Even well before the onset of the pandemic, food systems within a huge developing country like India faced enormous challenges in achieving equitable access to healthy, nutritious, sustainable and balanced diets for all. Now, COVID-19 has further pushed the country behind in reaching the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and has caused widespread loss of livelihoods and incomes, threatening the food security, health, and nutrition of poor and marginalised people. This can be corroborated through the latest Global Hunger Index Report where India has slipped to 101st position of 116 countries, from its 94th position in 2020. Let’s examine where the food industry stands with respect to churning out healthful and sustainable options for the post-pandemic, choosy consumer.
India’s top five risk factors for mortality include high blood pressure, high blood sugar levels, and overweight/obesity. The prevalence of overweight and obesity is growing faster than the world average, and it is projected to hit 30.5 per cent and 9.5 per cent among men, and 27.4 per cent and 13.9 per cent among women, respectively, by 2040. Also, as quoted in the Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology journal in 2018, nearly 98 million people in India may have type-2 diabetes by 2030 and that the amount of insulin needed to effectively treat type-2 diabetes will rise by more than 20 per cent worldwide over the next 12 years.
The Economic Survey 2020-21 also highlights that non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are now responsible for more than 65 per cent of all deaths in the country, or approximately six million-plus deaths. Between 1990 and 2016, the contribution of NCDs increased from 37 to 61 per cent of all deaths in the country. Even the World Economic Forum and Harvard School of Public Health had earlier highlighted the economic burden of NCDs in India in their study wherein it states that India stands to incur a cost of $4.58 trillion between 2012 and 2030 due to NCDs and mental health conditions.
Situation became grave as the economic fallout forced many people to depend on cheap stomach filling foods that lack nutrition. The share of vegetables, fruits, pulses, meat, fish and eggs in people’s diet is significantly lower and whole grains accounted for more than what is needed. To address such nutritional imbalances the government has invested in a national nutrition strategy, including the multi-ministry flagship initiative called the Poshan Abhiyaan (nutrition mission). But even such schemes and other nutrition specific awareness initiatives alone cannot help in meeting the objectives. It demands coordinated action and support by all concerned including the governments, the health experts, civil societies, the food industries and the media.
Vital role can’t be overlooked
Considering the extent of influence the food industry has on the entire food supply chain, the vital role they can play in bringing sustainably sourced, nutrient-dense foods to the majority of consumers cannot be overlooked. Industry has the power and control to act as drivers for encouraging production of innovative food crops, raw materials and other food ingredients using more sustainable practices and hence such power needs to be exercised for the larger benefit.
More importantly, industry needs to support and facilitate healthy food policies and be attracted to invest more towards sustainable innovation and marketing to manufacture and market healthier processed foods. In today’s time, packaged foods are widely accessible, affordable, and consumed by the majority of our consumers, both urban and rural. It can, therefore, help provide access to healthy and nutrient rich foods regardless of economic status. There are numerous instances to point out, wherein essential vitamins and minerals fortified in packaged foods when consumed lead to improved health outcomes across a broad spectrum of the population. For instance, iodine deficiency that was once a major public health problem was effectively addressed when small amount of iodine was added to the common salt.
Likewise, finding ways to bring down costs for sustainable and organic food products which are often priced high is pertinent to drive adoption of sustainable food options for consumers.
The threat of pandemic and associated dramatic shift to home cooking has raised the demand for organic and sustainable produce as more consumers began paying attention to how food is grown and produced. This surge in demand can help food industries bring down prices to a reasonable level for such sustainable products and still earn profits. This will further attract even more consumers, including the poor and marginalised towards sustainable food shopping.
At the same time, food industries also have the moral and social obligation to ensure that the sustainable and healthy claims made by them are true and accurate without any intention to mislead consumers. At present, without proper environment labelling standards, Front of the Pack Labelling (FoPL) etc., consumers could not differentiate which food products are truly healthy and sustainable and end up paying extra for false products.
Ultimately it brings benefits
Though food industries could face challenges while attempting to deliver both sustainable and healthy products as well as keep up with consumer needs for taste, affordability and nutrient density, the enormous opportunities such entities reap if they successfully address them are multitudinous. From a business perspective, implementing an overall sustainable approach from farm to plate can help reduce operating costs, increase yield and profit, ensure stable price and minimise loss through waste, and more importantly lessen the negative media attention on extensive use of chemicals. In addition to these, such companies through creating a transparent supply chain could build their brand image as a sustainable responsible business in the long run, rather than just profit motivated.
Bringing the operation cost down could be by improving the overall efficiency of their entire production process including conserving water, low energy consumption, less dependence on chemicals, fertilisers and so forth. Besides, one of the pillars of sustainable diet being consumption of more local produce, industries could reduce dependence on long-haul transportation of food products. Simultaneously by bringing in efforts to find innovative ways to tackle processing wastes in a more efficient manner, which is also a prerequisite for sustainable diet, industries can save more. For instance, recently few local experiments have shown that the mango fibre discarded as waste after extracting its juices by processing companies can be converted to biodegradable cutleries and as packaging material. Such innovative innovations should be given due weightage as it would not only help tackle wastage along the food value chain but would also be a solution to tackle plastic wastes.
Reinforcing the positive
The threat to life and health caused by the pandemic has forced consumers to give a greater thought on their overall health and wellbeing. Today, consumer awareness is not only on the rise but is significantly influencing the purchasing decisions. So, enlightening and assisting them to identify and pick easily available foods that are affordable and convenient, but still nutrient dense and sustainably sourced, will likely be more profitable to business and the society, than advocating them to avoid foods they currently consume and enjoy.
Authors’ details- George Cheriyan (L) is Director and Simi T.B. (R) is Policy Analyst, both work at CUTS International, a global public policy research and consumer advocacy organisation headquartered in Jaipur.