Eternal vigilance for sustainable food security

Tags: Opinion
Eternal vigilance for sustainable food security
AFP
LAST RESORT: In this 2010 file photo, a street child eats a mango in Mumbai. The Food Security Bill is the last chance for India to overcome the widely prevalent under-nutrition in the country
On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Bengal Famine, the Indian Parliament is likely to enact a National Food Security Bill, which makes access to the minimum essential calories a legal right. The Chhattisgarh Food Security Act addresses the three major components of the hunger syndrome, which need to be attended to for every human being to have an opportunity for a healthy and productive life. These are: first, adequate dietary calories to prevent under-nutrition. Secondly, adequate quantity of proteins to fight protein hunger; and thirdly, eliminating hidden hunger caused by the deficiency of micronutrients like iron, zinc, iodine, Vitamin A and Vitamin B12.

Thus, the Chhattisgarh Act is designed to solve the hunger problem in a holistic manner. Under this act, protein hunger is to be eliminated through the supply of pulses, in addition to cereals, and hidden hunger is to be solved through fortified salt. I hope the ultimate version of the National Food Security Bill will also help to solve concurrently protein-calorie un­der-nutrition and micro-nutrient deficiencies induced malnutrition, since an integrated attack on the different components of hunger, as well as the provision of clean drinking water are essential to end the high malnutrition burden prevailing in the country.

The international food stock position and the price volatility prevailing in international markets make it clear that a legal right to food in our country can be sustained only with the help of home grown food. This implies that our farmers need more attention and assistance. To start with, the government should implement the National Policy for Farmers, placed in Parliament in November 2007. The policy proposed by the National Commission on Farmers, which I chaired, calls for a paradigm shift in the measurement of agricultural progress from just production figures to the improvement made in the real income of farmers. In other words, the policy calls for an income orientation to farming. Such a shift is nowhere in sight. If this shift does not happen, it will be difficult to attract youth to farming. The uneconomic nature of farming is accompanied by a steep rise in the price of farmland for use for non-farm purposes. This trend can be arrested only if farming yields good and stable income. A reversal of this trend is not happening, although there is realisation that the loss of every hectare of prime farmland will be a blow to the Food Security Bill.

The Food Security Bill provides the option for substituting grain with cash when necessary. While such a provision is obviously essential to meet contingencies like crop failure due to drought, flood, disease epidemics among others, this option should be available if only when it is impossible to provide grains. If this is not used as an option of last resort, the compulsion to procure from farmers wheat, rice, jowar, bajra, ragi, maize and other grains at the announced minimum support price will diminish. If procurement at assured and remunerative prices go down, production will go down. More than 60 per cent of our population depends on crop and animal husbandry, fisheries, forestry, agro-processing and agri-business for their livelihood. Therefore, both food and livelihood security will suffer, if our farmers are not supported with reliable markets, particularly in an era of climate change when farmers will have to face unfavourable changes in temperature and precipitation.

Along with steps to ensure that the food entitlement reaches all in need of social protection against hunger, speedy action is needed to address the economic and ecological challenges on the farm front. Unfortunately, the challenges arising from the cost-risk-return structure of farming are not receiving the attention they need. The Food Security Bill is the last chance for us to overcome the widely prevalent under-nutrition in the country. Our ability to implement the provisions of the bill in perpetuity will depend upon the enthusiasm and toil of our farm women and men. Unfortunately, the bill ignores this fact. The proposed Food Security Commissions at the state and national level do not include representatives of farmers. Fortunately, the parliamentary committee on my suggestion has suggested the inclusion of a farm woman or man in these committees.

Farm men and women constitute the genuine majority of our population. In the 200 districts with high malnutrition burden, identified by the prime minister’s council for nutrition, the most cost-effective method of eliminating hunger will be the integration of nutrition and agriculture. Agricultural remedies can be introduced for all major nutritional maladies. For this purpose, I have proposed a farming system for nutrition (FSN) initiative. After studying the prevailing nutritional disorders in the district and the crop-livestock integrated production systems adopted by farmers, suitable changes can be suggested. Cereal-legume (that is, pulses) rotation and the introduction of biofortified crop varieties (that is, crop varieties rich in micronutrients like iron, zinc, Vitamin A, among others) will help to integrate the nutrition dimension in the farming system. Biofortified animal feeds are also available. For example, poultry birds can be fed with quality protein maize (QPM), rich in both protein and the essential amino acid lysine.

2014 is the International Year of Family Farming. Family farming is both a way of life and the means to livelihood. If family farming becomes economically unviable, we will not only suffer in producing the quantities of foodgrains, essential for fulfilling the legal obligations enshrined in the Food Security Bill, but also an important component of our cultural heritage.

Obviously, the world’s largest social protection measure against hunger cannot succeed without pan-political support and commitment. There is no provision in the bill for this purpose. I hope that a National Food Security Authority cha­ired by the prime minister, with leaders of all major political parties and a few chief ministers of surplus and deficit states will be established. This will help to provide the, political oversight, monitoring and support essential for ensuring that chronic hunger becomes a problem of the past.

(M S Swaminathan is an agricultural scientist who led India’s green revolution)

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