India has made progress in reducing hunger, but hidden hunger still remains: Prabhu Pingali

 Sarika Malhotra        Last Updated: August 12, 2016  | 16:07 IST
'India has made progress in reducing hunger, but hidden hunger still remains'
Prabhu Pingali, Professor, Charles H Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University

The bottom-line is to move beyond looking at agriculture policy from quantity of food, to quality of food. In an interview to Sarika Malhotra of Business Today, Prabhu Pingali, Professor, Charles H Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University said that it is imperative to change the policy discourse from focus on food security to nutrition security. He feels that till now the role of agriculture policy was to increase the total quantity of food, but now a shift to quality is required to have a more diverse food system, more safety in the food system and more nutritious healthy future.
What is the biggest challenge of Indian food policy?

Linking nutrition with food and it is imperative that the broader policy community in India understands that relationship. A big challenge is that much of the food policy is focused on staples and reducing hunger and that's the way it has been since the 1940s. India has made good progress in the past 40 years to reduce hunger problem and the focus on rice and wheat has helped in it. However, it has made little progress on reducing malnutrition. We still have problems of hidden hunger: we have micro-nutrients deficiencies, iron deficiencies, vitamin deficiencies and these have long-term consequences. For children it can lead to stunting and for adults it can lead to poor nutrition outcomes - for example anemia, low BMI for women. Hidden hunger can have lot of morbid issues. Overall lifestyle, health and productivity of workforce are affected by it. Addressing the balance between staples and nutrition is a transition that the food policy community needs to make. And that's the challenge countries such as India are facing. How to shift from a policy that focuses on green revolution crops, to a policy that creates a more balanced food supply system. If we don't make progress on the nutrition side, then our ability to have healthy productive population that can sustain economic growth over a long term will be affected.

What should these policies ideally address?

We need to look at the full system. As we have a growing young population, we need to make sure that they grow as healthy productive people. Even now when we talk about policies, we take commodity specific approach, if it's not rice and wheat, its pulses, but we do not think about the overall system. Is there a way to think about the overall system - how to enhance the productivity of the entire food system so that farmers can respond to signals from the market, rather than reacting to a crisis?  Right now, we are just living by one or the other crisis and reacting to them. We have to think about the long-term demand across all the food commodities, and how to fulfill that. We should have broader sets of projections into the future and then look at the big gaps and develop policies around it.   

Is the food policy becoming more amiable to strike a balance between staples and nutrition?

It is happening slowly, and one place where obvious movement is visible is pulses.

Pulses have been in the news for all the wrong reasons from hoarding, to imports and price rise...

Yes, as that happens you begin to start thinking about taking care of pulses. How do you address pulse supply issues and yet keep a check on rising pulse price for consumers. Suddenly, because of the crisis people start looking at the pulse problem, but they should look at the mechanisms for improving pulse production, about giving incentives to farmers to increase productivity. As one starts to look at pulses seriously, you are opening up a pathway towards looking at other crops- vegetables, fruits, dairy products. Pulse debate is important for looking at the overall food system. A lot is not happening on the ground, but at least there is an increased awareness that something should happen. The extent at which the number of meetings are held around pulses in the last six months, Niti Ayog looking at the issue of pulse demand and supply, the discussion has started and that would lead to looking at policy reforms to enhance incentives for farmers and to increase productivity. One then has to look at the post-harvest processing of pulses which is where the maximum losses are like in storage, transportation. If the management side is dealt with, there is a big potential for addressing the pulse problem. Once a marketing and procurement system is in place, farmers will move towards other crops.      
Similarly, vegetable supply has to be looked at. That's where the micro-nutrients are and there is a bigger challenge as organised supply systems are not in place for vegetables. A supply chain has to be built by putting in the transport, cold storage system where small farmers can produce and supply fresh nutrient vegetables. If we can make these investments, then it can become profitable for farmers to switch from staples to the higher value vegetables and horticulture products.

In recent years food inflation has been a cause of concern… what's really going wrong on the policy front?

Staple food prices have been relatively stable, however, price rise has been alarming in pulses; in vegetables onion prices have been affecting the overall food inflation. We should be concentrating on the components that are contributing towards food inflation rather than at all the products. After identifying these crops, we should be looking at the policy options. If we address the problem of pulse supply today, it will have a significant impact on overall food prices. If we address the problem of vegetable supply, it will have an impact on the overall food inflation. The urgency today is to look beyond staples. We have to look at all the parts of the food system that have not received attention from the research, infrastructure and investment side. Getting that balance right would have a direct affect on overall food prices. We should be looking at ways through which we can diversify the overall production system and incentivise farmers to diversify produce.
How is India faring vis-a-vis other developing nations on the nutrition count?

In terms of progress, we are not doing as well as even Bangladesh. They have invested a lot more in awareness building, behavior change, improved access to more nutrition rich crops and they have done it for the poor by promoting backyard gardens, kitchen gardens, small holding agri systems. India has the potential of doing something similar for the rural poor. However, providing nutrition to the burgeoning middle-class and urban poor in India is a big challenge. How to build that supply chain for urban areas that's where your opportunity for controlling food price inflation will come from. Looking at ways to enhance overall supply chain and this would require investments at all levels of the supply chain.

Should MNREGA be linked with nutrition?

There is great potential if investments in village ponds are made through MNREGA and then those village ponds provide water for vegetable gardens, horticulture production systems in the dry season You can develop a symbiotic relationship between the MNREGA and the nutrition cycle. In places such as Bihar, UP in the dry season village level water supply systems could be developed under MNREGA. Also, rural roads can be developed that connect small farmers to markets.


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