Imagine a landmass greater than China. Now imagine that land is only used to produce food.
“We are guilty of many errors and many faults, but our worst crime is abandoning the children, neglecting the fountain of life. Many of the things we need can wait. The child cannot. Right now is the time his bones are being formed, his blood is being made, and his senses are being developed. To him we cannot answer ‘Tomorrow,’ his name is today.”
— Gabriela Mistral
India is booming, but its children are still starving. Here, there is a remarkable tolerance of inequity and human suffering. Despite the spectacular strides made in economic growth and having a technological boom, India still continues to struggle to attain freedom from hunger. It is bearing witness to a triple burden of malnutrition — the coexistence of undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies, and overnutrition.
India accounts for more than three out of 10 stunted children globally, largely owing to a lack of good quality food, poor care and feeding practices and inadequate water, sanitation and health services. Other than increased susceptibility, the chronic impact of long-term malnutrition in human and economic terms is well known. Undernourishment is highly damaging to children and overshadows their childhoods, impairs their mental and physical development, and damages the country’s economic prospects.
Malnutrition threatens a child’s physical as well as mental well being for many years to come. For many children, chronic malnutrition begins in the womb, with 20 per cent having a low birth weight. Ninety per cent of our brain develops in the first two years of birth and the quality of nutrition during this stage determines the long-term physical health, learning ability, and future productivity. Undernourishment can lower a child’s IQ, increase the risk of diet-related non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and heart diseases, and reduce productivity.
Proper sanitation facilities are essential to prevent children getting infections on account of related ailments like diarrhoea and pneumonia, which impair nutrient absorption. Fortification of staple food vehicles such as flour, salt, oil and milk is now being seen as a crucial component for tackling food and nutrition security as well as child malnutrition. Since several staple foods produced, procured and consumed in the organised sector are not easily amenable to fortification, the government must mandate the use of fortifiable commodities in all its food-based schemes, including the midday meal scheme in schools, the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) and the Public Distribution System (PDS).
The full impact of the various interventions can be amplified if we adopt a multi-sectoral and integrated approach looking at maternal and infant health, water and sanitation, poverty alleviation, and behavioural change communications as inter-related challenges.
No country has ever succeeded in reducing poverty without having the active engagement of the government in creating the proper conditions and opportunities for individuals to rise from poverty. As writer Pallavi Aiyar has written in her excellent book Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of China, “If born rich, it is better to be Indian, and if born poor, it is better to be Chinese”.
Studies have shown that malnutrition and hunger impede children’s ability to grasp even basic skills and they fail to develop to their full cognitive potential. Even though India has a host of schemes to fight hunger, structural deficiencies have left a large number of the poor in India at risk of malnourishment.
There is also growing evidence of the benefits to mother and child of initiation within one hour of birth. Early initiation of breastfeeding ensures skin-to-skin contact, which is important in preventing hypothermia and establishing the bond between the mother and her child. It also reduces a mother’s risk of post-partum haemorrhage, one of the leading causes of maternal mortality.
Contemporary research has confirmed the crucial importance of nutrition in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life. The nutrition provided in the period between conception and the child’s second birthday is critical for optimum cognitive and physical development of the child. Breastfed infants are more likely to have better physical and mental health, well into adulthood.
Much less investment is required to maintain adequate nourishment for children than is required to repair broken children. A package of basic measures — including programmes to encourage mothers to exclusively breastfeed their children for up to six months, fortifying basic foods with essential vitamins and minerals and increased cash transfers targeted at the poorest families — can turn the tide.
Fortification of staple food vehicles such as flour, salt, oil and milk is now being seen as a crucial component for tackling food and nutrition security as well as child malnutrition. Since several staple foods produced, procured and consumed in the organised sector are not easily amenable to fortification, the government must mandate the use of fortifiable commodities in all its food-based schemes, including the midday meal scheme in schools, the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) and the Public Distribution System (PDS).
The tragedy is that India produces enough food to meet the needs of its entire population, and has at its disposal arable land that has the potential to produce a food surplus for export. Yet, it is unable to feed millions of its people, especially women and children. As you trudge through the mire of any government-run food auction yard, or mandi, you will find piles of supposedly fresh produce lying everywhere, rotting in the sun and competing with mangy dogs and scampering mice for your attention. A lack of education on post-harvest practices often results in poor quality control and food being damaged during handling. One of the major ways of enhancing food security in India is by simply controlling wastage and through better processing and recycling.
Imagine a landmass greater than China. Now imagine that land is only used to produce food. Then suppose all the crops and produce from those 2.5 billion acres are not eaten and left to rot. Imagine all of that — and you get an idea of the amount of food the world wastes every year. It is almost a third of the world’s total food supply.
The Food Corporation of India (FCI) was set up in 1964 to offer impetus to price support systems, encourage nationwide distribution and maintain sufficient buffer of staples like wheat and rice but its performance has been woefully inadequate in comparison to the needs of the country. Around one per cent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) gets shaved off annually in the form of food waste. The FCI has neither warehouse capacity nor the manpower to manage this humongous stockpile of foodgrains.
Every year, the government purchases millions of tonnes of grain from the farmers to ensure that they get a good price for their produce for numerous food subsidy programmes and to maintain an emergency buffer. The cruel truth, however, is that most of the produce is left out in the open, vulnerable to rain and attacks by rodents or stored in makeshift spaces, covered by tarpaulin sheets, thus increasing the chances of spoilage. Several countries are now using metal grain silos to guard against fungus attacks on the grain stock.
Added to the wastage of food, there is a depletion of precious resources involved in its production. According to the United Nations, India is estimated to use more than 230 cubic kilometres of fresh water annually for producing food items that will be ultimately wasted. To put this into context, this amount of water is enough to provide drinking water to 100 million people every year. Besides this, nearly 300 million barrels of oil used in the process are also ultimately wasted.
Reforming the faltering Public Distribution System, which mainly supplies subsidised grain to the poor, and modernising other areas such as computerisation of outlets and satellite control over the movement of transport vehicles can go a long way in plugging the leakages of foodgrains for the poor.
In recent years, numerous initiatives and interventions have been undertaken by the Indian government and local and international actors to target food losses and wastage across the agricultural value chain. For instance, the Indian government is seeking to streamline and modernise agricultural value chains through reformation of the PDS to reduce the waste and loss associated with the distribution and storage of foodgrains.
India needs to mobilise large-scale investments in cold storage methods, refrigerated transport and other modern logistics to modernise its food supply chain. Apart from this, a strong will in the political class and imaginative thinking on the part of policymakers is needed.
The writer is an author, columnist and member of the National Commission on Financial Inclusion for Women at the Niti Aayog