Undernutrition In India Big Concern, Urgent Attention Needed: Experts

By PTI June 22, 2023

According to the Global Food Policy Report (GFPR) 2023, published this week by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), there were 768 million undernourished people worldwide in 2021, up 34.2% from the anticipated 572 million in 2014

Undernutrition In India Big Concern, Urgent Attention Needed: Experts
Despite decades of investment to solve this issue, India still has one of the lowest rates of child nourishment in the entire world.

Undernutrition, especially the deficiency of micronutrients, remains a big concern in India, say food experts who emphasised the need to focus more on tackling this "hidden hunger" that undermines the health of people.

Undernutrition denotes insufficient intake of energy and nutrients to meet an individual's needs to maintain good health.

The Global Food Policy Report (GFPR) 2023 launched this week by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) said that globally the undernourished population had increased to 768 million in 2021, marking a 34.2 per cent rise from 2014 when it was estimated to be 572 million.

Undernourishment was most prevalent in Afghanistan at 30 per cent between 2019 and 2021, followed by 17 per cent in Pakistan, 16 per cent in India, 12 per cent in Bangladesh, six per cent in Nepal, and four per cent in Sri Lanka, the report said.

Shahidur Rashid, Director-South Asia, IFPRI, noted that India is well placed when it comes to food production and availability, but there are challenges in terms of accessibility.

“One key component that is missing is the nutritional aspect of it, so eating enough rice and wheat is not enough for a healthy life. We have that issue in the country and those are the issues that the country should be focusing on in the future,” Rashid told PTI in an interview on the sidelines of the report launch here.

“For example, micronutrient deficiency, which is called hidden hunger, is high in India and in South Asia. So, we need to think about ways that can provide adequate micronutrients so that we can produce a healthy generation for the future,” he added.

Dr Ranjitha Pushkar, Country Representative for India and Research at The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), agreed with Rashid, noting that food insecurity may not be a big problem in India but nutritional deficiency definitely is.

“The nutrition levels (deficiency) are a big concern. It is expected that as heat levels rise, the nutrition quality or content of many of these crops, particularly the staple crops such as rice and wheat will (further) go down, so how do we compensate for that,” Puskur told PTI.

Dr Pramod K. Joshi, former president of the Agricultural Economics Research Association, India, noted that undernourishment is primarily a distribution problem rather than an issue of food security.

“India’s focus has been food security. In order to tackle undernutrition, you have to go for a diversified diet. The government cannot provide under the food distribution system the diversified diet.

“You need a different kind of policy response for nutritional security. Food security and nutritional security can not be managed by one policy,” Joshi told PTI.

Projections from IFPRI's IMPACT model show that with climate change as many as 72 million more people will be undernourished by 2050, as compared to a scenario without climate change, the authors said, quoting figures from a 2022 report by Asian Development Bank (ADB).

Rashid added that another important issue is how India produces food.

“It does so by subsidising fertilisers, by subsidising credit, by paying for the Food Corporation of India. There, India has issues because subsidy bills are ballooning and then there is the use of fertiliser not necessarily good for the soil in some cases,” he said.

"But there are some new initiatives - like the soil health card which will give us some sense about the deficiency of nutrients in the soil and if we can act accordingly then food will get micronutrients needed for a healthy life,” he said.

A Soil Health Card is a government scheme used to assess the current status of soil health and, when used over time, to determine changes in soil health that are affected by land management.

While India’s undernutrition problem has many reasons, experts say continued increases in carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations are also behind the reduction in the nutritional quality of foods.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on climate change and land (2019) says that while increased CO2 is projected to be beneficial for crop productivity at lower temperature increases, it is projected to lower nutritional quality.

A study in China suggests that high temperature during the early grain-filling period can result in an accelerated grain-filling process, reducing amino acid content in the grain which is an important nutritional quality trait in rice.

India still has one of the worst rates of child nourishment in the world, despite decades of investment to address this problem.

There are over 14 lakh severely malnourished children in the country, as per the government's Poshan Tracker, the Women and Child Development Ministry said.