Evolution of nutrition policies in India
Source: Flickr, HarvestPlus

The Green Revolution in Asia in the 1960s led to increased production of staple food crops like rice and wheat, which reduced hunger and boosted incomes and overall economic growth. However, according to a new study published in Global Food Security, this progress has been slow to translate from food security, focused on quantity of food, to nutrition security, focused on quality of food. As such, malnourishment in the form of chronic micronutrient deficiencies, overweight, and obesity continue to plague the region.

The study focuses on India and examines how the country’s food policy could evolve e to take on more of a nutrition lens. The authors emphasize that while the data specifically look at India, their findings can be generalizable to Asia as a whole, as the region faces many of the same nutrition challenges.

According to the study, India’s policy has long been focused on self-sufficiency in food grains, as a result of rampant hunger and famine prior to the Green Revolution. India’s policymakers have taken a two-pronged approach to this view of food security. On one side, they have focused on supporting producers by attempting to stabilize farm prices through assured minimum support prices (MSP); on the other hand, they have provided subsidized food to poor consumers through the Public Distribution System (PSD), which purchases food from MSP-supported farmers.

However, these policies have had unintended consequences, the report suggests. The focus on grains has limited farmers’ ability and incentives to diversify into other crops. In addition, research has suggested that open-ended procurement of the PDS system from the MSP-supported farmers has given undue political influence to larger grain-producing states. The PDS system mainly provides subsidized grain products, and this has impacted the nutrition focus and the food provided through other social safety net programs that utilize PDS-provided food, such as the Integrated Child Development Scheme and the Mid-Day Meal Scheme. All of these policies have worked together to keep the focus strongly on staple grains rather than more nutrient-dense crops, including pulses and fruits and vegetables.

In 2013, India’s Parliament passed the National Food Security Act (NFSA), which allowed 75 percent of the country’s rural population and 50 percent of the urban population to receive at least 5 kg of food grains per month at a subsidized price. The Act also includes nutritional support for pregnant women and lactating mothers, as well as for children from the ages of six months to 14 years. According to the report, the NFSA program currently reaches 884 million beneficiaries. However, the program has maintained the traditional focus on basic calorie sufficiency and staple grains and has thus far not been successful at addressing India’s deeper problem of “hidden malnutrition” (i.e., micronutrient deficiency and overweight and obesity).

In light of the failure of these traditional policies to provide nutritional security, the study provides several key recommendations for a shift in policy to create a more broadly based, balanced food system.

First, policymakers need to expand their focus to look beyond calories. The report suggests promoting the consumption of nutrient-rich millets and pulses through including these crops in the PDS and other social safety net programs. The study cites the example of the Chhattisgarh State government, which has instituted its own food security act that subsidizes pulses and iodized salt in addition to rice and wheat. In addition to improving consumers’ nutrition outcomes, these crops also tend to be more resilient to climate change than traditional staple grains, making them a potential channel through which to increase farmers’ adoption of climate-smart agriculture.

Second, policies need to take into account how malnutrition impacts people during different stages of the life cycle. While programs like the NFSA have nominally provided for key nutrition interventions in important stages of life, such as pregnancy or early childhood, the study states that many of these programs lack the operational capacity and coordination to truly support a life-cycle approach. Such factors as access to family planning, improved child care and feeding practices, increased women’s empowerment in household decision-making, and access to clean water and sanitation facilities all play a role in ensuring that nutrition and food security programs take into account the total life cycle. This shift will require better coordination among government agencies and other actors to create multi-sectoral nutrition goals and plans.

Third, agricultural policies should shift toward a “crop-neutral” lens that does not incentivize staple crops over other crops. The report suggests that this would allow farmers to respond to market signals and demand for non-staple crops like fruits and vegetables and meat and fish products.

Fourth, smallholders need to be better connected to high-value markets for products like fruits and vegetables and meat and fish. Helping smallholders to diversify their agricultural production has been found to positively impact both poverty reduction and dietary diversity, the study reports. Increasing smallholders’ access to horticultural and livestock value chains will require increasing investments, from both the public and the private sector, in transportation, storage, and market development to reduce transportation and transaction costs for smallholder producers. In addition, policymakers should focus on investing in market information technologies, food product standardization, and food safety regulations in order to build consumer trust as well as identify and fill new market demands.

Fifth, India’s government needs to decouple its consumer welfare targets from its producer welfare targets in order to limit the power of the farm lobby and shift the policy focus away from the sole promotion of staple grains. While the study emphasizes that staple grains continue to play an important role in nutrition and food security, dietary diversity and improved nutrition outcomes may be better promotion through expanding the PDS to include crops like pulses. In addition, the study suggests that while debate continues regarding whether in-kind or cash transfers will make the PDS system most effective, moving to a cash transfer system could help decouple consumer protection from producer protection and thus reduce the lobbying power of major staple grain-producing states and stakeholders. The study also suggests that diversifying agricultural production to include more high-value products could raise farm incomes and thus compensate for the loss of guaranteed income from MSP purchases of staple crops for programs like the PDS.

Again, while the study focuses specifically on programs and data from India, many of its recommendations are generalizable to other countries and programs. Overall, policymakers worldwide need to better align agricultural policies with nutritional challenges and goals, moving away from a focus on staple grains and promoting the diversification of both food production and food consumption. Such a shift has the potential to benefit producers by opening up new, higher value markets and employment opportunities and consumers by providing a broader array of nutritious, affordable food.

By: Sara Gustafson, IFPRI

Photo credit:Flickr, HarvestPlus