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Production for enhanced food security

(Surinder Sud)

 “Achieving food security in times of crisis”.  This is the theme for this year’s World Food Day being celebrated on October 16. This is as aptly relevant for India, grappling with drought this year, as for the world reeling under economic crisis that has hit the poor harder than the rich, jeopardising their livelihood and food security.

India has, no doubt, won the battle against famines and starvation deaths, which have become the thing of the past, thanks to spectacular upswing in foodgrain production since the green revolution of the late 1960s. The country’s grain coffers are brimming over, holding nearly 53 million tonnes of wheat and rice on July 1, 2009, as a result of consistent  rise in foodgrain output in past few years. The food output has grown annually, on an average, by 1.98 per cent between 2004-05 and 2008-09, which is higher than the estimated population growth of 1.5 per cent during this period. Yet, there is rampant disguised hunger and malnutrition. More than one-fifth of the country’s population is reckoned to be undernourished in terms of energy and protein intake.

Globally, too, the picture is not too different. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reckons that nearly 105 million people have been added to the list of hungry in 2009 itself, swelling the total number of malnourished people in the world to whopping 1.02 billion. Simply stated, this means that almost one-sixth of all humanity is suffering from hunger.

This is the state of food intake alone. But the modern concept of food security goes far beyond the availability and accessibility of staple food. It includes the man’s need for safe drinking water, clean surrounding environment and health cover. Livelihood security, essential for ensuring economic access to food, is intricately related to food security. Sanitation and shelter are also part of the broad new concept of food security.

The widely accepted definition of food security in the modern context is: ‘physical, economical, social and environmental access to balanced diet and clean drinking water for all and forever’. This is slightly different from classical concept of food security which, in simple terms, deems it a situation where all people at all times have sufficient food to meet their dietary and nutritional needs to lead a healthy and productive life. This makes it imperative to ensure food security at least at three levels – national level (macro level food security), household level and individual level (micro level food security to facilitate equal access to food to women, especially pregnant women, and young girls).

Where macro level food security is concerned, India is well protected. While the country’s population has nearly doubled between the initial years of the 1970s (when the fruits of the green revolution had begun to accrue) and now, the foodgrain production has increased more than that – from about 90 million tonnes then to nearly 134 million tonnes now.

This has transformed the country from a net food importer to an occasional food exporter. More importantly, this has increased the per capita availability of foodgrains – from 183 kg in 1971-1975 to 193 kg in 2006-07 – despite the increase in the population.

What is highly significant here is that the output of relatively more nutritious food items, such as fruits, vegetables, fish, milk, meat and eggs, has risen faster than that of staple foods. This has implications for nutrition security. Reduction in poverty and improvement in income levels have, together, made food economically accessible to more people. This is reflected in decrease in the per capita consumption of cereals and increase in that of non-cereal foods like fruits, vegetables, fish and animal products. The bitter truth, however, is that neither poverty has totally been eliminated nor food could be made economically accessible to all. As a result, ensuring food security to all is still a challenge.

Fortunately, the need for enhancing food security has seldom been lost sight of by successive Governments in India ever since Independence. This has been sought to be achieved through several policy initiatives and administrative measures. Besides consistent efforts to boost foodgrain production and augment food availability through imports, when necessary, a massive public food distribution system (PDS) has been created to provide physical access to food throughout the country. Massive subsidies are given on food items for different classes of people, depending on their income level to make the food economically affordable for them.

Moreover, social welfare schemes, involving food as a component of assistance, and food-for-work kind of programmes are launched with the dual objective of providing food and alleviating poverty. The most significant recent initiatives in this direction that have attracted attention worldwide are the passage of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) and proposal to pass a similar law for guaranteeing statutory right to food. Such measures can potentially take care of both food security and livelihood security. Presently, over half of the country’s population is covered by one or the other scheme in which subsidized food is made available to the beneficiaries.

Another significant recent measure is the setting up of a National Food Security Mission (NFSM) which essentially aims at boosting the production of foodgrains like rice, wheat and pulses. This mission already seems to have made an impact on the output of rice and wheat though the production of pulses still continues to fluctuate widely from year to year.

However, there are several formidable threats to food security. The physical health of soil, including its fertility, is deteriorating due to extraction of more nutrients from it than are added to it annually. The carbon content of the soils is decreasing due to lesser than required application of organic manures. Several micronutrients, vital for getting good crop yields, are becoming deficient. The yields of several key food crops are tending to reach the plateau. Water is also becoming scarce. Achieving a quantum jump in food production is difficult under such circumstances.

The biggest challenge to food security has been posed by the global warming and the resultant climate change. The studies conducted by the New Delhi-based Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) have indicated the possibility of around 4 to 5 million tonnes loss in the country’s overall annual wheat production with every rise of 1 degree Celsius in temperature. The output of other food crops is also likely to be hit by the climate change-induced erratic weather, more frequent droughts and floods and other stresses caused to the food crops.

Though the climate change has begun to create problems for food production all over the world, but the developing countries, especially of South Asia, are believed to be the most vulnerable to its adverse affects. A recent comprehensive assessment of the impact of climate change on agriculture, made by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), has indicated that the yield of wheat may drop by as much as 50 per cent by 2050 from 2000 levels in South Asia. The productivity of rice is projected to dip by 17 per cent and that of maize by 6 per cent by that time. This study has also indicated that the prices of food crops like wheat, rice, maize and others will rise by between 121 per cent and 194 per cent by 2050 due to factors related to climate change. This, coupled with decreased yields of these crops, will threaten food security of some 1.6 billion people in South Asia and render 25 million more children malnourished world wide by 2050.

Calculations by the FAO have indicated that agriculture in developing countries would need an investment of around US $ 30 billion to achieve the goal, set by the World Food Summit in 1996, of reducing the number of hungry people by half by 2015. However, the FAO has also said in a statement on the occasion of the World Food Day 2009 that the world has the ability to find money to solve problems if these problems are considered important. “Let us work together to make sure hunger is recognised as a critical problem, and solve it,” the global food body has asserted.


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