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India needs to enlarge its food basket, say experts

Feb 12, 2009

Excessive dependence on cereals like wheat and rice has resulted in skewed dietary habits among Indians, say food experts. According to them the country needs to revive its rich agro-biodiversity to meet the challenges of food crisis and nutritional deficiency.

Bangalore, Karnataka: Food security experts say India must wean itself away from dependence on wheat and rice and look to the sub-continent’s rich agro-biodiversity in order to address the kind of food crisis that hit the country last year - as well as longer-standing nutrition deficiency issues.


Traditionally Indians have depended on a vast variety of grains and cereals such as millet, maize, corn, barley, rye and lentils, as well as a variety of temperate and tropical fruits and vegetables to keep themselves in good nutritional health, according to noted environmentalist Ashish Kothari.

But a skewed agricultural policy and a subsidised public distribution system (PDS) has limited millions of poor and middle-class Indians to a diet that leans too heavily on wheat or rice, ignoring especially the nutritional value of coarse grains, said Kothari.

"The reason only rice and wheat are promoted in the PDS system is because rice and wheat were promoted as chemical monocultures under the ‘Green Revolution’,” said Vandana Shiva, the internationally-known, India-based food security expert.

"Every PDS unit should have all the grains necessary for health and should be procured as close to production sites as possible,'' said Shiva

''Inhibitions preventing a universal, decentralised, biodiverse PDS system are the ‘monocultures of the mind’, the tendency towards centralised systems, the pressures of agencies like the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation as well as the power and influence of agri-business,’’ Shiva said.

Shiva pointed out that crops such as corn, maize, rye, and millets do not enjoy subsidies that come in the form of a minimum support price to the farmer. "Wheat and rice available through the PDS have been forcing a dietary pattern centred around these two commodities.”

Exploring other options

"The production of these other cereals has become so negligible and is now spread over such a vast area that it will be difficult to procure and distribute and many consumers may not prefer it,’’ says Prof. R.S. Deshpande, director of the Bangalore-based Institute of Socio-Economic Change.

"Indian agro-biodiversity is the basis of health and nutrition’’

This forced dietary change, according to experts, is now beginning to tell on the nutritional status of Indians with some linking it to the rising incidence of diabetes in the population.

According to the National Family Health Survey released in 2008 over 50% of under-five children in India are stunted as a result of nutritional deficiencies. Anaemia alone affects 79% of children in the lowest economic strata and 64% in better-off families, according to the survey.

"Policy changes are clearly required to make it possible for people to adopt a healthier lifestyle. This should include making healthy food available at reasonable cost," reasons Dr. Ammini Ariachery, head of the department of endocrinology at the premier All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi.

"Indian agro-biodiversity is the basis of health and nutrition. The practice of cultivating crops in mixtures and rotations does not just ensure ecological balance, it also ensures health and nutritional balance,’’ Shiva asserts.

She pointed to ‘Baranaja’, the 12-seed cropping practiced since ancient times where different cereals are sown for multiple cropping complementing agro-climatic zones. "Soil fertility is continuously recharged by the use of leguminous plants like pulses.’’

"Baranaja gives higher overall productivity (apart from meeting nutritional and other needs)," according to Kothari. “Baranaja is India’s traditional yet scientific response to monoculture and the commercialisation of agriculture.’’

Another traditional practice is ‘Navadanya’ which involves the packing of nine different types of cereals packaged as a wholesome food for used in different preparations including in the making of bread.

But there are problems. "Inclusion of all crops in the minimum support price scheme may cripple the natural market functioning. Therefore, it can only be used selectively,’’ says Deshpande.

Specialists like Deshpande also say that given the vast diversity of agro-climatic regions in India, ranging from the temperate to the tropical and arid desert to humid coastal, calls for an agricultural policy that is specific to each state or region.

Policy support

According to studies carried out by the Deccan Development Society (DDS), a major NGO, sorghum lost 35% of its cropping area (from 18.56 million hectares in 1964-65 to 11.75 million hectares in 1994-95). Little millet lost nearly 60%, finger millet (ragi) lost 30% and pearl millet (bajra) 16% of its cropping area.

Coarse grain farmers have little irrigation support, have no subsidies for farmyard manure or other inputs

"It is significant that in the cases of sorghum, little millet and finger millet a drop in the cultivated area to the tune of 50% came about during a period that corresponds to the processes of structural adjustment and globalisation,’’ says P.V. Satheesh of the DDS.

A direct reason for the slow death of coarse grain production is India’s agricultural financing policy which is unsupportive or even hostile to rain-fed crops - and most coarse grains fall under this category.

Coarse grain farmers have little irrigation support, have no subsidies for farmyard manure or other inputs. Because they are not covered by crop insurance or by government support prices they are vulnerable to the vagaries of the market.

M.S. Swaminathan, one of the architects of India’s green revolution, believes that rehabilitating coarse grains - a classification of the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) - starts with renaming the valuable resource as ‘nutritious grains’.

"The calamity of micronutrient deficiencies and shortages can be converted into an opportunity for agro-biodiversity conservation by reviving the cultivation of these nutritious grains and enlarging the food basket,’’ said Swaminathan.

This calls for the revitalisation of on-farm conservation traditions, of tribal and rural families with reference to the cultivation of such grains, and their inclusion in semi-processed and processed food,’’ Swaminathan added.

Source : IPS
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