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How we need to build sustainable systems for a malnutrition-free India

It is imperative to tailor policy implementation at the district level to local needs and eating habits which is important to bring the change at the grassroots level.

September 14, 2020 9:24:44 pm

Written by CK Mishra

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the weaknesses not only of the fragile health and food systems but also exposed the faultiness amongst the first world countries. It has also reminded us that human survival is dependent on the health of our planet and that future pandemics and environmental and climate disasters can only be avoided by embracing systems that respect planetary boundaries.

The link between environment (agriculture), nutrition and health has been recognised as a part of United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Three of the targets under SDG2 (end hunger, achieve food security and improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture practices) pertain to the leveraging of agriculture policy and strategy for improved nutrition outcomes to ensure the ultimate goal of ending hunger and malnutrition in all its forms.

Good nutrition is an essential part of an individual’s defence against infections like Covid-19

Dietary patterns and food environments are changing fast, particularly in low- and middle-income countries including in India. The recent Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey (CNNS, 2019) notes that despite substantial economic growth in India over most recent decades, half of India’s adolescents are, short, thin, overweight or obese and that over 80% suffer from ‘hidden hunger’ – the deficiency of one or more micronutrients like iron, folate, zinc, vitamin A, vitamin B12 and vitamin D. This can have both short/long-term and even multigenerational impacts thereby threatening the vision of a new India that we aspire for.

COVID-19 has exacerbated this problem further. Malnutrition weakens our immune systems, thereby increasing the chances of getting ill. At the same time, poor metabolic health (example: obesity and diabetes) is strongly linked with worse COVID-19 outcomes. The current pandemic has disrupted health and nutrition services and local food supply chains, leading to issues of food insecurity. It threatens to set back the gains that India has made in improving its nutrition outcomes.

Redesigning our food and agriculture systems

Environmentalists have been repeatedly drawing attention to the erosion of our agro-biodiversity, the overexploitation of natural resources, changes in climate and their consequent impact on human health (Seminar: Justice on our plates June 2020). The relevance of these interlinkages becomes even more important in the current context of Covid-19 and its impact on lives and livelihoods of people across the country.

While the government acknowledges this relationship, it has not completely translated into action.

Firstly, it is important to bring together these three elements: agriculture, nutrition and health as a part of our development planning. Experts have for long underscored the benefits of a moving towards a ‘food systems’ approach in policy making. This is a multi-sectoral approach premised on the interactions, relationships and inter-dependencies between different elements within a food value chain and the overarching social, economic, political and environmental context. This thinking has in fact been embedded for long in our culture; indigenous tribal communities and their food habits and their harmonious co-existence with local environments has many lessons to offer.

Secondly, integration of agriculture with health and nutrition is important to further ensure that people have access to affordable foods around them. Development of the Bhartiya Poshan Krishi Kosh by Ministry of Women and Child Development (MoWCD) is a step in the right direction to understand the nutrient content in the foods we consume, and their source. There are several indigenous crop varieties that are nutrient rich and suited to different agro-climatic regions. It is important to bring them back into the production system and build local value chains to ensure their availability for consumption.

With programmes like Swachh Bharat, Mission Indradhanush and Poshan Abhiyaan, the government is working to address the underlying issues affecting nutrition as well as to bring focus on behaviour change. However, it is imperative to tailor policy implementation at the district level to local needs and eating habits which is important to bring the change at the grassroots level. But within the current context, there is little scope to do that as programmes and departments continue to work in silos. The Nutrition Mission needs to take this into account and address it.

It is important to move beyond looking at the gains of blue skies and understand the deeper relationship between health and environment and its impact on nutrition. Environment and ecology are going to dictate health outcomes to a great extent, and we must accept this. The current pandemic is an opportune time for us to reflect on these issues, shift gears and take measures to nurture, healthy agriculture and food systems, and nutrition sensitive agri-food value chains, to ensure that the food we eat is not only safe and nutritious but available to all. Nature can be our biggest saviour in these difficult times.

– The writer is former Secretary, Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change, and Former Health Secretary

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