Countering malnutrition

With a population of over 1.2 billion, of which 224 million people live below the poverty line, can India afford to be callous about wasting food? If the 2016 Global Hunger Index (GHI) is any indicator, it would seem from the country's poor ranking that it really does not care about massive quantities of food going to waste even as unacceptably scores of people are forced to go to sleep hungry night after night.

The GHI is a tool that is used by the US-headquartered International Food Policy Research Institute to comprehensively measure and track hunger at the global, regional and country levels. The GHI scores are based on four indicators – undernourishment, child wasting, child stunting, and child mortality. The 2016 GHI placed India in the 97th position among a total of 118 countries. With a GHI score of 28.5, the country was just a notch above North Korea in the ranking but behind countries like Nepal, Myanmar, Botswana, Swaziland, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Mali. These countries secured relatively better GHI scores than India and hence were ranked ahead.

A recent report titled 'Stolen Childhoods' by Save the Children estimated that 48.2 million children under the age of 5 in India were either moderately or severely stunted. With a stunting prevalence of 39 per cent, the country was home to the highest number of stunted children in the world, the report said. In attributing stunted growth to chronic malnutrition in the first 1,000 days of a child's life, it added that stunting was caused by, and contributed to, vicious intergenerational cycles of poverty.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines stunting as impaired growth and development that children experience from poor nutrition, repeated infection and inadequate psychosocial stimulation. Children are considered stunted if their height-for-age is more than two standard deviations below the WHO Child Growth Standards median.

It needs to be understood that malnutrition covers two broad groups of conditions. The first is undernutrition, which includes stunting (low height for age), wasting (low weight for height), underweight (low weight for age), and micronutrient deficiencies (lack of necessary vitamins and minerals). It is generally prevalent among people who can't afford nutritious food or do not have access to nutritious food. The second condition includes overweight, obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases and is the result of dependence on foods that are high in sugar, fat, and salt, primarily due to cheaper costs and easy availability.
Given that malnutrition and poverty are inextricably linked, it is not surprising that the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4), 2015-16, found the prevalence of wasting among children to be high in all states in comparison to global standards. In Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and Meghalaya, more than 40 per cent of the children were found stunted. The Survey further revealed that in 10 out of 15 states/Union Territories, more than half of the children were anaemic, while in 11 states/UTs, more than half the women were anaemic.

On the one hand, India continues to be plagued by malnutrition, particularly the condition of undernutrition, but, on the other, it witnesses colossal wastage of food. A 2015 study titled 'Assessment of Quantitative Harvest and Post-Harvest Losses of Major Crops and Commodities in India' by ICAR – Central Institute of Post-Harvest Engineering and Technology (CIPHET), Ludhiana, estimated that the annual value of harvest and post-harvest losses of major agricultural produces at the national level added up to Rs. 92,651 crore. The amount was arrived at using production data of 2012-13 at 2014 wholesale prices. The study assessed the cumulative wastage for fisheries - marine at 10.52 per cent followed by poultry (6.74 per cent), pulses (6.36 per cent - 8.41 per cent), fisheries – inland (5.23 per cent), cereals (4.65 per cent – 5.99 per cent), fruits and vegetables (4.58 per cent – 15.88 per cent), oil seeds (3.08 per cent – 9.96 per cent), meat (2.71 per cent), and milk (0.92 per cent).

A study on global food losses and food waste conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in 2011 found that roughly one-third of food produced for human consumption was lost or wasted globally, which amounted to 1.3 billion tonnes per year. It said that food was wasted throughout the food supply chain, from initial agricultural production down to final household consumption.

There are various reasons for food losses and waste such as premature harvesting, insufficient food processing facilities and inadequate market systems. One primary cause though is the lack of infrastructure and poor storage facilities. Fresh products like fruits, vegetables, fish and meat straight from the farm or after the catch often spoil due to the extreme climate since facilities for transportation, storage, cooling, and markets are inadequate.

In 2015, the National Centre for Cold-chain Development, Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, conducted a study to assess the requirement of the cold chain infrastructure in the country. It estimated a gap of 3.28 million tonnes in cold storage space (bulk and hub). The study also highlighted an all India gap of 69,831 modern pack houses, 52,826 reefer vehicles and 8,319 modern ripening chambers. As of March 2017, the Ministry of Food Processing Industries was assisting 135 integrated cold chain projects under the central sector scheme for integrated cold chain and value addition infrastructure, of which, 97 had achieved completion and commenced commercial operations. Also, the Centre had approved the taking up of 100 new integrated cold chain projects in 2016-17 for financial assistance.
The National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre has initiated a host of measures in the last three years to boost the creation of cold-chain infrastructure and enhance the cold storage capacity in the country. However, despite the various initiatives, it can't be denied that the sector needs greater governmental support and a focused direction for future development.

According to the Centre for Public Policy Research, a Kochi-based think-tank engaged in research on economic, social and political issues, lack of post-harvest storage facilities in the country led to wastage of about 18 per cent of fruits and vegetables every year. In a paper released in December 2016 on the government's role in India's ailing cold storage sector, it said that the cold storage sector had been one of the most undermined sectors in the country, devoid of investment, in spite of various government policies and subsidies. While linking the issue of malnutrition and poverty to the nation's inability to store or refrigerate food products, the paper said that only 2 per cent of produce in India were held or transported using cold storage facilities as compared to 85 per cent in the US.

For decades, India has accorded the highest priority to building roads and highways and power generation, considering these sectors are critical for economic growth. It is now time that creation of cold chain infrastructure in the country also received the same kind of support from the government. Boosting cold storage capacity will not only directly benefit the food processing and agriculture sectors but also help fight hunger and malnutrition.

(Views are strictly personal.)

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