As a result of the ongoing health crisis surrounding COVID-19, food and nutrition security have become a global concern. Food security in India has not experienced immediate disruption during the pandemic due to good harvests in previous crop seasons, sufficient buffer stocks of grains, as well as a slew of welfare measures implemented by the Government to protect vulnerable populations, such as smallholder farmers and agricultural labourers.
Climate change has profound impacts on the agriculture sector. Malnutrition complicates the situation further. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, these challenges have now become even more challenging.
Due to the lockdown during the COVID pandemic, the vulnerable sections of society have had reduced access to nutritious foods. It is imperative that affirmative action be taken to make affordable, accessible and safe food available to all.
For transforming the food systems to address climate change and the burden of malnutrition, the following pathways have been suggested:
1. Refocusing public policies and investments:
The current agricultural policies in India must be repurposed for food systems transformation. Underlying policies like the Minimum Support Price (MSP) and the Public Distribution System (PDS), combined with subsidies on irrigation, power, and farm inputs, favour staple crops like rice and wheat. Sorghum and millets are both climate-resilient and nutritious cereals, yet MSP mechanisms are generally ineffective due to the policy bias in favour of the “big two” staples.
Several studies have suggested crop diversification to overcome such legacy incentives. However, farmers may not switch to a new crop production system unless their income from alternative crops is stable. Farmers’ behaviour can only be changed with adequate financial incentives (by making quality inputs, such as seeds, affordable and available), value-chain strengthening, and efforts to change consumer behaviour.
Furthermore, investments in the animal husbandry sector should be encouraged considering the growing demand for meat, dairy products, and eggs. Smallholder farmers and landless poor can earn more income by diversifying into small ruminants, backyard poultry, and aquaculture.
During the current COVID pandemic, reverse migration from the Green Revolution belt has presented a peculiar and unique opportunity. Since agricultural labourers have been migrating from cities to their villages, some states have been forced to promote crops like maize, soybeans, cotton, etc. During the rainy season.
2. Strengthening sustainable value chains:
Since smallholders dominate Indian agriculture, building farming aggregation systems (similar to those in Vietnam) might reduce transaction costs for participating in value chains. As a result, scale disadvantages will be offset and farmers will have easier access to inputs, technology, and markets.
The production of high-value agricultural products like fruits, vegetables, and dairy products should be prioritized. It would be a good idea to locate primary processing facilities as close to the farm gates as possible. As producers gather market information, digital agriculture tools could improve the overall management of the value chain.
Agri-tech startups and the private sector should be encouraged and logistics should be developed to strengthen value chains. It would be appropriate to use smart technologies (artificial intelligence; blockchains, etc.) and encourage the use of e-commerce and delivery companies to address the inefficiencies observed in the agricultural supply chains during the lockdown period. Farmer markets with favourable appetites for smallholders should be exploited. In addition to enhancing nutritional outcomes, local procurement of cereals, pulses, millets, and other nutritious food items for government programs like the ICDS and MDM would also increase livelihood opportunities for rural people engaged in the production, primary processing/value addition, and distribution of these items.
Indian government commitments under Atmanirbhar Bharat to build agriculture infrastructure recently promulgated agricultural trade and commerce regulations (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:
Consumers across the spectrum will adopt diets that will boost their immune systems in the post-COVID period. Governments need to create behaviour change campaigns in rural and underserved areas to generate consumer interest in a food system with low health risks. Nevertheless, behavioural change may not be achieved by such campaigns. There are several other factors that contribute to the change process, such as taste, affordability, convenience, and knowing how to prepare the desired food items in a palatable way. In India, government programs can be an excellent means of leveraging nutritious food products.
4. Investing in Research and Innovation:
It would be very productive to allocate more funding to research exclusively on nutrition-sensitive agriculture. Agricultural extension should focus on expanding localized production of diverse and bio-fortified crops. In addition, climate change’s impacts on the nutritional value of food crops (including that of specific varieties) must be investigated in order to make any necessary corrections.
Recent bio-fortified varieties have been developed and released by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) such as zinc- and protein-rich rice and high-protein quality, vitamin A-rich maize. ICRISAT has released India’s first bio-fortified sorghum variety, Parbhani Shakti, in Maharashtra. Bio-fortification of non-staple crops, such as pulses and lentils, should also be pursued by the research community. In the One CGIAR program, one of CGIAR’s strategic reforms, nutrition has been placed at the center of its agenda.
COVID-19 will undoubtedly drive major investments towards health infrastructure, but we cannot overlook the under-invested agricultural research and innovation eco-system, which would irreversibly damage the sector.
5. Empowerment of women:
There is evidence that women’s ownership of assets (agricultural lands, dwelling houses, etc.) is essential to their participation in household decision-making. To achieve positive nutritional outcomes, state land policies must address this sensitive dimension. Anaemia and malnutrition are also reduced with the education and empowerment of women, which can therefore be integrated into policy-level strategies.
6. Inter-sectoral synergy:
To achieve the goals of nutrition-sensitive programs, it is important to coordinate activities between various government agencies. Effective coordination at district and local levels (blocks or panchayats) should address operational issues as the national or state governments deal with larger policy issues. If we remove the obstacles to a streamlined public delivery system and transparent governance in the post-COVID scenario, we will reap the benefits.
Sustainable and nutritious food systems require multiple dimensions of planning and implementation. Agricultural policies must reorient towards sustainable food production systems that prioritize climate resilience, nutrition, and minimize risks for farmers, their families, and the communities they live in