MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) runs the ‘Annadatta Nuritional Garden Model’in Kundra Block of tribal-dominated Koratpur district in Odisha. This district is one of the 69 identified as being disadvantaged in terms of poverty, hunger, infant mortality, immunisation, literacy, school enrollment and gender disparity. Once covered with dense forests, this mineral rich district has been facing rapid deforestation and climate change, deeply impacting the traditional agricultural methods of tribal farmers. Declining crop yield in paddy, that requires a lot of water for cultivation, is also an offshoot of the evolving climate in this rain-fed district.
The MSSRF model aims at building capacity of women farmers through self-help groups (SHGs) to cultivate fruits and vegetables in their backyards as a pilot. This is a structured garden with multiple crops to enhance food and nutritional security of the family ‘round the year. Crops range from leafy vegetables to fruits and spices grown organically. The Annadaata Model’s sustained interventions, especially through participatory communication, have led to a positive change in consumption patterns too. The daily diet of residents has now been balanced in terms of vegetables, fruits and pulses, which are rich in a wide range of nutrients including minerals and vitamins.
As per the National Family Health Survey-4 (NFHS-4), about 35.6% of our children below the age of five are underweight (too thin for their age), 38.4% are stunted (too short for their age), 21% are wasted (too thin for their height and age). Further, about 8% are acutely malnourished (hidden hunger, occurring on account of deficiencies of micro-nutrients such as vitamins or minerals). The data also indicates that almost half of the population is anemic, and at the same time, 20% and 18% is overweight and obese (excess of macro-nutrients and calories) respectively.
The country’s national nutrition strategy includes programmes such as Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) that focuses on children and nursing mothers. The Government of India also runs a midday meal programme (MDM) for providing freshly cooked meals in schools. Besides, there is provision of affordable nutritious food as a legal entitlement for the vulnerable and poorest, while care for acute malnutrition is supplemented through rehabilitation centers run under the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM). There are also food safety regulations and programmes for making available bio-fortified crops such as iron-rich bajra, protein-rich maize and zinc-rich wheat.
The report of the Committee on Doubling Farmers Income (DFI), 2017 observes that the urban and rural population in India is still facing nutrition-linked health concerns (eg., due to non-balanced diet) despite the fact that the country produces large quantities of high nutrition foods such as cereals, pulses, fruits, vegetables, milk, meat and eggs. The plate, it adds, impacts the demand of inputs at farms. The report recommends that last-mile interventions should be designed to recover demand for crops that create value not only for farmers’ return but also for families’ access to nutrition, health and well-being.
For instance, experts contend that millets (jowar, ragi, bajra, etc.) are 3-5 times more nutritious than wheat and rice in terms of proteins, minerals and vitamins. They need very little water for production (around 25% of the rainfall regime demanded by crops such as sugarcane and banana). More importantly, they can be grown in vast dryland areas using farmyard manure, thus reducing dependence on synthetic fertilisers. Expansion of a robust millet cropping system and its promotion in the country is providing multiple securities, including nutrition, keeping in mind the impact of climate change.
Experts further state that a key factor that hampers access to nutritious food in a family is its inequitable allocation for women and young children. Rural women, especially as farmers, have a critical role to play in sowing, weeding and harvesting of agricultural crops. Women’s empowerment, therefore, can have a direct impact on agricultural productivity as well as making nutrition ‘inclusive’ at home in the truest sense. Hence the governments’ push for investments, such as the setting up of an Agri Infrastructure Fund (AIF) that fosters funding for women farmers’ collectives, self-help groups and their federations. The promotion of the 10,000 Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOs) programme, in addition, aims at their effective participation as member shareholders in these entities.
In fact, agricultural extension too has a critical role to play. Non-profit communication organisations such as Digital Green have been supplementing the efforts of National Rural Livelihood Missions (NRLM) at the last mile in developing and promoting nutrition sensitive agriculture curriculum through community-led videos. Typically, these participatory videos empower women farmers on themes such as seasonal changes that affect nutrition and addressing challenges from agricultural production through buying and selling.
India’s agriculture and food security policies, thus, are now going beyond the calorie sufficiency approach towards ensuring access to a nutritionally balanced and diverse diet. One of the key drivers of this change is the expansion of the modern food retail industry, valued at $380 billion, during the last decade. Altered consumption patterns have provided an opportunity for modern agri-food systems to evolve in the organised sector. Even as climate change threatens production of crops, the government is evolving and propagating technologies for drought, heat and flood resistant non-staples (pulses, fruits and vegetables) in addition to staple grains, to mitigate vulnerability of the poorest against malnutrition, especially in states of Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
The grassroots efforts of public-private initiatives such as the Swaminathan Research Foundation and Digital Green, to meet local and regional nutritional challenges for the poorest, are laudable. We direly need to reenergise a nutrition sensitive approach in agriculture by strengthening the capacities of our last mile governance institutions such as Krishi Vikas Kendras (KVKs), Common Service Centers (CSCs) and Gram Panchayats, in addition.
(The writer is an additional secretary in the Union ministry of agriculture and farmers welfare. Views expressed are personal.)