Food to nutrition security: What can the Budget offer?

Tags: Opinion

There is huge wastage in the supply chain, which needs immediate government attention

The policy emphasis of the Indian government has so far been on food security.

However, a recent study by the authors titled, “India’s Phytonutrient Report: A snapshot of fruits and vegetables consumption, availability and implications for phytonutrient intake”, found that although India is one the largest producers of fruits and vegetables, there is a significant shortfall in intake of fruits and vegetables among the younger generation in India, especially within the student community.

Lifestyle, seasonality and high prices have been cited as the three main reasons for low consumption. Inflation, price fluctuations across markets and sudden shortages of some key vegetables such as onions and tomatoes have been well-documented. A prime cause for price fluctuation is that the produce is not reaching the consumers due to fragmented supply chain and multiple intermediaries. Also, there is huge wastage in the supply chain which needs immediate government attention.

Focusing specifically on nutrition intake, the WHO panel on diet, nutrition and prevention of chronic diseases recommended a daily intake of at least 400 grams (or five daily servings with an average serving size of 80 grams) of fruits and vegetables, excluding potatoes, cassava and other starchy tubers to prevent diet-related chronic diseases and micronutrient deficiencies. A number of medical research also shows that different types of fruits and vegetables provide a variety of phytonutrients, which promote a range of health benefits and reduce the incidence of illnesses such as cancer and stroke.

A survey conducted by the authors in NCR, Mumbai, Kolkata, Hyderabad and Chennai, found that respondents in the middle and upper income groups across all cities and type of diet (vegetarian, non-vegetarian, etc.) fall short of the WHO-recommended daily intake. However, the shortfall is highest for the respondents in the age group 18-25 years, with only 2.97 servings per day. The intake among the students is even worse at 2.94 servings a day or around 234 grams/day. This is a cause for concern since the youth and students will be the future workforce of this country.

The study also found that only 11 per cent of the 1001 survey respondents are aware of the WHO recommendations and the need to have the right quantity of different nutrients to prevent lifestyle related diseases.

It is now high time for the government to move a step forward from ensuring food security to ensuring nutrition security. In the upcoming budget, funds can be allocated to raise awareness about the benefits of fruits and vegetables consumption in the desired quantity. Government funded institutes such as the IITs, IIMs and other universities where the food is subsidized should be encouraged to serve fruits and vegetables during the meals in their canteens. Mid-day meals for children should also include fruits and vegetables. This will inculcate a habit of consumption of fruits and vegetables and lead to a healthy nation.

Further, the study shows that in India, there are limited options (for example, cut, processed, tinned and frozen) in which fruits and vegetables are made available to the consumers. A number of consumers have raised concerns that they are unable to get fruits in chopped format or salad at work or during classes. Even if they get so, they are worried about the high price and poor quality. Organic and clean and processed fruits and vegetables attract higher prices. High taxes are one of the main reasons for high prices of processed produce. Often the students cannot afford the prices.

The government should lower the taxes for processed fruits and vegetables and bring it at par with countries in the ASEAN. This will not only increase consumption but will also encourage the growth of manufacturing of fruits and vegetables and attract investors to this sector as has been the case of countries such as Thailand and Malaysia. While over 75 per cent of the sample of 1001 respondents across five metro cities wanted to buy organic fruits and vegetables as they consider it to be more hygienic and free of pesticides and chemicals, only around 29 per cent actually buy organic products. Apart from high price there is a shortage of such products.

The government through appropriate tax incentives should promote organic cultivation. This will also increase exports as a number of fruits and vegetable, which are exported to countries in the European Union and the United States have been rejected in the past due to wrong usage of chemical and pesticides.

Last but not least, while subsidy has lead to the construction of cold storages, it has not led to the usage of cold storages and the establishment of the entire cold chain network from farm to the Indian consumers. The cold chain network can be established through lower taxes and operation-linked incentives rather than construction-linked subsidies. Subsides should be targeted towards pack houses and development of infrastructure in states which have shortages. A subsidised infrastructure developer should also offer subsidised rates to users such as farmers.

Unless they get a competitive rate farmers will not use the cold chain infrastructure for domestic consumption. They will only use it for exports and highly perishable produce such as milk. Right subsidy and tax policy can help to streamline the food supply chain and ensure nutrition security.

(The authors are professor, Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) and assistant professor at IIM, Bangalore)

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