Diversified Traditional Food Systems Can Overcome Malnutrition in India

THIRD WORLD NETWORK INFORMATION SERVICE ON SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE

 

Dear Friends and Colleagues

Diversified Traditional Food Systems Can Overcome Malnutrition in India

Worldwide, 2 billion people are affected by hidden hunger (micronutrient de?ciency), of which 225 million (or 9%) are from India. There, 14.5% of the total population are undernourished, 21% of all children in the age group 0-5 suffer from wasting, 38.4% of all children in this age group range suffer from stunting, and 51.4% of women in the reproductive age-range suffer from anaemia.

A comprehensive nutritional assessment of local, traditional food systems and diets of rural and indigenous communities in India was conducted. It found that structural inequalities due to unresolved land ownership issues and the embedded inequalities of caste, class, gender and geography have prevented access to resources (land, water, forests and the commons in general) that have led to serious malnutrition, chronic hunger and starvation.

Furthermore, economic liberalisation and associated trade policies have led to an increased corporate takeover of the food system. By framing the problem as one of nutritional composition rather than poverty, the food problem was viewed as a technical rather than a structural problem. India’s focus on a production-calorie strategy to eradicate hunger, starting with the Green Revolution, has intensi?ed protein energy malnutrition and micronutrient de?ciencies by destroying local, traditional food systems. Solutions like supplementation and forti?cation of food are primarily top-down and uniform solutions that do not consider the political, cultural, economic and socio-ecological contexts of malnutrition. The industrial agricultural system has further reduced women to labour whereas traditionally, women are keepers of knowledge on food, nutrition and agriculture.  

On the other hand, communities are a rich repository of knowledge around resilient food systems built on lived experience. Their food systems are nutritionally diverse and rich. Nutritional analyses of the communities’ diets show that their foods can meet and counter malnutrition including micro-nutrient malnutrition such as Vitamin A de?ciency.

The communities and researchers involved in this study strongly assert that the way to comprehensively address macro and micronutrition de?ciencies is to focus on nurturing diverse traditional food systems and the associated transgenerational knowledge system and its uses within the community. Integral to this strategy are ensuring that the voices of the people, including women, are heard, and addressing unequal land-ownership through self-governance by local communities.

With best wishes,

Third World Network
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Malaysia
Email: twn@twnetwork.org
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EXPLORING THE POTENTIAL OF DIVERSIFIED TRADITIONAL FOOD SYSTEMS TO CONTRIBUTE TO A HEALTHY DIET

Food Sovereignty Alliance India & Catholic Health Association India
2018

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Nutrition and health of a people, particularly in an agrarian country like India, rests on its food and agricultural system. India’s traditional diets are complex, nutritionally diverse and have evolved from self-reliant, decentralised food systems embedded in a local socioecological and political context. Present day food systems in India, as in the rest of the world, are largely shaped by a centralised, extractive, fossil-fuel based, industrial agriculture and food systems. The nutritional and biological diversity of traditional diets have been steadily eroded through degradation of the natural resource base on which it rests.

The most recent United Nations global analysis on nutrition, ‘The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2017’ states “As large companies increasingly dominate markets, highly processed foods become more readily available, and traditional foods and eating habits are displaced.” The report identi?es changing food systems and diets as one of the many driving forces behind global increase in malnutrition and hunger in 2016 after over a decade of steady decline. The report ?nds that in 2016, 815 million people or 11% of the global population were reported undernourished. In India, 14.5% of the total population are undernourished, 21% of all children in the age group 0-5 suffer from wasting, 38.4% of all children in this age group range suffer from stunting, and 51.4% of women in the reproductive age-range, suffer from anaemia (FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO. 2017).

To address malnutrition both globally and in India, technical and market-based solutions (supplementation, forti?cation of staple food and highly processed food, bio-forti?cation), are being offered as the most effective approaches. These are primarily top-down and uniform solutions that do not consider the political, cultural, economic and socio-ecological context of malnutrition. In India, technical ‘?xes’, particularly bioforti?cation, are increasingly becoming central to policies and programmes to address hunger and malnutrition. The role of communities and their traditional, nutritionally diverse food systems with knowledge and practices based on lived experience, does not form a part of the decision-making process of these approaches.

Globally, there are a few voices such as Olivier de Schutter, former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food who are calling for “clear exit strategy to empower communities to feed themselves.” Another prominent voice is that of Fabio da Silva Gomes, Of?cer of the National Cancer Institute of Brazil, Ministry of Health, External Affairs Secretary of the World Public Health Nutrition Organisation who has expressed that “all forms of malnutrition are expressions of food systems’ failures. Adopting arti?cial and simplistic measures to ?x one of these expressions might result in the perpetuation and production of old and new problems. Policies of adding nutrients to foods, culinary ingredients or ultraprocessed products are biologically and socio-politically arti?cial ways to mend the failure of a food system. When a country decides to adopt them, it means that they are endorsing that its food system and biodiversity have collapsed and are no longer able to solve the expressions of malnutrition resulting from this failure.”

Given the ?ndings of the United Nations 2017 analysis on nutrition, the ef?cacy of technical ‘?xes’ in addressing malnutrition need to be questioned. In this context, rural and indigenous communities from different parts of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana States of South India wanted to examine the validity of these technical proposals, through a comprehensive nutritional assessment of their own local traditional food systems and diets. They were keen to understand whether (i) their traditional food systems provide a balanced diet, (ii) their traditional diets warranted forti?cation. Based on this examination they wanted to offer a set of collective proposals to address the troubling questions of malnutrition. These communities, members of the Food Sovereignty Alliance (FSA), India, joined hands with the Catholic Health Association of India (CHAI), to carry out this enquiry.

Findings of the Study

To set the context for the community enquiry a historic review of India’s agricultural and food policies was carried out through a desk study. Some of the salient observations made by the review are as follows:

  1. the trajectory of food and agricultural policies from the colonial period, through the post-Independence period to economic liberalisation in 1991 and thereafter, has severely compromised India’s nutritional security. On the one hand the policies during the pre-liberalisation period put in place safety nets such as the public distribution system (PDS), mid-day meal scheme and Integrated Child Development Schemes to address malnutrition and hunger while on the other they laid the foundation for the industrial food system. The focus was on a production-calorie strategy to eradicate hunger starting with the Green Revolution. Whilst calori?c de?ciencies showed a declining trend during the pre-liberalisation period, it intensi?ed the protein energy malnutrition and micronutrient de?ciencies by destroying the local, traditional diets and food systems. The shrinking public ?nancing of public food procurement and distribution systems, post-liberalisation, has deepened the nutrition crises.
  2. structural inequalities due to unresolved land ownership issues in India and the embedded inequalities of caste, class, gender and geography have prevented access to resources (land, water, forests and the commons in general) that have led to serious malnutrition, chronic hunger and starvation. This is compounded by an erosion of cultural and genetic diversity (in seeds, breeds, ways of production, accessing, preparing, sharing and consuming food). This fallout of the larger economic agenda which has privileged industrial agriculture and agri-business has severely compromised the resource base of the traditional food systems;
  3. the economic growth dominated model and associated policies have led to a degradation of the resource base on which diverse food systems and cultures have evolved over time. It commoditised food crops, milk and ?sh taking them out of the reach of those on whose labour the industrial food system was being built.  Economic liberalisation and the associated trade policies have led to an increased corporate takeover of the food system. This has severed the interconnections and dependencies that characterise ‘whole food’ systems necessary to sustain health;
  4. to address the problems caused, the industrial food system shifted the focus to nutrients and nutritionism. By framing the problem as one of nutritional composition, poor eating habits etc., rather than poverty, lack of access to resources, marginalisation of communities, the food problem has been de-politicised once again. It is promoted as a technical rather than a structural problem. Health education and supplementation which were largely implemented by the Government have been replaced by forti?cation and bioforti?cation which are more market driven and technology intensive, a shift termed by some analysts as “trade in nutritional health.”
  5. whether it is the production-caloric view or the nutritionism view, both perpetuate the idea that food is primarily a vehicle for delivering nutrients. The richness of the cultural, social, ecological and spiritual meaning of food has been replaced by a reductionist view that deems local, traditional diets as inferior, inadequate and nutrient-de?cient. This systematic appropriation of the idea of food has put the corporate food system at the helm of affairs, which is dictating what we eat, and our understanding of health and well-being;
  6. across communities women are keepers of knowledge around food, nutrition and agriculture. The industrial agricultural system which is inherently patriarchal has reduced women to labour. It is disempowering them through token measures in the name of land rights and rejecting their knowledge by supporting an external input-based, technocentric food and agricultural model;
  7. consumption patterns are being dictated by the ‘supermarket revolution’ and a food retail business that is increasingly being dominated by multinational agribusiness corporations – both international and domestic. What this has done is created increasing dependence on ‘convenience’ and processed foods ostensibly to ease the woman’s ‘burden’. Added sugars, salts, preservatives, synthetic forti?ers, hormones and antibiotic fed processed meat and eggs have destabilised the nutritional balance of a large section of the population. The affluent urban and rural Indians, as well as poor Indians who are being supplied unhealthy palm oil as the primary source of cooking oil via the PDS, and also forced to buy this global trade-subsidized cheapest oil in the market, are beginning to experience the diseases of affluence – obesity and obesity-linked complications including hypertension, diabetes and skeletal disorders.

The disconnect between agricultural and food policy and India’s nutritional challenges continue. The State continues its increasingly aggressive push towards further integration into the international market and corporatisation of the agricultural system. This is compounded by the State’s absolving of its Constitutional responsibility of “raising the level of nutrition and standard of living of its people and improvement in public health”.

Hope however is visible in the form of several communities of resistance across the country working at shedding the spectre of deprivation and malnutrition.

The community enquiry involved communities of adivasis and marginal farmers, landless and agro-pastoralist from dalit, backward castes and Muslim communities, examining their own traditional food systems and diets. It was spread across six villages of Sangareddy district, Telangana and Chittoor, East Godavari and Srikakulam districts of Andhra Pradesh. The enquiry provided clear evidence of the following:

  1. the communities’ food systems are nutritionally diverse and rich in nutrients. For e.g., over 80 to 100 different kinds of seasonal, wild, cultivated and uncultivated foods form a part of their regular diet. These continue to be strongly embedded in the local ecological and cultural context. Nutritional analyses of these diets show that the foods can meet and counter malnutrition including micro-nutrient malnutrition such as Vitamin A De?ciency (VAD). An important aspect of these diets is that they do this in a holistic and comprehensive manner;
  2. communities are a rich repository of knowledge around resilient food systems (production, storage, nutritional and medicinal properties) built on lived experience. This is of signi?cance particularly in the context of challenges to food production and nutrition from climate change.

In light of the above, communities strongly and emphatically reject the introduction of forti?ed foods and other similar technical ?xes (e.g., genetically engineered forti?ed rice – Golden Rice) in their diets, which are redundant given the comprehensive base of their own food systems. The communities propose that the State should support policies and programs that will nurture and strengthen their holistic socio-ecological systems of food and agriculture.

Way Forward

The communities and everyone involved in this enquiry, strongly asserts that the way forward, to comprehensively address macro and micronutrition de?ciencies, is to focus on nurturing the diverse traditional food systems, enriching their potential to contribute to nutritionally complete dietary patterns. It must also nurture the associated transgenerational, knowledge system and its uses within the community as well as the ease of assimilation of these foods into the routine diets of the communities.

The foundation for such a strategy to build holistic health must open and expand the spaces for people’s dialogue and participation: spaces that have been closed by the expert-driven ‘nutritionism’ approach who know the problem and prescribe technical solutions. Such a strategy must also break the silence of women who are at the heart of the traditional food system, who provide the lived experience of hunger and malnutrition, as also the knowledge to overcome the same. To understand the political and social landscape of food the voices of the people must be made audible so that the dialogue around food is moved away from the privileged spaces dominated by academic, technical, and medical credentials and corporate control and become embedded in communities and in practice.

Integral to this strategy is the governance of the resource base, particularly the urgent correction of unequal land-ownership, as also socially just governance of the commons, on which the food system rests. Self-governance by local communities who know these areas intimately – cycles, access, availability, scarcity/abundance etc. – is critical to sustain these diets and systems rather than State rules and top-down Government regulations.

To nurture the traditional diets and food systems described through this study, public investment and Government support is critical. The support required is to facilitate communities to transition from a largely chemical-based system of monocrop commodity production, to cultivating for consumption ?rst, traditional foods without chemicals. This will automatically also bring in the natural wild and uncultivated greens and vegetables back onto the ?elds.

What is important to recognise is that in the absence of this transformative strategy, it is impossible to eliminate malnourishment and ensure holistic health and nutrition. The idea of nutrition and therefore food and agricultural systems are a product of the socio-technical system – one which needs to dominate geopolitically. These include (i) agribusinesses which are using nutrition as a differentiator in the market, (ii) Governments that are subsidizing via public resources the advance of corporate agribusiness to expand quick-?x responses to health problems, and (iii)  the nutrition science and technology complexes responsible for both magnifying nutritional risks and marketing their industrial solutions.

Traditional knowledge and food systems together with developments in agroecological systems with their diverse and contrasting systems of resource governance, knowledge, innovation, distribution and access are the basis for a future of holistic health. Where they are at the heart of the struggle for a sovereign and just food and health system they are providing the basis for (i) challenging and resisting further erosion of our food and agricultural system and (ii) building healthy communities. These are the seeds of hope and resilience for the future.

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