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India needs to strengthen supply of fruits and vegetables

Nov 25, 2016

Fresh and raw fruits and vegetables (FVs) are the richest sources of these micronutrients, writes Shweta Khandelwal.

New Delhi: The current government focus and sentiments to ensure that the national food security bill is implemented across the nation merits applaud. However public health and nutritionexperts, feel this push may be lop-sided and short-sighted.

Hunger needs to be relinquished, but a balanced nutritious approach from early stages will go a much longer way in ensuring we don’t produce calorically-fed but micronutrient deficient vulnerable population.

Globally, more than 2 billion people have one or the other form of micronutrient deficiencies. This translates to one in three people at the risk for mental impairment, poor health, low productivity, and even death in the coming years. The adverse effects of micronutrient deficiencies on children’s health and survival are particularly acute, especially within the first 1,000 days (from conception to two years of age) of a child’s life, with potential for resulting in serious physical and cognitive consequences. But this is preventable!

Fresh and raw fruits and vegetables (FVs) are the richest sources of these micronutrients. The happy news is that India is one of the top producer of fruits and vegetables. The sad and unfortunate part is we don’t consume enough. The World Health Organisation recommends at least 400g of a variety of FVs (5 servings per day)but our national average is not even 40% of that. Why is that so? There are a number of reasons for this.

The Global Panel of Agriculture’s Foresight report confirms that India is rapidly moving away from traditional diets to highly processed, energy-dense, micronutrient-poor foods and drinks, which is fuelling obesity and diet-related chronic diseases. The food and beverage industry chokes down billions of rupees in advertising and promotion of junk foods which makes a common man believe that it’s ok to consume those.

Another serious challenge is the pricey nature of FVs. Not only in this demonetisation climate, FVs are generally more expensive and less give satiety than road-side samosas or aloo-puri or pakoras. Despite high production, the resulting supply of FVs as well as their relatively high cost as compared to less nutritionally dense foods, is one of the barriers to achieving the recommended amounts. This high cost results from several factors including post-harvest losses, climatic conditions, poor transportation and storage infrastructure facilities, dependency on intermediaries (like middle men or retailers).

FVs are undeniably the healthiest in all parts of the world for all ages. Still they are seen as optional adjuncts to meals. People are not aware of the dire consequences of not consuming enough of these. Qualitative studies tell us that most growers sell them off in order to get money which they in turn use for buying packaged ultra-processed snacks and junk foods.

Choosing health over taste is not easily accepted and adopted. This is even more challenging to explain because unhealthy eating doesn’t cause major problems overnight. The risk factors take a few months or years to build up predisposing us to chronic diseases. Generally people don’t like to acknowledge those health risks when making day to day eating decisions.

However, the good news is that in the last decade alone, our agriculture focussed programs and policies grew substantially including initiatives like the National Crop Insurance Scheme, and Horticulture Mission (focus on FVs). We mapped the policy landscape pertaining to FVs. Of the 29 current policies related to agricultural supply-chain sectors (from production till it reaches to consumers), 14 were newly developed and 6 had been revised by the Government of India in the past 10 years. Fruit and vegetable production is prioritized as part of this, particularly through the Mission on Integrated Development of Horticulture. However, policies to support FVs specifically – as a high value crop both economically and nutritionally – are limited, and support for FV production and supply (including storage, transport and marketing) are generally embedded in broader agricultural policy initiatives. Often FV crops may be marginalized in these broad policy documents. We also observed little formal integration of nutritional considerations in agricultural policy; the main policy focus is on exports, employment, livelihoods and economic growth.

How can one further strengthen FV supply chains in India? We must step up fostering research and innovation to improve efficiencies, reduce wastage, and improve healthy competition; Improving collaboration and coherence in policies across the supply chain; strengthening policy implementation across sectors drawing on expertise from the Ministry of Food Processing and Industry, Department of Agriculture (National Horticulture Board), Department of Health, and Industry.; improving provision of infrastructure for storage and transport of perishable produce; strengthening demand for FVsby individuals and institutions as high value crop both economically and nutritionally through targeted awareness activities, media supported social advocacy.

Shweta Khandelwal is an Associate Professor at Public Health Foundation of India.

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