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An opportunity to recast India’s food system

  • Category
    Economy
  • Published
    31st Oct, 2023

Context:

Recently, the world has celebrated as World Food Day, 2023 has highlighted that the importance of Food System. In India, the immense population presents a dual challenge of both malnutrition and insufficient farm incomes, which are closely linked to environmental issues.

About Food System –

  • A food system encompasses all the processes, activities, and resources involved in the production, distribution, consumption, and disposal of food.
    • It includes the entire journey of food from farm to table and beyond, covering aspects such as farming, processing, transportation, marketing, and waste management.

Significance of Food system

  • Food Security: A well-functioning food system is essential for providing a stable and reliable food supply, ensuring that people have access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food.
  • Nutrition: It influences the availability and accessibility of diverse and healthy food options, which directly impacts the nutritional well-being of a population.
  • Economic Growth: The food system is a significant contributor to the economy, providing livelihoods for millions of people. Efficient food systems can stimulate economic growth and reduce poverty.
  • Environmental Impact: Food systems have a substantial environmental footprint. Their sustainability is crucial for mitigating the impact of agriculture on climate change, land use, and water resources.
  • Health Outcomes: A well-functioning food system can positively influence public health by making healthier food choices more accessible and affordable.
  • Social Equity: It plays a role in social equity by ensuring that all members of society have access to food, regardless of their economic status or geographic location.
  • Cultural and Traditional Values: Food systems are deeply linked to cultural and traditional values. Preserving and promoting these values is essential for maintaining cultural diversity.
  • Innovation and Technology: Food systems often drive innovation in agriculture, processing, and distribution, which can improve productivity and reduce waste.

Issues in India’s food System

  • Malnutrition: India faces a complex nutritional challenge characterized by two coexisting issues.
    • Despite significant progress, a substantial portion of the population still grapples with nutrient deficiencies.

According to the National Family Health Survey 2019-21, around 35% of children suffer from stunted growth, and 57% of women and 25% of men experience anemia.

    • In parallel, unbalanced diets and sedentary lifestyles have driven a surge in obesity, affecting 24% of adult women and 23% of adult men.
    • Initiatives, including a nationwide anti-malnutrition campaign led by the Prime Minister, have been launched to address this issue.
  • Farm Income: Farmers, particularly those with marginal and small-scale land holdings, face the challenge of insufficient incomes.
    • According to a report from the Transforming Rural India Foundation, more than 68% of marginal farmers rely on non-farm activities to supplement their earnings.
    • Excessive dependence on the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) and casual labor signifies restricted opportunities and a deficiency of skills for diversifying their income sources.
  • Environment Security: India's food production is becoming more susceptible to risk due to the depletion of natural resources and shifting climate patterns.
    • The 2023 soil health survey presents a worrisome scenario, highlighting that nearly 50% of India's arable land is experiencing a shortage of organic carbon, a crucial indicator of soil health.
    • Groundwater, the primary source of irrigation, is rapidly diminishing, especially in states like Punjab, where more than 75% of groundwater assessment areas are being excessively exploited. This situation poses a threat to the economic resilience of farmers.

Way Ahead

  • Changing Consumer Preferences for Healthier Diets:
    • The process begins with a shift in consumer preferences towards more nutritious and eco-friendly diets.
      • The private sector plays a critical role in influencing what people choose to eat. Lessons learned from promoting the consumption of imported food items can be applied to locally-grown millets.
  • Collaborative efforts involving civil society, health advocates, and social media influencers can encourage people to make healthier and sustainable dietary choices.
  • Additionally, government initiatives like the Public Distribution System and mid-day meal programs can significantly impact the dietary preferences of a significant part of the population.
  • Supporting Farmers' Transition to Sustainable Farming:
  • Ensuring that farmers have stable incomes requires supporting their shift to profitable and environmentally-friendly agricultural practices.
    • Programs like the National Mission on Natural Farming are steps in the right direction, but funding for sustainable agriculture remains insufficient, making up less than 1% of the agricultural budget.
  • Expanding and broadening such programs to include practices like agroforestry, conservation agriculture, and precision farming is essential.
  • Shifting from providing input subsidies to offering direct financial support per hectare of cultivated land can encourage efficient input use and create an equal footing for agroecological practices.
  • A portion of agricultural research and extension service budgets should be allocated to sustainable farming methods.
  • Promoting Sustainable and Inclusive Agricultural Value Chains:
    • Boosting rural incomes depends on increasing the value addition of agricultural products within rural areas.
      • Companies and intermediaries should focus on directly sourcing from farmers and encouraging the sustainable harvesting of crops.
      • Enterprises like DeHaat and Ninjacart, among others, facilitate direct connections between farmers and buyers.
      • Additionally, facilitating the trade of produce among Farmer Producer Organizations (FPOs) ensures that farmers receive a fair share of the value, as demonstrated by select FPOs in Odisha.
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