Agro-biodiversity and malnutrition
Oct 20 2013
Within the overall canvas of biodiversity, we are rich in genetic variability in economically important plants. Such variability in plants of economic value is referred to as agro-biodiversity. Several agro-biodiversity hotspots are predominantly inhabited by tribal families. Although these tribals have a conservation ethos which results in their paying considerable attention to maintenance and enhancement of natural resources, economic and public policy compulsions often lead to a shift in their attention from endemic agro-biodiversity to modern high yielding varieties. Genetic homogeneity leads to genetic vulnerability to biotic and abiotic stresses and this, in turn, necessitates the use of chemical pesticides.
In a recent book, Towards an Era of Biohappiness: Biodiversity and food, Health and Livelihood Security (2011), I have shown how to convert these hotspots into happy spots by using agro-biodiversity for creating more food, jobs and income in an ecologically sustainable manner. At present, a considerable segment of the local population, particularly women and children, suffer from the following three major kinds of endemic hunger.
(1) Calorie deprivation arising from poverty induced under-nutrition; (2) Protein hunger caused by inadequate consumption of pulses or milk, fish and meat and (3) Hidden hunger caused by the deficiency of micronutrients in the diet.The challenge before us is the development and adoption of agricultural strategies which can help alleviate poverty and malnutrition in agro-biodiversity hotspots. Predominantly inhabited by tribals, these areas are characterised by culinary and curative (medicinal plants) diversity. Women play a key role here. Over centuries, they have conserved for public good, at personal cost, rich genetic variability. More recently, the government, through the National Plant Variety Protection and Farmers’ Rights Authority, has started recognising their contributions through the genome saviour award. The following issues are relevant in this context:
(1) Commercialisation as a trigger to conservation — we need to standardise methods of creating an economic stake in conservation, thereby helping to improve the economic well-being of the primary conservers. (2) Methods of promoting integrated attention to conservation, cultivation, consumption and commerce, in order to ensure that a representative sample of existing genetic diversity in preserved for posterity. (3) Strategies for marrying nutrition and agriculture, so that nutri-farms can be promoted. (4) Promoting farming systems for nutrition (FSN) which can provide agricultural/horticultural remedies to the prevailing nutritional maladies.
The malnutrition situation in India is a cause for concern. Recent surveys indicate that 22 per cent of the Indian population is undernourished and 40 per cent of children below the age of 3 years are underweight and anemic, while 33 per cent of women aged between 15-49 years have a below-normal BMl. The Nutrition Advisory Council has identified 200 high malnutrition burden districts, many of which fall under agro-biodiversity hotspots.
I have been involved in the development of two policy initiatives to tackle this situation. First, the National Food Security Bill (2013) has included nutri-millets in the public distribution system (PDS). These underutilised or orphan crops (referred to officially as ‘coarse cereals’) will be made available at Rs 1 per kg. This will open up greater market opportunities for these nutritious and climate smart cereals, thereby providing an incentive to both conserve and cultivate them. The greater the opportunity for remunerative marketing, the greater will be the interest of the farm families in the agro-biodiversity hotspot areas to conserve them. Hence, the widening of the food basket to include millets in the PDS is an important step in converting ‘hotspots’ into ‘happy spots’. Secondly, the Union finance ministry has provided Rs 200 crore in the budget for 2013-14 for starting a pilot programme on nutri-farms. In such nutri-farms, crops rich in micronutrients like iron-rich bajra, protein-rich maize, vitamin A-rich sweet potato and zinc-rich wheat will be introduced.
Based on the knowledge gained so far, we can launch during 2014, which has been designated as the international year of family farming, an “Every family farm a nutri-farm” movement. Such a movement should have the following strategies: (1) Enhance productivity and profitability of small holdings. (2) Eliminate protein hunger through the production and consumption of pulses, milk and egg, among others. (3) End micro-nutrient malnutrition through the use of naturally occurring and biofortified crops. (4) Mobilise all government programmes to end hunger and issue every family with a nutrition entitlements passbook. (5) Bring about convergence and synergy among food and non-food factors such as the benefits of the Rajiv Gandhi Drinking Water Mission, Mahatma Gandhi Total Sanitation Programme and National Rural Health Mission, among others. (6) Integrate the gender dimension in all interventions and pay particular attention to pregnant women and to the first 1,000 days in a child’s life. A resource centre should be developed in every village to derive benefit from the agro-biodiversity and nutritional knowledge of tribal and rural women.
The major goal of this initiative should clearly be of conserving, cultivating and consuming diversity in order to address the twin challenges of poverty and malnutrition.
(M S Swaminathan is an agricultural scientist who led India’s green revolution)