It is an apparently contradictory development that India has one of the biggest free food distribution systems in the world but at the same time it scores very poorly in the Global Hunger Index. One of the main reasons behind this has been that the common people in India are habituated in consuming cereals with less nutrient content. This means food staples are not dense in minerals and vitamins. As a result, for proper nutrition, the common people in India have to make up by consuming non-staple items. But it is not possible for the poor or even the lower middle-class consumers to regularly intake non-staples in adequate amounts - because those are costly items.
The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) was established in 1945. The policy makers in FAO had emphasised on the importance of human nutrition first - that is the requirement of food with higher nutrients. The second priority was the enhancement of food production. After 75 years of FAO’s vision, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi dedicated 17 bio-fortified varieties of eight crops to the nation on the occasion of Poshan Maah 2020. The National Nutrition Mission is also known as Poshan Abhiyan and it aims to reduce stunting, underweight and low birth weight - each by 2% per annum.
Bio-fortification and its importance
It is the idea of breeding crops to increase their nutritional values. This can be done either through conventional selective breeding or through genetic engineering. It is important because it allows selected nutrients to be added to a particular crop through either selective breeding or by altering it genetically. It is said that this would reduce the need for multiple food items for consumption. This is so because most of the required nutrients will be incorporated in a single crop.
Secondly, it reduces over-spending on food. As nutrition is concentrated on a single source, the requirement on spending on different food items would reduce. This would be of help to the poor. Thirdly, it may lead to higher productivity of the people of an economy – which has a very important economic implication.
Some examples of bio-fortification
Some of the examples include iron biofortification of rice, beans, sweet potato, cassava and legumes. Zinc biofortification of wheat, rice, beans, sweet potatoes or maize have also been done. Provitamin A carotenoid-bio-fortification of sweet potato, maize and some other cereals are also important. Amino acid and protein bio-fortification of sorghum and cassava are also under consideration. But many observers have certain reservations. As of now, it is known that only 20 million people are growing and consuming these food items. However, if proper institutional leadership is available it is expected that it would reach 1 billion people by 2030.
MGNREGA- an alternative model
MGNREGA is the largest and most ambitious social security and public work programme in the world. The Act was initially implemented in 200 districts of India in February 2006. But as MGNREGA, it has been implemented in all districts of the country. It deals with the twin problems of unemployment and rural poverty. A recent survey by P Mahendra Verman and Neeraj Kumar (Economic and Political Weekly, September 26, 2020) was done to investigate the impact of MGNREGA programme on the level of household consumption expenditure. Additionally, the survey also aimed to examine if the participation in the programme has changed the pattern of household consumption expenditure. The researchers compared monthly per capita expenditure (MPCE) data of 2004-05 (pre-MGNREGA) and that of 2011-12 (post MGNREGA).
The survey observed that on an average the share of consumption items, such as vegetables, fruits, oil, meat and egg - which are more expensive and more nutritious - increased after the implementation of the MGNREGA programme. The share of less expensive and staple food items like cereals pulses and milk also increased. It was also observed that the share of durable goods in the MPCE indicated increased household investments and smoothing of consumption due to participation in the MGNREGA programme. It can be concluded that if government policy can enhance the income of the common people, then the standard of living and health conditions can be improved.