Nutrition Security by leveraging ‘Khet to Plate’ 

Ravinder Grover, Regional Coordinator-Asia, Harvest Plus

India’s remarkable history is defined by its ability to achieve unprecedented feats, setting new benchmarks that leave the world astonished. From launching the Chandrayaan-3 Rover to the moon with a budget that’s only a fraction of the cost of producing a movie like Interstellar, to tripling crop production during the Green Revolution by cultivating a mere 30 per cent increase in land area, India has consistently showcased its prowess.

These achievements, spanning over half a century, have propelled India into the league of superpowers in both space exploration and agricultural innovation. The lessons learned from these endeavours are now ready to be harnessed as inspirations to tackle the next great challenge: the race towards optimal nutrition.

As the recent NFHS-5 data reveals,  35.5 per cent of children under 5 are stunted, 67 per cent are anaemic, and 57 per cent of reproductive-age women are anaemic, the need for innovative solutions is imperative.  Coupled with the loss of crop diversity and soil health, a deep nexus between agriculture and nutrition emerges.

With the prevalence of mono culture, Punjab witnessed a dramatic rise in paddy and wheat cultivation, soaring from 32 per cent in 1960 to 85 per cent in 2019. This surge has led to significantly reduced cultivation of pulses, maize, bajra, chana, masur, mustard, sunflower , groundnut, sugarcane, etc. Even within paddy, the diversity has plummeted from 1,10,000 varieties to 6,000 in the past 50 years. This includes the loss of many climate-friendly and iron and protein-rich paddy varieties.

In addition to this, improper agricultural practices have led to the degradation of soil health. Over 35 per cent of the soil in the country was estimated to be deficient in zinc and about 11 per cent estimated to be deficient in iron-contributing to malnutrition.

Today, Food Fortification championed by FSSAI, has made great strides in curbing nutrition. Iodised salt is now used in almost every household of India and other fortified staples like rice, wheat flour, salt, cooking oil, and milk, are widely consumed across the country. 

However, to make a lasting impact among the most vulnerable, who predominantly consume what they cultivate, a more comprehensive solution Supplementing India’s agrarian economy is essential.

Delivering Nutrition Sustainably

Fortunately, there is a proven, practical way to enrich common staple crops with key vitamins and minerals at no extra cost to farmers or consumers. Through the process known as biofortification, crops are bred to be rich in iron, zinc, vitamin A, calcium, etc. The lack of these three micronutrients in people’s diets accounts for the majority of the health burden from micronutrient deficiency. 

CGIAR and the National Agricultural Research System (NARS) including ICAR and State Agricultural Universities (SAUs) have been at the forefront of the development of more than 100 varieties of biofortified wheat, rice, pearl millet, finger millet, sorghum, and a variety of fruits and vegetables. These are now being grown by more than a million smallholder farming households in dozens of countries, benefiting an estimated 5 million household members.

Biofortification presents a promising avenue, and FSSAI has the potential to lead a transformation in this sphere.

Regulatory Guidelines on Nutrition Safety

To bring coherence and consistency to the biofortification landscape, FSSAI should roll out guidelines that would not only address safety concerns but also standardise labelling in the packaging of biofortified products. Mandating the mention of micronutrient availability in the packaging will encourage the industry players to integrate nutrition into their products and will allow consumers to make educated and informed choices for their health and tailor their options to fit their needs and desires. These guidelines would be pivotal in shaping the industry’s trajectory over the next decade.

Engaging with Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOs)

Stimulating small and medium enterprises (SMEs) by FPOs working on nutrition-focused products can prove to be a game-changer. FSSAI could provide support in terms of training and market access to these enterprises, facilitating the production of biofortified foods at local levels and establishing a direct link between farmers and consumers. This not only contributes to rural livelihoods and nutrition but also ensures fresh and locally sourced nutrition-rich products.

Connecting with Consumers

India has consistently captivated consumers with compelling campaigns promoting nutritious foods. The memories of the wholesome campaign ‘Sunday ho ya Monday, roz khao ande’ by the National Egg Coordination Committee (NECC) are still fresh in most of our minds. It promoted the consumption of eggs year-round, increased demand, and supported poultries.

Keeping with the growing push towards better health and well-being, FSSAI took a revolutionary step and launched the Fortified ‘+F’ logo for consumer awareness and identification of fortified products in October 2016. Advertisements with television stars flooded our screens, asking us to look for the ‘+F’ symbol on essential groceries like wheat flour, rice, salt, oil, and milk, to ensure they have “added micronutrients in regulated doses for our health”. Some common nutrients added to these fortified foods were folic acid, vitamin A, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin E, iron, and iodine.

Leveraging experience from previous endeavours, FSSAI can educate the public about the benefits of biofortified foods through various media platforms, including television, social media, and outdoor advertising. Creating compelling narratives that highlight success stories and positive outcomes can inspire people to embrace these nutrient-rich options. This campaign should aim to change perceptions, positioning biofortified foods as symbols of health and a nutritious food system.

Network of Labs for Nutrition Testing

Biofortification’s credibility hinges on accurate and transparent nutritional information. Establishing a robust network of FSSAI-notified labs for XRF micronutrient testing of Iron, Zinc etc. is imperative. The FSSAI should ensure that biofortified products undergo rigorous testing to validate their nutritional claims. Certifications and quality seals can instil consumer trust in these foods, making them more desirable and thereby catalysing market growth.

Encourage Dialogue with Private Sector

FSSAI can actively engage with food manufacturers, suppliers, and retailers to promote the production and distribution of biofortified foods. Streamlined regulations can encourage businesses to invest in research and development of nutritionally biofortified products. By working hand-in-hand, FSSAI and the private sector can harness innovation to make biofortified foods accessible and appealing to the masses.

An Unparalleled Dynamism 

In the upcoming decade, the biofortification sector in India holds immense promise, with the FSSAI poised as a guiding light in this transformative journey. Through collaboration with the private sector, empowerment of FPOs, innovative resources such as impactful mass campaigns, a network of reliable labs, and robust regulatory guidelines, the FSSAI has the potential to inject unparalleled dynamism into the biofortification landscape. This strategic roadmap not only enhances the well-being of millions but also elevates the nation’s nutritional standing, ushering in a brighter and more vibrant future. As we embrace the era of nutritional empowerment, FSSAI’s vision and initiatives will stand at the forefront, shaping a reality where health and nutrition thrive.

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