Stark hunger, as manifested in starvation deaths, may be a thing of the past but malnutrition is still rampant. This is despite India being now the world’s top or second-largest producer of most food items, such as staple cereals, pulses, fruit, vegetables, and milk. The diet of a sizable section of the population is neither sufficient nor nutritionally balanced. The deficiency of protein, vitamins, minerals, or other major or micro-nutrients is widely prevalent. Particularly worrisome is the paucity of nutrients like iron and zinc, and vitamins like A and C, which are vital for growth and tissue repair, and preventing diseases. It retards physical and mental development of children and causes ill-health among adults, especially women and lactating mothers.
Little wonder, therefore, that India was ranked 94th among 107 countries on the Global Hunger
Index 2020, falling behind its smaller neighbours like Nepal, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. This index is essentially an indicator of poor nutrition
and its ill-effects. The pervasive nutritional inadequacy had, in fact, been highlighted even earlier by the National Family Health Survey-4, conducted in 2016. It had found that as many as 38.4 per cent kids below five had low height for their age (technically called “stunted”) and about 21 per cent had low weight for their height (dubbed as “wasted”). Worse still, it showed that more than half of all women (nearly 53 per cent) were anaemic.
The government, no doubt, is attempting to combat disguised hunger
(read undernourishment) by offering highly subsidised or free foodgrains to the poor and the needy through various welfare programmes. The month of September is observed as the “Poshan Mah” (nutrition
month) and its first week as the “Poshan week” every year. But these initiatives are augmenting the consumption of belly-filling staples rather than wholesome foods. India’s mid-day meal scheme for school children, one of the world’s largest programmes of its kind, is no exception. This, as also similar other nutrition-oriented schemes being implemented through institutions like Anganwadis, suffers from the same flaw. They lack the required emphasis on balanced nourishment. As a result, these initiatives have reduced the incidence of underfeeding but without denting malnutrition, which can be curbed only by boosting the intake of wholesome food.
The poor nutritional profile of average Indians can, in fact, partly be attributed to the fact that most of the available and mass-consumed foods are inherently low in nutrition.
Most of the crop varieties developed by the country’s vast farm research network in the past were bred with an eye on enhancing yield and resistance against diseases and pests than upgrading their nutrient content. This anomaly is now sought to be rectified by incorporating nutrient-enriching genes in select crop varieties, using conventional or modern plant-breeding tools. Such genetically altered and nutrition-augmented crops, termed aptly as “biologically fortified” or “biofortified” crops, differ from the commercially available fortified foods as these have genetically ingrained, rather than artificially added, additional nutrients.
is the most sustainable and cost-effective means to provide the needed nutrition through food rather than food supplements, assert senior officials of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). “The nutrient-doped varieties, developed under the all-India coordinated research programmes for different crops, provide enough calories, as also essential nutrients, for healthy growth,” maintain ICAR Director-General T Mohapatra and Deputy Director-General D K Yadav in a paper “Biofortification
of Crops for Food and Nutritional Security”. More than 70 biofortified food crops have already been evolved and released for cultivation, they point out.
The benefits of the biofortified crops have been corroborated even by the actual impact assessment studies on children and women. In one such study, children 12-16 years old were fed with “Bhakri” — a round, flat unleavened bread — made from iron-doped biofortified pearl millet (bajra). They showed a substantial improvement in their health. Iron, whose deficiency is quite common in India, is vital for proper functioning of muscles and brain tissues. Another study, involving feeding zinc-enriched wheat to children four-six years old, found perceptible reduction in the incidence of pneumonia and vomiting among them.
The government is implementing a Rs 174-crore pilot scheme to distribute iron-fortified rice in select areas over the next three years. This programme is planned to be expanded substantially by 2024. The greater use of biofortified rice can go a long way in meeting the universally agreed and United Nations-backed goal of zero hunger
by 2030. This would require a big push to the consumption of biofortified crops. Besides, it would also need incentivising farmers to grow biofortified crops and making consumers aware of their health benefits. The most important thing is to ensure that biofortified produce is traded separately in mandis and growers get premium prices for that. Once these products get the label of healthy foods, their production as well as consumption would automatically get the needed shot in the arm.
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