Will food security offer nutrition security? : Dr Vilas Ramrao Shirhatti


We live in a technologically advanced world which has adequate knowledge, intelligence, technology and natural and human resources to provide nutritional and food security to every human being including the most poor and the vulnerable. We just need the will and commitment to make it happen

Providing nutrition security to every human being must be the ultimate goal and not just a dream of any civilised society. Food security which ensures affordable access to proper diet is a major contributor to achieve this goal but certainly not the only one. India cannot achieve its dream of becoming a developed nation and an economic power without adequately addressing the nutrition and food security.

Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) defines nutrition security as a situation that exists when secure access to an appropriately nutritious diet is coupled with a sanitary environment, adequate health services and care, in order to ensure a healthy and active life for all household members. Nutrition security differs from food security in that it also considers the aspects of adequate caring practices, health and hygiene in addition to dietary adequacy. From the definition it is clear that the task of ensuring nutrition security is a complex challenge requiring a 360 degree approach in which every element of improving quality of human life must be addressed. Providing nutritional security also needs involvement and commitment of government, policy makers, hospitals, institutes, Non Governmental Organisations (NGO)’s, universities, nutritionists, food technologists, agriculturists and finally the family and individuals.

The recent passing of the food security Bill in Parliament which talks not only of food security but also nutrition security is sure to bring sharp focus and debate on the goal once again. These issues have been raised in the past and successive five-year plans laid down policies and strategies for achieving this goal. However, looking at the existing scenario in the country many of these policies and strategies either have not been effective or they have not been implemented properly and we still have an uphill task of achieving nutrition and food security for all.

Nutrition security encompasses all Indians. It is not just the poor and the vulnerable ones but even Indians who have food security are also not assured of nutrition security. The consequences of nutrition insecurity are very evident and are scary, the major one being malnutrition whose aetiology is very complex. Malnutrition includes both under nutrition in terms of macro and micro nutrients but also over nutrition leading to obesity.

At present we have more than 50% of Indians, especially children and women, suffering from protein and calorie malnutrition (wasting and stunting) and/or micronutrient deficiencies. At the same time we also have around 25% Indians, especially school going children, becoming obese and this number is increasing rapidly. More than 60% of women are anaemic, which results in more than 40% of the infants having low birth weight causing problems in their full development to adult-onset and making them susceptible for lifestyle diseases.

Vitamin D deficiency is almost becoming universal. The consumption of fruits and vegetables, the most important sources of micronutrients and phytonutrients, is already very low and steep increase in prices of these important dietary components is likely to make it go down further. Not only India has become a capital of diabetes and cardiovascular diseases but the average age of onset of these diseases is also rapidly coming down affecting even school children, which raises several new issues about managing these diseases and the cost burden.

To add to this we lack proper food packaging, storage and distribution facilities. The poor infrastructure development has resulted in many Indians not having access to and affordability to proper sanitation, clean drinking water and proper healthcare and most importantly a meaningful employment that ensures a dignified life. Increasing pollution, rapidly changing lifestyles and increased stress levels are only compounding the problem. Not only have we not been successful in eradicating polio, TB and malaria but have added the burden of the new millennium diseases like AIDS, bird flu, H1N1 flu, dengue etc.

The Harvard School of Public Health has, in a study on economic losses due to non-communicable diseases (NCDs), estimated that the economic burden of these ailments for India will be close to $6.2 trillion for the period 2012-30. This is despite India becoming the youngest country in the world by 2020 with 64% of its population being in the working age. All this also has a huge burden on GDP and carbon footprint.

Let us focus our attention to food security which would mean a situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. Nutritional science has advanced to a level where we clearly understand the role of various essential macro and micronutrients. Technology offers various nutritionally dense products in the form of functional foods, health supplements, and nutraceuticals that when administered over and above a regular healthy diet ensures positive nutrition leading to an active and healthy life. Some key steps to ensure food security, a major contributor to nutrition security, are as follows.

a) We must understand the specific nutrition needs of various sub groups like infants, children, adults and geriatric populations. Women’s needs and specifically that of pregnant women, lactating mothers must be specially understood and addressed. Based on nutritional science we do know their specific nutritionally needs, but what we must clearly identify is the hidden hunger which is the gap between what is needed and what these groups are getting today. Based on this data we should plan programmes to address the gap and monitor them.

In India we have lack of data base that provides reliable baseline as we have never focussed on this area. One keeps getting various figures on cases of malnutrition from various sources and we also know that the reality is even more frightening. We tend to depend more on trends and statistics coming from West when it comes to making health related decisions. We must have mechanisms to track down the benefits of any food security programmes to continue. There is an urgent need to develop and sustain programmes to ensure that the specific nutritional needs of various people are met and the benefits are properly quantified. This would also need involvement of all machineries involved in providing health services.

b) Should have nutrition oriented agriculture model to produce quality and quantity of food to meet the needs at an affordable cost. Agriculture is the main provider of the basic balanced diet and also provides active engagement to a large part of the population. We have issues like top soil erosion, increasing nutritional deficiencies of soil, indiscriminate use of chemicals and pesticides, the fatigue set in by the green revolution, issues of whether GM crops that help design enriched food be allowed, easy access to education, finance and technology to farmers that need immediate attention.

As per data of the Nutrition Security Institute of USA the average total mineral content mainly calcium, phosphrous, iron and magnesium in apple has gone down from an average 92mg in 1914 to 19 in 1992. In the same period the average mineral content in major vegetables has gone down from 400mg to 75mg on an average. This is happening because of nutritional deficiencies in the soil. By providing an apple a day we cannot assure to keep the doctor away any more. Use of contaminated water and indiscriminate use of pesticides is leading to alarming increase in heavy metal content and pesticide residues in vegetables. It is time to seriously consider the traditional organic farming. Promoting traditional food practices that are fast disappearing, promoting use of nutritionally rich pseudo cereals like ragi, pearl millet, foxtail millet is need of the hour. These crops also would require less water, a scarce resource, as compared to rice and wheat. There is an urgent need to revamp our current agricultural model and policies to make it more sustainable and nutrition oriented.

c) Implement proper packaging, storage and distribution systems to ensure minimum wastage and that the food reaches the target group when it is needed. Food is after all a perishable item and cannot be stored forever.

d) Provide information, education and communication at all levels even up to family and individual. For awareness generation some nutrition courses must be introduced at school and college level irrespective of the stream. Proper training courses will have to be designed for all those involved in the implementation of measures to achieve food security. How many consumers actually read and understand the nutri chart that is on every packed food sold. Do purchase decisions get made based on the nutri chart? The food purchase decisions in normal household are still not based on nutritional information but more on impulse and replacement mode. If one has to ensure 5 (100gms per serving) servings of fruits and vegetables one needs to buy at least 14kg of fruits and vegetables which is rarely the case even in affluent households. The edible oil purchased in many household is in far excess of the recommended levels. In such cases there is a need to cut down oil even at the purchase stage. Once it is purchased then it is bound to be consumed. In one survey almost 75% consumers thought higher calorie number in the nutri chart meant healthier food. Female health, especially pregnant and lactating women and women empowerment and education need special focus to ensure their health and health of the new generation.

e) Ensure all policy decisions regarding production, distribution and promotion of food and anything related to food supply chain are science based and data/facts based. Make the new food law an enabler in ensuring the right ingredients, products, are promoted. The new food law is adapting itself to this dynamics and defining regulatory framework for new categories of food like functional foods, dietary supplements, nutraceuticals etc, which is a step in the right direction.

f) Water is an important part of food security. Consumption of right quantity and quality of water is necessary for good health. We should have systems in place to ensure clean and safe drinking water for all.

As of 2010-12, we still have 870 million people in the world, a rather shamefully high and unacceptable number, who are chronically undernourished. We live in a technologically advanced world which has adequate knowledge, intelligence, technology and natural and human resources to provide nutritional and food security to every human being including the most poor and the vulnerable. We just need the will and commitment to make it happen. ‘Nutrition and food security for all’ is a complex and tough goal but not an impossible one to achieve.

About the author

Dr Vilas Ramrao Shirhatti is Chief Advisor, Nutritional Solutions Business, at Tata Chemicals Limited, Mumbai, where he develops strategy for building health food ingredients business, identify future opportunities for this business, scale up and commercialisation of in-house technologies developed at the company’s innovation centre, ensure regulatory compliance and develop marketing strategies and new platforms for the new ingredients. He is also working as President-Technology at Birla Research and Lifesciences since June 2011. Prior to that he worked in various capacities at Marico, Godrej Consumer Products, GE Technology Centre, Colgate Palmolive, Hindustan Unilever, National Institute of Health, USA and Dai-Ichi Karkaria where he started his career as research scientist in 1977.

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