As per the Global Hunger Index, India was ranked 107th out of 121 countries in 2022, which is a drop from the earlier ranking of 101 in 2021 and 94 in 2020. Today, over 194 million Indians remain undernourished, underscoring a severe food crisis despite the technological gains made through the Green, Yellow and White Revolutions. In India, between 1970 and 2022, foodgrain production increased from about 50 million tonnes (MT) to around 316 MT; horticultural produce increased from less than 150 MT to about 330 MT (197 MT vegetables, 103 MT fruits); production of pulses rose from 12 MT to around 27MT and of edible oils from less than 10 MT to around 23 MT. In Punjab, during this period, foodgrain production increased from 7 MT to over 30 MT, and horticulture production rose from 1 MT to over 7 MT (5.4 MT vegetables, 1.8 MT fruits).
Notwithstanding these achievements in food production and the implementation of the National Food Security Act to ensure food and nutritional security, millions of people in the country continue to grapple with hunger and malnutrition. This dire situation will persist in the future due to the widening food supply-demand gap with the progressively growing population, expected to be about 152 crore by 2030 and 170 crore by 2050, and the decelerating pace of food production in view of the intensely increasing pressure on soil and water resources. Moreover, the impact of climate change is expected to be huge; it may reduce India’s agricultural capacity by about 40 per cent and cause up to 30 per cent loss in yield of some staple crops by 2050. It will be challenging to sustain crop productivity and production to meet the needs of the growing population and ensure food security. A report of the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences says that by 2050, India will need 405 MT foodgrains, 342 MT vegetables, 305 MT fruits and 39 MT edible oils.
These figures represent a significant increase from current levels, and if production is not augmented, serious food shortfalls and food insecurity can be expected. India will not be able to meet the UN goal of a ‘zero-hunger world’ by 2030. Higher production has to be achieved in the face of continuously degrading soil health, depleting water resources, climate change and a weak agricultural policy. Therefore, for achieving assured food security, emphasis should be on the selection of site (soil, water) suitability-based high-yielding crops and their varieties; enhancing the capacity of farmers to adopt climate-resilient technologies judiciously to produce more from every unit of time, land, soil, water and inputs (fertilisers, pesticides and energy), and that too sustainably; and anticipatory adoption of strategies for guarding of the food production system against various risks to agricultural production.
India also faces the complex challenge of nutritional insecurity. Strategies for the development of agriculture cannot be limited to just increasing agricultural production for food security; a paradigm shift is needed to pursue technology-based strategies for achieving assured food and nutrition sustainability. There is a silent epidemic of malnutrition despite improved food production. A report of FAO (2018) shows that about 14.5 per cent of the Indian population remains undernourished.
Undernutrition is severely reducing the performance capability of the people and eventually hurting the economy of the country. The main reason for the persistence of malnutrition is a nutritionally poor diet due to inadequate access (particularly of resource-poor, income-deficient population) to fruits and vegetables. It is reported that the average per-capita daily consumption of fruits and vegetables in India is well below the required quantity of at least 400 gm.
Innovation through the convergence of agriculture with biotechnology has the potential to be the frontier in developing nutritionally enhanced food crops for combating malnutrition, just as gene and technology-based Green Revolution ensured food self-sufficiency in the country. Biofortification of crops via biotechnology, especially of high-yielding cereals, vegetables, fruits, pulses, etc. with increased bioavailable concentrations of essential nutrients such as proteins, minerals and vitamins can greatly contribute towards future breakthroughs in mitigating hunger and malnutrition and achieving sustainable food and nutrition security. A good example is golden rice, which is fortified with vitamin A and iron. Other examples include lysine and tryptophan-rich quality protein maize, vitamin A-rich orange, iron-rich pearl millet and lentil, zinc-rich wheat and coloured wheat rich in anthocyanins (antioxidants) and zinc.
Policies for achieving food and nutrition security must take cognisance of the implications of food losses. The achievements of record foodgrain and horticultural production cannot be considered satisfactory when up to 40 per cent of the food is wasted — equivalent to Rs 92,000 crore a year — and never reaches the needy. Prevention of this wastage could feed about 50 million people per year. Minimising post-harvest losses along the entire supply chain (production to consumption) by increasing infrastructure for integrated cold chain, storage and food processing industries for perishable products and providing scientific storage of foodgrains will be a resource-efficient way to improve food availability and fighting hunger and malnutrition sustainably.
The government and policy-makers must understand that dynamic short-term and futuristic long-term implementable policies and adequate investments are required to mitigate hunger and malnutrition. It is imperative that policies are formulated and implemented effectively for strengthening research and development activities, incentivising farmers and helping them technologically as well as financially for judiciously adopting strategies to achieve assured food and nutritional security in the future.
The author is former Director of Research, PAU, Ludhiana
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