PDS food increased significantly after the Food Security Act came in force, more beneficiaries were added after COVID19. When rice and wheat are available through PDS at Rs 2 per kg and Rs 1 per kg, why will somebody buy millet and sorghum which cost at least Rs 35- 40 per kg in the market? This has led to reduction in the consumption and the demand for nutritious millets.

Further, in the absence of public procurement, the market price of sorghum and millet for farmers are not assured, unstable and often much lower than their minimum support price resulting in lower returns. So the area under sorghum and millets reduced over the years, the reduction in area was much drastic for sorghum as compared to millet since there was no suitable crop available as alternative to pearl millet largely being grown in highly drought prone regions of western Rajasthan.

Despite the fact that millets and sorghum are drought resilient crops and more dense in terms of protein, iron, calcium, anti-oxidants and other micronutrients but the area under their production reduced mainly due to comparatively low returns to the farmers. This unfavourable economy of millets has emerged over time because of the disincentives created due to food policy, price policy and agricultural policy.

Further comparatively low investment on research on millets and sorghum and thus limited innovations also resulted in lower yields and returns. Once these crops became less profitable, farmers started growing these crops on less productive marginal lands. As a result, their productivity further decreased, so did the income from them. This is how a vicious cycle of low productivity, low demand, low prices and low returns dampened the millet economy. Under these conditions some farmers continued millet production due to cultural factors, livestock fodder need, personal consumption and suitability for certain agro-ecologies.

Various policies we pursued incentivised the consumption of rice and wheat resulting in widespread consumption behaviour change. The new generation has even forgotten how to eat millets and how to prepare millet-based dishes. There are changes in the production system that have affected diversity of diet. Going forward we need to promote millets in the agro-ecologies which are more suitable for their production and supported by demand creation through nutritional awareness of millets, including millets in PDS to some extent and policy support for millets-processing entrepreneurs.

Another change: earlier, a large proportion of farmers used to forage or grow diverse food in their local food systems around, which supplemented their diets with nutritious vegetables, fruits, etc. Now, large scale practicing of mono-cropping also limits the options of accessing diverse food for rural households. There is a need for promoting local food systems by supporting development of value chains of local foods where the market surplus is very small.

Currently our nutrition and health indicators especially for children below five years and women are far from satisfactory. A large number of small holders and rural landless households especially the women’s increased engagement in MGNREGA and other employment in rural areas has led to decrease in their ownership of milch animals and access to milk for home consumption. Another major factor for poor nutritional outcomes in the country is lack of nutritional awareness. For example, people are hardly aware of their daily protein consumption requirement. Appropriate nutritional education and awareness alone even at the current level income and access to food can improve the nutritional outcomes in India significantly.

How serious, if at all, is the problem of soil degradation and how does it affect the food we eat? Can we take any steps to address this?

Soil degradation and poor soil health is a big concern for the sustainability of farm and food systems. Because of type of farm practices and soil degradation over the last 50 years or so the organic content has significantly reduced to on average about 0.3%. Carbon content is one of the major indicators of the soil health. When soils are poor the farmers aiming for a higher yield from the available land have to use more fertilisers, which not only results in various environmental externalities but increases the cost of production. Integrated approaches are needed to improve soil health including crop rotations and increased use organic manure and biomass recycling together with chemical fertilisers.

Scientists have generated sufficient evidence and large scale demonstrations of positive effects and benefits of crop residue incorporation into the soil. However, in many parts of the country, crop residue is burnt on a large scale, and not only in paddy fields of north India; also residue of pigeon pea, cotton, etc is burned. Context-specific holistic solutions and policy support would be needed to promote residue recycling into soil or other uses.

Our honourable Prime Minister is a big supporter of natural farming, or paramparik kheti approach which aimes to use only farm-based organic inputs and avoid external inputs. Though increased use of organic inputs is essentially needed to to improve the soil quality, but there should not be a compromise on the productivity of our crops. We cannot risk losing crop productivity and food production because we have a huge population of 1.4 billion people to feed.

Scientists have been suggesting for many years that farmers opt for integrated nutrient management. Under this, we add organics manure or residues or other biofertilisers, etc. as well as chemical fertilisers based on the soil test results to meet the nutrient requirement of plants and maintain soil health. The government during the past few decades initiated several programs to promote organic manure/composting which uses simple methods that are well known everyone and any farmer can do it easily. However, this practice of scientifically making compost has hardly been practiced by maybe 10-15% of the farmers, even though it doesn't involve anything sophisticated. We need to understand why something as simple as composting did not find any takers, we need to understand what the transaction cost is, whether there could be some alternative business models which can facilitate access to these organic resources for the farmers as a group. We need to make this economically viable and cost effective adopting flexible ad sustainable business approaches. We require context-specific solutions supported by data and strategic studies to guide policies that can incentivise farmers to adopt these sustainable practices. We need to map the organic resources available and identify methods and business models that can incentivise farmers to adopt sustainable practices that improve soil health while maintaining productivity levels.

Nutritionists have linked the growing burden of non-communicable diseases to the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. How do harmful substances like micro plastics and other chemicals enter our food?

Plastic hardly enters our food in India at agriculture production stage but mostly through other stages of the value chain. For example, when we buy vegetables, we bring them home in plastic bags. It is true that chemicals especially the pesticides used on food crops can enter the food value chain affecting our health. However, it is not only the production stage but there are multiple sources of harmful chemicals and pesticides in the food system. For example, use of sewerage water with heavy metals, chemicals used during post-harvest handling, storage and preservation as well as retail point of sale especially vegetables and fruits. The narrative of blaming farmers only has to change. Enhancing awareness of farmers on best practices for using chemicals and pesticides can significantly limit their entry into the food system. However, we need evolved strategies that should not increase the transaction costs and should incentivise farmers to adopt best practices.

In my understanding from the literature most of the NCDs are not a result of chemical and pesticide use in agricultural production, except maybe certain types of cancer. But the other NCDs are cell diseases probably cannot be linked to these chemicals. Diabetes, high blood pressure, etc. are mostly lifestyle diseases which are caused by the stressful environment in which we live and the kind of food we eat like high-energy ultra-processed food among other factors.

Plastic does enter water bodies and travels to the fields, which is not good for the food systems. Yes, harmful chemicals accumulating in the body will have an impact. Pesticides are a bigger problem than fertiliser, which stems from its regulation and unscientific use. Probably in future it should be possible to develop testing methods and kits using AI and machine learning and spectral signatures that are simple to use, like clicking a photograph to know if the chemical content is beyond a certain limit. That kind of push from the consumers can push value chain actors to produce and supply goof quality and safe food.

Another thing that is required is regulation, and not the kind that involves an inspector which might make things more complex. We need a technology-driven transparent system and to increase awareness among the stakeholders.

Is it true that the nutrient density of the food we eat is declining?

The consumption of nutrient-dense food like millets and sorghum has decreased. So 30-50 years back people were eating more of those nutrient dense foods. Now, rice, wheat and maize comprise almost 75% of the cereals eaten all over the world. One of the major reasons is that the food industry has developed around these three crops. In fact, both the private sector and public policy has pushed these three grains.

This trend of declining nutrients wherever found may be because of two reasons, one of which is soil health. If the soil nutrient content declines, the nutrient uptake is also likely to decline with increasing yield. However, this can be offset by consuming a diverse and balanced diet. We need to consume more varieties of cereals in addition to vegetables, fruits and legumes.

Recently, The Prime Minister released some 27 varieties of bio-fortified crops. Iron and zinc, in addition to protein are the two main nutrients in which the Indian population was found to be deficient, besides protein. So a number of interventions to boost the content of these nutrients in crops were initiated.

Millets are promoted as a climate-resilient solution to ensuring nutrition security. How can we ensure that their yield is not affected by climate change?

Yes, millets are one of the promising solutions to the climate change-malnutrition problem. However, the average productivity of millets is quite low compared to rice. We cannot replace rice with millets in general, but we need to identify the area and regions where the rice crop is not so productive but is more suited to millet cultivation.

Because of food policy, price policy, agricultural policy and economic viability issues, the millets have been pushed into the most marginal lands where other crops will provide low yields and are affected due to climate adversities. So, take for example, most dry areas of Rajasthan – Jodhpur, Barmer, Jaisalmer, Churu, etc. face recurrent drought where other crops would hardly survive but millets still give grains and fodder in these regions. Similarly, in areas of Maharashtra and Karnataka, crops like sorghum survive. Millets survive and provide production in the harshest climate of the country, but they can yield much higher if planted in more favourable regions with some water access. For example, farmers in Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh take sorghum yield of around six tonnes per hectare which has a national average of about one tonne per hectare.

When there's a drought, millets are also impacted. We need to change our cultivation strategies accordingly, maybe look for varieties that require less water, or irrigation strategies that allow for water conservation. Or we can convert existing rice fallows to millet fields. For example, rice is grown in almost 500 districts, but its productivity is very low about 1.5 tonnes per hectare in about 150 of those districts. But because farmers get a good price for it, they continue to grow rice. Millets can be a good alternative in these low rice-yielding districts and can provide higher yields and are more resilient.

What are the challenges to agriculture that can impact India's food security?

The first is of course, climate change. Other than that, the over extraction of water resources can spell disaster for us. Soil degradation needs to be addressed, which is really the mainstay of food security. Underlying challenge is to make agriculture economically more profitable.

We have over-extracted water in almost 55 or 60% of the country. Due to overextraction the water tables has been declining in many places to 100 feet, 250 feet, in some places to 400 feet and even 1000 feet because of excessive drawing of water for irrigation. Even without climate change, this is a big challenge. If we continue this over-extraction of water, it will become very difficult to sustain agriculture. Groundwater is extracted as though it were endless. I have seen places where the land has become uncultivable because the groundwater has become unusable and they have gone back to relying on rainwater for irrigation. Water conservation and its efficient use is critical for the sustainability of agri-food systems. We need to start thinking of the consumption side to include less water-intensive crops like millets in people’s diets.

Another big threat is global shocks, such as COVID-19, and geopolitical conflicts. These significantly affect the global food and agricultural input supply chains. India has managed to feed itself because we have quite strong supply chains of fertiliser and policy support etc. but in Africa, the prices of fertiliser increased because of the Ukraine war and impacted agricultural production. Conflicts of this nature have become quite frequent, which endangers food systems. Therefore, enhancing the resilience of the food system at the country level is very, very important. And for that, we need to strengthen the local food systems, especially in places that lag behind the rest of the country in terms of economic development such as tribal-dominated regions who in the past had a very rich and strong local food system.

Earlier, people used to grow a lot of their food around the homestead. Now, they rely on rice and wheat that reach them. The dependency on these supply chains has increased even for cultivators who on average buy around 70-85% of the food they eat, which by itself is not so alarming, because a lot of them grow commodities like cotton, which pay for their food. However, to improve the food and nutrition security of the farmers, we need to revive the local food systems of the past as far as possible.

What is your assessment of the program to double farmers’ incomes and where do you think we've fallen short, if at all?

The initiative to double farmers’ incomes was an attempt to redirect the attention of people in agricultural research and policy from increasing agricultural productivity to increasing farm incomes. In that respect the objective has been fulfilled now as all talk more about farm income than productivity. India has now become a food-surplus nation that currently exports many commodities and imports some food especially oil and pulses. I do not have the data, but it is difficult to prove that farmers’ incomes have doubled. In some areas, the farm incomes might have more than doubled but other areas it hasn’t increased much.

Since this discussion started, given the kind of shocks or risks farmers have been facing in certain areas, like climate change and floods or droughts, market risks, etc. there is less chance of doubling it. There is scope to make farming economically viable and make farmers prosper. I cannot give a target for the income—double or 1.5 times or three times—or give a deadline. But the economic productivity of farmers’ labour and land needs to increase, for increasing their income. This needs safeguards for farmers against risk, because risk is continuously increasing in agriculture.

I think doubling farmers’ incomes at a country level is a difficult proposition. In many places, the farmer's income may have tripled while in some areas they may have reduced. Any policy with this end needs more context and has to be region-specific. But I also want to add that there is a lot of scope to enhance farmers’ incomes. If you look at the yield gaps, which means the difference between achievable yield in the field and the current average yield, they are very high. Using appropriate technologies, incentives for the proper systems, if our farmers are able to bridge those yield gaps, market-led diversification along with strengthened linkages with the value chains/markets, farmers, income can increase.

A very important point here is that the income will increase only not through increase in production alone, because for farmers to realise the price they need protection against a dynamic market. The government procures rice and wheat, which is essential for food security. Even though this distorts the market, the government procures it and distribute it through the PDS. Farmers sell at a good price, and even if the area is not suitable, they continue to grow rice and wheat. This creates overall imbalances. So market signals are in favour of only a few crops.

Whatever we promote in the long term, I think it needs a continuous dynamical assessment of the market or demand side and then according to the biophysical potential of different crops in different regions, the market signals and demand should inform what type of crops to promote, which will result in an increase in the income. It needs a crop suitability analysis for the whole country. These kinds of data-driven policy support that can help integrate markets is missing. It can help improve farmers’ income.

In future, the ecosystem of services will include nature merits, water credits and carbon credits have a big promise to increase farmers incomes and enhance sustainability of the agri-food system. Different stakeholders and agencies work together to create opportunities such that farmers can harness the market for carbon credits/water credits or nature credits for adopting sustainable practices.

Another point I want to make is about consolidation of land parcels. When the land size is 0.6 hectare or 0.5 hectare, no matter what you do, a farm family cannot survive off the income from that small land. So, consolidation through farmer producers organisations and farmer-producer companies is important, which the government has started already but a lot more needs to be done to make them functional.

In short, increasing farm incomes is a complex issue and requires a multi-pronged strategy.

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