Coordinated strategy needed to achieve ‘zero hunger’
October 5, 2017

Agriculture and nutrition experts from India and the world put their heads together to come up with ways to mainstream the nutrition component in farming systems, as a means to overcoming the problems of malnutrition and hunger

India is the largest producer of food in the world; it also has the largest percentage of people suffering from malnutrition. The country figured at a poor 97 among 118 countries on the Global Hunger Index as measured in 2016. The dichotomy exercised top minds in agriculture and nutrition who gathered at the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) in August to attend a Regional Consultation on Farming System for Nutrition.

The concept of Farming System for Nutrition works on the premise that household food production is important to diets of farm families, particularly smallholders. The farmer-led strategy is defined by Prof M.S. Swaminathan as: “The introduction of agricultural remedies to the nutritional maladies prevailing in an area through mainstreaming nutritional criteria in the selection of the components of a farming system involving crops, farm animals and wherever feasible, fish.” The location-specific, inclusive model is based on resource endowments and specific environment to address nutritional needs of families.

Maria Andrade speaking at the event. To her immediate right are Krishna Byregowda, Karnataka Agriculture minister, and Prof M.S. Swaminathan.

The consultation aimed to bring about a consensus on scaling up existing interventions such as Farming System for Nutrition for better nutrition outcomes and take forward recommendations to mainstream nutrition in agriculture policy and strategy.

Speaking at the meeting, organised in connection with the anniversary of MSSRF’s founding, Prof Swaminathan called for a Common Minimum Programme agreed upon by all stakeholders, so that the serious issue could be effectively addressed. He stressed the need for a nutrition-centric approach to agriculture. He underscored the importance of promoting nutri-millets in the country’s food basket, saying it would help people overcome nutritional deficiencies caused by the current dominance of rice and wheat.

Prof Swaminathan’s view on millets was echoed by Krishna Byregowda, Karnataka Agriculture minister, who outlined the efforts of the state government to promote the cultivation of millets, which he described as ‘climate-smart nutria-cereals’ and include it in the public distribution system.

Prof Ramesh Chand, member, Niti Aayog, said Niti Aayog was in the process of developing input indicators for nutrition which were relevant to India, rather than based on international standards. He wanted the Indian Council for Agriculture Research (ICAR) to make recommendations on ‘farming system packages’ rather than for individual crops, saying this would help promote nutrition-sensitive agriculture.

Prof Swaminathan called for a coordinated strategy to achieve zero hunger. “More than that, we need concrete suggestions that can be implemented in policy recommendations,” he said.

Various technical and policy sessions threw up a number of ideas and suggestions from the participants. Here is a selection of important observations and recommendations:

• Indigenous peoples are conservers of rich agricultural biodiversity; their systems and practices need to be understood, revived, nurtured, and scaled up.
• Mainstreaming neglected and under-utilised (NUS) crops like millets is key to addressing malnutrition issues.
• Promoting nutrition security requires better understanding of consumers’ tastes and preferences.
• Technology and research are needed to address the yield gaps, retaining nutrition and easy processing
• Policy and regulation are important; regulation should not act as a brake.
• Community Hunger Fighters – a cadre of barefoot nutrition workers – constitute a participatory approach for creating awareness and action at the grassroots to address hunger and malnutrition.
• Crops handled by women need to be identified for providing policy support.
• There is a need to revisit indicators; for example, for under-nutrition.
• The relevance of farming system versus commercial approach needs to be considered.
• Community seed banks and genetic gardens of nutri-dense traditional crops should be established.
• Model nutrition gardens should be set up in each block, suited to agro-climatic conditions, with capacity building and panchayat-level budgets.
• Local products need to be promoted with processing and value addition.
• A cadre of trained women and men is required for the revival and scaling up of traditional crops and food systems.
• Research on wild edibles and neglected and under-utilised species in farming systems should be promoted and encouraged.
• Community-owned and – managed nutrition gardens need to be set up in all panchayats to address malnutrition of the landless.
• Farming systems for nutrition should include aquaculture and fisheries, as food from these are naturally bio-fortified with micronutrients and other beneficial nutrients.
• Pulses and millets need to be included in the state public distribution system.
• Demand for nutrition-rich crops and foods should be generated through Behaviour Change Communication.
• Linkages with the Swachh Bharat Movement are needed to complement nutrition.
• A knowledge portal on naturally bio-fortified crops and plants with appropriate agronomic practices should be created.

The three-day consultation was organised with the support of Tata Trusts. Around 300 stakeholders from agriculture, nutrition, health and related domains from across the globe and within India attended the meet. They included scientists, experts in nutrition and agriculture, farmers, policy makers and NGOs. Also present was the 2016 World Food Prize laureate, Maria Andrade, from the International Potato Centre, Mozambique.

The occasion marked other milestones as well. The Tamil Nadu Nutrition Knowledge portal was launched in partnership with UNICEF. The 27th Annual Report of MSSRF was released. A booklet detailing Farming Systems for Nutrition – a farmer-led, location-specific approach to reduce malnutrition – was released too.

(Courtesy: The Hindu/ MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai).

September 2017