Tackling Hunger and Malnutrition Key to Alleviating Poverty Globally and in India

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Dr Nilratan Shende

The General Assembly of the United Nations (UN) adopted the Agenda for Sustainable Development in September 2015. This agenda comprises of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that are to be fully achieved by 2030. The SDG agenda aims at laying the groundwork for creating a sustainable global environment with an emphasis on equal growth and development opportunities for all humankind.

Out of the 17 goals of the agenda, the second goal moots the roll-out of solution-based interventions to provide food security and sustenance to all human beings through sustainable agricultural practices. It aims at ending hunger in all its forms by 2030. The goal lays onus on the importance of access to quality and nutritious food as one of the key determinants of improved socioeconomic status. Reiterating the fact that large-scale starvation is a global humanitarian crisis, bodies like the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) have emphasised that the overwhelming priority focus of the SDGs should be on eradicating hunger and malnutrition by 2025, and not eliminating poverty by 2030.

Millions of people at the bottom of the income distribution chain around the world suffer from rampant hunger and malnutrition. With high food inflation lowering the purchasing power of poor households, they simply do not have the economic means to buy the right quantity of nutritious food and ensure the right calorie intake for their families. Women and children are the most vulnerable to widespread food insecurity and rampant under-nutrition.

Seen from a global perspective, a large part of the global population, especially from developing countries like India, are susceptible to the problem of endemic hunger. It has consistently been observed that food insecurity has been rapidly intensifying in conflict zones around the world. We also need to make a note of the fact that there is a direct correlation between lack of access to food and poverty. Millions of people at the bottom of the income distribution chain around the world suffer from rampant hunger and malnutrition. With high food inflation lowering the purchasing power of poor households, they simply do not have the economic means to buy the right quantity of nutritious food and ensure the right calorie intake for their families. Women and children are the most vulnerable to widespread food insecurity and rampant under-nutrition.

Emerging economies like India and other developing countries are witnessing the commercialisation of agriculture on a rapid scale. As a large number of farmers shift to planting cash crops which have a large sale value in national and global markets, the cropping pattern in these countries is undergoing a salient change. Bringing a large acreage of agricultural land under cash crop cultivation can exert adverse impacts on the environment in the form of reduced soil fertility, loss of biodiversity, and building of sediment in waterways. Shifting from the cultivation of cash crops, the government should encourage farmers to plant pulses which are a rich and inexpensive form of protein. Also as compared to cash crops, there are key varieties of pulses that are drought-resistant. They can be effectively cultivated in drought-prone regions that are arid and receive erratic rainfall spells. Cultivation of pulses can ensure food security and access to a healthy diet for vulnerable sections of the population who do not have access to alternate protein sources like fish, meat, and dairy products. Pulses can also be planted on small landholdings which can bring a sustained source of income for the marginal farmer, helping them escape a vicious cycle of debt and poverty.

To ensure equitable distribution of food grains to the lower strata of the population, there is an inherent need to revamp the Public Distribution System (PDS) in India. The country’s PDS is the largest food security programme in the world and covers around 60 per cent of the population. The government will need to ensure that food grains at affordable market prices are provided to rural households living below the poverty line in the country. Priority focus should be placed on bringing the end-beneficiaries within the ambit of the mainstream food distribution network.

A well-maintained and efficiently operated cold chain framework will not only minimise food losses in the post-harvest phase, improve the shelf life of food products but also ensure that emerging economies develop self-sufficiency in food procurement and reduce their reliance on foreign food imports.

The massive loss of food grains and wastage of food on a large scale can be said to the root cause of food insecurity and inequitable food distribution in developing countries like India. Building an efficient and robust cold chain infrastructure at the farm level is key to ensuring food and nutritional security, both on the national and global scale. Governments and concerned stakeholders the world over need to place priority focus on making cold chain development an integral part of agriculture sustenance and food security policies. A well-maintained and efficiently operated cold chain framework will not only minimise food losses in the post-harvest phase, improve the shelf life of food products but also ensure that emerging economies develop self-sufficiency in food procurement and reduce their reliance on foreign food imports.

The implementation of advanced cold chain solutions can help unlock the export potential of agro-commodities for countries like India providing employment opportunities to people across the agricultural value chain and helping to raise their income levels and standards of living. Very often, countries have to deal with climate extremes and inexplicable weather patterns in the forms of droughts and floods and have a weakening impact on agricultural activities and food security. In times of natural and man-made disasters, cold storages can play a vital role in functioning as a buffer mechanism for preventing food scarcity, malnutrition and ensuring food availability and accessibility, especially for marginalised sections of the population.

The cold chain infrastructure in India presently is poorly developed and fragmented. A synergistic approach between diverse value chain stakeholders comprising policymakers and industry players is the need of the hour to promote the implementation of cold chain technology. Emphasis must be placed on defining environmental sustainability, compliance controls and operational protocols which would lay the groundwork for the setting up of a technologically advanced Pan-India cold chain storage network. The government should also take the onus on rolling out key policy interventions to encourage and incentivise private players to set up cold storage units in the country.

The concept of food banks is not alien to poor and developing countries. A food bank plays a pivotal role in alleviating food insecurity and tackling hunger. It also ensures the equitable distribution of food to marginalised sections of the population who do not have the requisite purchasing power to avoid hunger and satisfy their nutritional needs. Food banks are vital to addressing the imbalances in situations of food surplus and deficiencies. They act as intermediaries and collect excess food from businesses, retail stores, manufacturers and individuals and redirect it to impoverished constituents of the society thus bridging the gaps in the supply of food to needy people.

In times of disaster when there is an acute scarcity of food, food banks can be the first critical point of response and ensure that vulnerable populations have access to healthy and nutritious food.

Food banks can facilitate a community-centric food distribution model at a local level that can eventually be scaled and expanded to a regional and state level. In times of disaster when there is an acute scarcity of food, food banks can be the first critical point of response and ensure that vulnerable populations have access to healthy and nutritious food. The functional role of a food bank can also go beyond that of providers and distributors of food. They can help in making a sustainable impact on communities by undertaking social empowerment and betterment initiatives. By tying up with stakeholders like Non-Profit Organisations (NPOs) and voluntary agencies, food banks can take the lead in holding substance abuse clinics, conduct menstruation and hygiene awareness programmes for women and promote skill-building among children from vulnerable sections of the population. By following an integrated development approach designed to boost the strength and resilience of communities, food banks can go a long way in proactively helping marginal sections of the population eliminate the spiral of debt and poverty.

On a global level, diverse stakeholders such as NGOs, academic institutions, and governments will need to come together. They will need to lead the drive in attaining global nutrition targets, reduce income inequalities, and alleviate poverty with a keen focus on rolling out food security programmes.

Dr Nilratan Shende is the GM-CSR at Allcargo Logistics.