IRRI India, South Asia and partners deliberate on Transforming Food Systems through Sustainable Value Chains

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The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) South Asia Office in India, convened a multi-sectoral panel discussion on – “Creating Sustainable Value Chains for Transforming Food Systems” on 4 February, at the National Agricultural Science Complex in Delhi. Senior representatives from agriculture, nutrition, environment, R&D, and policy, speaking on the panel, deliberated on how to bring forth convergent action for operationalizing a food system transformation in India and the region. The multi-disciplinary perspectives brought focus on a new paradigm of food systems transformation that is emerging in the context of ‘planetary boundaries’, and is defining the ‘safe operating space’ for imparting stability to earth systems and human health.

Citing demand and supply side challenges in the $ 550 billion food sector in India, Mr. Pawan Agarwal, CEO of Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) in his keynote address emphasized on the existing challenges for ensuring good standards and safety of food that is

being produced and consumed. “Access, affordability, quality, robust agricultural systems supported by robust supply chain and informed buyers is imperative for transforming food systems” he said. Thanking IRRI for organizing this timely and pertinent discussion, he said FSSAI’s ‘Eat Right India’ movement launched in 2018, similarly encouraged a ‘holistic societal approach’ for bringing about a food systems transformation.

Today, over 4 in 10 children and 1 in 10 adults in India suffer chronic undernutrition, trends that are further aggravated by land degradation, climate change, poverty, and slowing growth in the agriculture sector.

Achieving SDG 2 of ‘Ending Hunger’ will be challenging said Dr Nafees Meah, Regional Representative for IRRI in South Asia, unless multiple stakeholders from pertinent areas of expertise converged to tackle issues like poor diet, land degradation, climate change, policy on agriculture, health and nutrition, in the already complex context of rising populations and economic inequality. “For convergent action on food systems transformation, to move from being ‘food secure’ to ‘nutrition secure’, we need to bring together gastronomy & food science”, he said.

Giving the policy perspective, from the planning commission of India, the Niti Aayog, was Ms. Supreet Kaur, Senior Technical Expert on Nutrition. “37 of 1000 babies in India don’t complete one year of their lives, and each year there are 167 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. Despite some improvements over the last decade, the pace of decline hasn’t kept up with our growth trajectory she said. “Using a ‘lifecycle approach’, starting from the very early growth stages for a to-be-mother and her child, can help tackle malnutrition in all its forms. “The POSHAN Abhiyaan under the purview of the Ministry of Women and Child Development and Niti Aayog, is thus focusing on encouraging cross-sectoral convergence, apt interventions in the first 1000 days of life, and community mobilization for behavior change.”

One of the key recommendations that emerged was the pressing need for developing and strengthening robust and sustainable value chains with appropriate cropping and mixed livestock/fish systems tailored for specific agro-ecologies in India and South Asia. In the interim, the fortification and/or biofortification of staple crops with iron, zinc, and beta-carotene, and low glycemic index, can help address poor nutrition among vulnerable consumers, especially women and children, in India.

Over the past decades, agricultural policies in India have focused on increasing food production. The eminent panel discussed how this policy focus needs to include also, consideration for the negative externalities on nutrition, natural capital, and biodiversity.

While significant steps have been taken to address the challenges arising in the agri-nutrition sphere, IRRI recommends a holistic approach by ensuring that existing food systems promote the following: 1) access to affordable nutritious and healthy food for all; 2) sustainable food production, processing, trade and retailing; 3) mitigating and adapting to climate change, and 4) improved smallholder farmer livelihoods and resilience by enhancing the prosperity of farming and rural communities.

Gracing the occasion were other eminent speakers, lending a holistic perspective to the discussion; Mr. Basanta Kar, Transform Nutrition Champion and Nutrition Leadership Awardee 2019 ; Dr. Purnima Menon, Senior Research Fellow, International Food Policy Research (IFPRI); Dr. Arabinda Padhee, Director, Country Relations and Business Affairs; Dr Shariqua Yunus;  Dr. A K Singh , Indian Council of Agricultural Research, Deputy Director General (Agricultural Extension) ; Dr. Alok Sikka, International Water Management Institute (IWMI), India Representative ; Dr Sheetal Sharma, Nutrient Management Specialist for IRRI South Asia ; and Dr. Dinesh Kumar Scientists ‘G’ from National Institute of Nutrition.

Pertinent issues the panel discussed included; the nutritional status in India, Farming systems diversification to improve incomes and diets,  Implementing POSHAN Abhiyan ; Biofortification of staples; Agri-nutrition education & awareness;  Policies and institutional infrastructure;  Sustainable food value chains; Food safety and standards across food value chains, and  Environmental impact of production of staple crops. The discussions herefrom has set in motion the drafting of a policy brief, with key convergent recommendations, that seek to bring forth a more nutrition-sensitive agriculture in India and the region, in the interest of farmers and consumers.

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