By Jimoh Babatunde
India Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, in New Delhi, said that rapid growth in agriculture, though necessary, is not sufficient to produce desirable nutritional and health outcomes among the socially and economically disadvantaged groups of the community.
Speaking at the inaugural session of the International Conference on Improving Health and Nutrition through Agriculture organized by the International Food Policy Research Institute, Dr. Manmohan Singh noted that malnutrition remains a serious problem in India and many developing countries.
“Globally, nearly 1 billion people still go hungry. Nearly one in four children under age of five is underweight. The problem of hidden hunger—that is, deficiencies of essential vitamins and minerals, such as iron, Vitamin A and iodine — is also severe.”
While noting that the issue of nutrition is a serious challenge that has not received the attention it truly deserves, the Indian PM said malnutrition is not only a consequence of poverty, it is also a cause of poverty
“A malnourished child is more vulnerable to disease and less able to earn a leaving. The complexity of causes that underlie malnutrition calls for a multi-sectoral strategy to address the three key issues of availability, access and absorption.”
The Prime Minister added “experience has also shown that rapid growth in GDP in general and, even agriculture in particular, though necessary, is not sufficient to produce desirable nutritional and health outcomes among the socially and economically disadvantaged groups of the community.”
He said the fight against malnutrition must incorporates the issues of absorption of nutrition, health and hygiene, which in turn depend on many other factors such as the availability of clean drinking water, sanitation and also on the education and status of women in society.
“The Integrated Child Development Services is probably one of the oldest and largest programmes in the world to address the problem of child malnutrition.
“We have been looking at how to improve this programme and have recently added an element of direct cash transfers for pregnant and nursing mothers.”
Dr. Manmohan Singh disclosed that their first priority in India has been to ensure food security which in turn requires a high order of self sufficiency. “Cereals and pulses are the staple food of the people of India. We have naturally focused attention on ensuring adequate production of these products to meet the needs of our population.”
He added “Food grains however are only one part of the solution. With economic growth and changing dietary habits, demand for fruits and vegetables, milk and milk products, meat and fish, is steadily increasing. This is entirely natural. Good nutrition requires a balanced diet through multiple food sources.”
The Indian PM said agricultural diversification in food requires back up support in terms of viable delivery and marketing chains because much of the agricultural produce is perishable.
“Rapid growth in agriculture, particularly that which diversifies the food basket while ensuring adequate availability of energy and other basic nutrients, combined with other activities and initiatives in health, hygiene and women’s education will help overcome poor health, hunger and malnutrition.”
Speaking earlier, Shenggen Fan, Director General of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) said agriculture is much more than just producing food and other products.
“It is linked to people’s well-being in many ways, and it has the potential to do much more to improve their nutrition and reduce their health risks. “
To work toward this goal, IFPRI organized the conference, “Leveraging Agriculture for Improving Nutrition and Health.” The event will bring experts together from all three sectors to take stock of current knowledge, share information and best practices, and build consensus on the actions most needed to move forward.
Agricultural scientists have traditionally focused on developing more productive crops and livestock and on reducing their susceptibility to disease. But the conference organizers contend that by incorporating nutrition as a goal, researchers and breeders could provide farmers with a wide range of healthier products. For example, breeding crops with higher levels of micronutrients like vitamin A and iron can potentially reduce death and disease, especially among women and children.
“Increasing crop productivity overall is not enough. A new paradigm for agricultural development is needed, so that agricultural growth leads also to improved nutrition and health,” said Fan.
Research suggests that agricultural growth, if done right, is the engine to reduce poverty in developing countries. But according to “The Nexus between Agriculture and Nutrition,” a paper released at the conference, individual subsectors within agriculture, such as staple crops or livestock, have different effects on development outcomes, including on nutrition and health, and policymakers need to pay attention to these differences.
Improvements in other factors such as land distribution, women’s status, rural infrastructure, and health status, can have a positive effect on nutrition, the paper contends. Complementary investments in rural roads, nutrition programs, and other targeted interventions can make a huge impact.