A farmer ploughs his field in Kurnool, Andhra Pradesh. Photo: P Srujan, ICRISAT

6 Ideas to transform food systems in a post-COVID-19 India

A farmer ploughs his field in Kurnool, Andhra Pradesh. Photo: P Srujan, ICRISAT

A farmer ploughs his field in Kurnool, Andhra Pradesh. Photo: P Srujan, ICRISAT

Adapted from the author’s keynote speech at the Food Systems Dialogues 2020.

The ongoing health crisis around COVID-19 has raised global concerns on food and nutrition security. India has not seen immediate serious disruptions in the food system during the pandemic primarily because of good harvests in the previous crop seasons; sufficient buffer stock of grains, and a slew of welfare measures declared by the Government to protect vulnerable populations e.g. smallholder farmers, agricultural laborers, migrant workers, etc.

The impacts of climate change on the agriculture sector are profound. The challenge of malnutrition adds to that burden. These challenges are now exacerbated by the uncertainties due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The lockdown during the COVID pandemic has raised serious concerns on reduced access to nutritious foods by the vulnerable sections of the society. This calls for affirmative actions on making safe and nutritious food available, accessible and affordable.

In this context, the following pathways are suggested to transform the food systems to tackle the twin challenges of climate change and the burden of malnutrition:

1. Refocusing public policies and investments:

A food systems transformation in India requires repurposing of existing agricultural policies. Underlying policy regimes like the Minimum Support Price (MSP) and the Public Distribution Systems (PDS), coupled with subsidies on irrigation, power, and farm inputs, are skewed in favor of staple crops like rice and wheat. Although MSP mechanisms exist for climate-resilient and more nutritious cereals like sorghum and millets, they are largely ineffective because of the policy bias in favor of the “big two” staples.

Crop diversification is often suggested to correct such legacy incentives, but unless farmers’ income from alternative crops is stabilized, they may not be willing to switch to a new crop production system. The shift in farmers’ behavior can only be possible with suitable financial incentives during the transition (making quality inputs, such as seeds affordable and available), value chain strengthening, and efforts to change consumer behavior.

Similarly, investments in the animal husbandry sector should be pursued considering the rising demand for meat, dairy products and eggs. Diversification to small ruminants, backyard poultry and aquaculture provide additional income to smallholder farmers and the landless poor.

The reverse migration that has been reported from the Green Revolution belt during the current COVID pandemic has offered a peculiar, yet unique opportunity. The movement of agricultural laborers from cities to their villages has now forced some states to promote crops such as maize, soybean, cotton, etc. in the ongoing rainy season.

2. Strengthening sustainable value chains:

Since Indian agriculture is dominated by smallholders, aggregating small farms (like small farm, large field concept in Vietnam) could help reduce transaction costs for accessing value chains. This will also offset scale disadvantages and benefit the farmers to access inputs, technology, and the market.

Agricultural production should focus on high-value agricultural products like fruits, vegetables and dairy products. As far as practicable, primary processing facilities should be established closer to the farm gates. Digital agriculture tools could assist producers to gather market intelligence and provide for better management of the entire value chain.

Government policies to incentivize agri-tech startups and the private sector, and to develop logistics to strengthen value chains should be prioritized. The inefficiencies noticed in the agricultural supply chains, particularly of perishables, during the lockdown period, can be suitably addressed by use of smart technologies (artificial intelligence; block chain, etc.) and encouraging e-commerce and delivery companies. Opportunities for smallholder farmers with a favorable market appetite must be harnessed. Operationalizing local procurement of cereals, pulses, millets, and other nutritious food items for government programs like the ICDS and MDM would not only help achieve nutritional outcomes, but also enhance livelihood opportunities for rural people engaged in the production, primary processing/value addition and supply of these items.

The Agriculture Infrastructure Funds committed by Government of India in its stimulus package under the Atmanirbhar Bharat, the recently promulgated Ordinances on agricultural trade and commerce (agricultural marketing) as well as price assurance and farm services agreement (contract farming) and promotion of FPOs would definitely be beneficial for farmers with effective implementation and cooperation by the States.

3. Consumer Behavior Change:

In the post-COVID period, consumers across the spectrum will want to adopt diets that can boost their immune systems.

To create consumer interest in a food system with low health risks, the government must create behavior change campaigns in rural and underserved populations. However, such campaigns may not be sufficient to achieve behavioral changes. Several other factors, like taste, affordability, convenience and knowing how to prepare the desired food items in a palatable way would influence the change process.

Government programs can be great delivery channels to leverage nutritious food products in India.

4. Investing in Research and Innovation:

Enhanced allocation for research exclusively devoted to nutrition-sensitive agriculture, would be a very productive investment. Expanding localized production of diverse and bio-fortified crops should be a priority item for the agricultural extension system. Moreover, climate change’s impacts on the nutritional content of food crops (including that of specific varieties) must be investigated in order to make the necessary corrections.

Of late, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), has developed and released a good number of bio-fortified varieties, such as zinc- and protein-rich rice and high-protein quality and vitamin A-rich maize. ICRISAT has developed and released India’s first bio-fortified sorghum variety, Parbhani Shakti, in Maharashtra. The research community should also pursue bio-fortification of non-staple crops, such as pulses and lentils. The CGIAR system in its new strategic reforms, the One CGIAR, has put nutrition at the forefront of its agenda.

While the COVID-19 pandemic will expectedly drive major public investments towards health infrastructure and related resources, we should not omit the under-invested agriculture research and innovation eco-system, as that would irreversibly damage the sector.

5. Empowerment of women:

Evidence suggests that women’s asset ownership (agricultural lands, dwelling house, etc.) is critical for their participation in decision making within households. State land policies must address this sensitive dimension to achieve positive nutritional outcomes. Education and empowerment of women is also positively correlated with reduced prevalence of anemia and malnutrition; therefore they must be included in policy-level strategies.

6. Inter-sectoral synergy:

Coordination between various government bodies is essential to achieve desired goals of nutrition-sensitive programs. While the national or state governments address larger policy-level issues, effective coordination at district and local levels (blocks or panchayats) should take care of operational issues. In the post-COVID scenario, removing the obstacles of siloed approach in public delivery system and governance will positively pay off.

Multiple dimensions of planning interventions and implementation are crucial for achieving sustainable and nutritious food systems. Agricultural policies must reorient towards sustainable food production systems that necessarily focus on climate-resilience and nutrition and minimize risks to the farmers, their families and communities.

About the author:

Dr Arabinda Kumar Padhee

Director, Country Relations and Business Affairs – New Delhi,

The author is grateful to Prof. Prabhu Pingali, Director, Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition (TCI) at Cornell University, USA, and Dr Jacqueline Hughes, Director General, ICRISAT for their guidance in shaping these thoughts.

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