Veena Rao: Forging a link between agriculture and nutrition in the Karnataka Nutrition Mission, India

In India, where at least 50% of the population is undernourished and anaemic, any comprehensive strategy to address the problem requires every possible intervention, including the most logical, but elusive step of linking agriculture to nutrition. This linkage has been a substantive part of the international and national discourse on undernutrition for several decades. It forms part of India’s National Nutrition Policy 1993, and the National Plan of Action on Nutrition 1995, though the recommendations have not been put into practice. As of now, to the best of my knowledge, there is no national or state programme in India linking agriculture with nutrition, or ”leveraging agriculture to improve nutritional status.”

The agriculture-nutrition linkage is emphasised in the “Leadership Agenda for Action of the Coalition for Sustainable Nutrition Security in India, 2008,” led by Professor MS Swaminathan. It particularly emphasises planning agriculture, horticulture, and animal husbandry, at a village level to benefit food and nutritional security. The agriculture nutrition linkage, in whatever manner it can directly benefit the undernourished, and to whatever extent it can be practically implemented, has been incorporated in the Karnataka Nutrition Mission (KNM) strategy.

After its announcement in 2011, KNM initiated discussions with the State Agriculture Department on how best to operate the agriculture-nutrition linkage on the ground. Most suggestions were traditional, such as, promoting kitchen gardens, and generating an awareness about the consumption of traditional whole grains and local greens that are gradually losing out to rice or junk food. I have just returned from pilot projects in the rural areas of Gubbi and Shikaripur Blocks, and I found that junk food is marketed in plenty, even in remote villages. Kitchen gardens in low rainfall areas, where undernutrition is highest and water is scarce, are difficult to maintain, and have failed even in the pilot projects. Where water is adequate, villagers grow them anyway.

The most valuable and necessary link between agriculture and nutrition that undernourished families require today is the production of low-cost energy foods from local agricultural produce, such as green gram, soya bean, millets, wheat, ground nuts, and jaggery. This is already the main intervention of the KNM. It is important to ensure that this produce is consumed by  target groups such as children under three, pregnant and nursing mothers, and adolescent girls, to bridge their protein-calorie-micronutrient deficit. And since the private sector has failed to provide India’s poor access to low-cost energy foods in the market, they are being produced by women’s self help groups, guided by the KNM and our NGO partners. Our NGO partner in Gubbi Block is the Mahatma Gandhi Rural Development Society, and in Shikaripura Block it is the United Social Welfare Association.

Another important linkage that needs to be forged between agriculture and nutrition is based on a rather disturbing ground reality, not much talked about. Though India is the second largest horticultural producer in the world, at least 30% of our nutritionally valuable horticulture produce is wasted each year during harvest and post-harvest stages, because of a lack of primary processing and storage facilities. A study conducted by Assocham in 2013 has estimated the loss at Rs 2 lakh crores a year, (approx US $ 33 billion). This against the background of our alarming nutrition indicators is an outrage by itself. Cold chains and cold storages have not reached most rural areas and will not for a long time, because of acute power shortages. Hence zero energy cooling and dehydrating technologies, and solar dryers designed by several renowned rural technology institutes in India are the only solution for the preservation of fruit and vegetables at primary level, and prevention of national waste. The next step is to establish networks to make them available for consumption by the community, especially the undernourished sections.

A feasibility study in this regard has already been initiated by the KNM through the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, supported by the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, (GAIN). A situation analysis of horticultural produce in the KNM blocks—the quantities consumed, marketed, processed, and wasted—is presently going on. Initial data confirms considerable post harvest wastage. The study will suggest appropriate rural technologies that can be used for preservation at a primary level, involvement of women’s self help groups, promoting community awareness regarding consumption by the community, and the most effective marketing/distribution models to make it reach the community. The study should be completed early next year, after which we hope to pilot its recommendations.

This additional agriculture-nutrition intervention of making low-cost nutritionally rich horticulture products available to the poorest families is bound to have a positive impact on improving their nutritional status.

Veena S Rao is adviser, Karnataka Nutrition Mission.