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PM takes note of nation's nutrition index, reviews policies and strategies
Saturday, 12 February, 2011, 08 : 00 AM [IST]
Our Bureau, Delhi
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh addressed a conference on ‘Leveraging agriculture for improving nutrition and health’ in New Delhi, organised by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), as part of International Policy Consultation.

“Nutrition and health are issues are particularly topical today as the world faces rising food prices in many countries and there is growing recognition that climate change may endanger food security in many developing countries. Leveraging agriculture for improving nutrition and health, which is the central theme of this conference, is particularly important in developing countries where agriculture is also the mainstay of a very large number of people,”

In India, about 52% of the labour force depended on agriculture for the bulk of their incomes. Studies in India showed some correlation between agricultural performance of a state and the nutritional status of its people.

States that had high agricultural productivity also had lower malnutrition rates for both adults and children. But malnutrition was a complex process in which habits regarding feeding the new born babies, maternal and child health, and also water quality were at least equally important.

The prime minister said malnutrition remained a serious problem in India and many developing countries. Globally, nearly 1 billion people still went hungry. Nearly one in four children under age of five was underweight. The problem of hidden hunger—deficiencies of essential vitamins and minerals, such as iron, Vitamin A and iodine — was also severe. Nutrition was therefore a serious challenge that had not received the attention it truly deserved.

In India, rapid growth in agriculture with particular emphasis on the sub sectors growing food and on the poorer regions would help address issues of availability and access. But, experience had also shown that rapid growth in the GDP in general and, even agriculture in particular, though necessary, was not sufficient to produce desirable nutritional and health outcomes among the socially and economically disadvantaged groups of the community. There were other causes that needed to be addressed.

“We need to address 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. We do not see agricultural development as the only element in our strategy but it is nonetheless a key part of any viable strategy.”

“In India, our first priority 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”

The ‘National Food Security Mission’ launched a few years ago was designed to promote the spread of best practices that would increase productivity of food grains in areas and states where there was scope for such increase and there indeed was a scope for such increase.

The government was also supporting additional location specific interventions like Eastern Region Development Programmes to address underlying constraints to agricultural productivity and market opportunities. The constraints of infrastructure, various climatic stresses like moisture, salinity and floods were also being addressed.

The PM said that the government was also planning to focus on millets that had high protein, fibre and mineral content and were extremely important food grains for their nutritive value and health benefits. Sustaining high levels of production of food grains was essential for meeting the calorific and nutritional requirement of the population.

Food grains, however, were only one part of the solution. Good nutrition required a balanced diet through multiple food sources.

To support the development of a diversified agriculture, the government was promoting several schemes and programmes such as the National Horticulture Mission and the National Dairy Development Programme to boost the production of fruits, vegetables and milk products.

An integrated farming system promoting food grains, horticulture, and milch cattle, especially for the small and marginal farmers was the way to go forward in ensuring nutritional security.

An important point in that context was that agriculture was getting more feminised, with clear evidence that female participation was particularly high in the growing areas of milk and vegetable production. Income from these diversified activities went more to women and therefore, had a gender impact which would add to reduction of malnutrition among other things.

Agricultural diversification in food required back up support in terms of viable delivery and marketing chains because much of the agricultural produce was perishable. “We have not done as much as we should have to promote modernisation of agricultural marketing. I have asked the planning commission and the ministry of agriculture to focus particularly on this aspect in the 12th Five Year Plan. Modernisation of marketing inevitably implied a greater interaction and involvement of the private sector. We will work with the state governments to ease whatever impediments may exist in this regard.”

Research efforts have made it possible to bio-fortify some crops for better nutrition outcomes. Golden rice containing beta carotene provided the calories as well as nutritional supplements that took care of several diseases associated with vitamin A deficiency. Multi grain flour that mixed soya, oats and millets with wheat flour in different product combinations was yet another approach to meeting the challenge of malnutrition. In all these initiatives, the imperatives of food safety and quality were paramount.
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