Who Can Rescue Half of India’s Malnourished; Were Victims Deprived of Nutri-Rich Foods?

Nutri-Rich Foods
Nutri-Rich Foods

Agriculture in India is literally sick where 95 million famers are thriving on cash dole, 193 million people are undernourished, 238 million suffers from low body weight (wasting), 516 million affected by low height (stunting) and 51 million children die prematurely, all reflecting acute and chronic malnutrition.

Not that the problem started after new govt took the reins in 2014 but perpetuating since last many decades. However, present government appears skeptical on such a serious matter and no tangible corrective measures are in sight to conquer the killer malnutrition

Protein energy malnutrition is a major public health problem in India despite millions of tons protein-rich foods are produced which are either misused or exported. For example, groundnut, rich in protein (26%), ready to eat as raw, roasted and value added remains out of reach to poorer section, the victims. Of 10 million tons of groundnut produced annually, about 5 million tons goes to oil extraction leaving behind 2.5 million tons as cake for cattle, though best fit for human consumption in the form of cookies once processed hygienically. Similarly, close to 5 million tonnes are exported, mostly as bird feed to South-East Asian countries, worth feeding to millions of malnourished to keep India healthy. This is also true for soybean where 13 million tons are crushed/exported including 1.6 million tons soya meals, the protein rich food.

The biggest dichotomy is the growing imbalance in food production. In a country where half of the population is malnourished, the production of nutri cereals is as meagre as 13.5 million tons against 230 million tons of rice, wheat (2020-21). 

Rice crop
Rice crop

Call for ‘Sashakt Bharat' in malnourished India stands on a wet wicket. To make the foundation on strong footings, agricultural policies must find a balance between food and nutritional security; crops, climatic resilience and water use efficiency; domestic demands and export supply and so on. Being associated with agriculture sector in India and Africa for over 50 years and being a party to the journey to New India, the following approach could be counterproductive.

  • Plan proportional production of rice and millets to balance between food and nutritional security taking number of malnourished into account.

  • Allocate part of irrigated rice areas to oilseeds and pulses and maintain the production level by intensifying hybrid rice.

  • Millets, a climate resilient crop holds great potential in contributing to food and nutritional security and India must target a matching production reaching to every plates of the needy.

  • Nutrient deficiencies were found less in the wheat-eating northern and western states as compared to rice eating eastern and southern states. The deficiencies are alarming in case of iron, Vitamin A and protein.

  • Production of foxtail and finger millets (ragi) should be in higher proportion as they are rich in iron, calcium and magnesium. Ragi contains three times the calcium content of milk.

  • Millets are resource efficient crops grown with limited water and little inputs that can reduce import bills/ subsidies on chemical fertilizers.

  • Among the plant-based foods, groundnut is exceptionally good source of protein (26%) besides healthy fat (PUFA) and plenty of vitamins and minerals.

  • Necessary, as a policy, country may reverse groundnut utilization process, keeping more for food use and banning export as ‘bird feed‘ as health of impoverished Indian is more important.

  • Mortality among children due to acute malnutrition is alarmingly high. An instant mix containing groundnut, millets, maize, linseed (rich in Omega-3), soybean can be developed and served to target groups as power pack, ready to eat.

  • Vegetable pigeon pea and soybean for use as green may be introduced commercially in the states of Uttar Pradesh , Uttarakhand, Jharkhand, where the magnitude of malnutrition problem is high. 

There is no room for complacency in producing record quantity of food grains in absence of backup storage support/ silos affecting grain quality adversely. Food grains close to 14 million tons worth of Rs. 7,000 crore are lost annually due to lack of storage. 

Let’s remember, “Wasting of 100 g of rice means wasting 250 litres of water” and what FAO says: “If It is Not safe - It’s Not Food.”

Author Details

Dr. M S Basu, Ex Director ICAR & UNIDO International Consultant (Africa).


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