‘Achieving zero hunger requires agriculture to be sustainable, climate smart’

By Deepanwita Gita Niyogi

FAO India representative Tomio Shichiri talks to Down To Earth on whether current government policies are effective to achieve the Zero Hunger goal by 2030

At the celebrations held at New Delhi’s UNDP office ahead of the World Food Day on October 14, experts agreed that instead of waiting for 12 years to reach the Zero Hunger target, the Union government and the civil society must act together to ensure food security quickly. Ending hunger and achieving food security by 2030 come under Goal 2 of the global sustainable development agenda. According to the United Nations, three in 10 stunted children in the world are found in India. Though the Indian government has launched several measures to improve agricultural production and ensure that food reaches the poor through its wide public distribution network, these are not adequate to end malnutrition and promote dietary diversity. Excerpts:

What kind of agricultural interventions are needed in India to achieve Zero Hunger by 2030?

The world needs to produce an estimated 60 per cent more food by 2050 to ensure global food security, and it must do so while conserving and enhancing the natural resource base. Thus, increasing world population inflates the importance placed upon the production of more food. However, it must be realised that increased food production does not necessarily translate into improved nutritional security, considering India, which is amongst the largest food grain producing nations, ranks 103rd out of 119 qualifying countries in the 2018 Global Hunger Index. With a score of 31.1, India suffers from a level of hunger that is serious.

Achieving zero hunger requires agriculture and food systems to become more efficient, sustainable, climate-smart and nutrition-sensitive. In addition, there is a crucial need for synchronisation among malnutrition, dietary diversity and production diversity.

On the other hand, shifting away from unsustainable high input-intensive crop production and monocultures towards more sustainable agro-ecological practices and diverse crop mix will yield improved production diversity. Further, agro-ecological practices such as zero budget natural farming, organic farming and permaculture play an important role in their impact on food and nutrition security as well as climate resilience. Similarly, organic farming and permaculture have the potential to help India’s farmers adapt to climate change by making crops hardy, and restoring soil and water health.

FAO has been pushing for biotechnology as a solution to increase crop yields in the face of climate change. Do you think it is a viable solution for India to increase food productivity?

FAO recognises that genetic engineering has the potential to help increase production and productivity in agriculture, forestry and fisheries.

Genetic engineering/biotechnology could lead to higher yields on marginal lands, reduce transmission of human and animal diseases through new vaccines, enhance climate resilience of crops and even fortify grains.

However, FAO is also aware of the concern about the potential risks posed by certain aspects of biotechnology on human and animal health, and the environmental consequences. For instance, caution must be exercised to reduce the risks of transferring toxins, creating new toxins or transferring allergenicss, which could result in unexpected allergic reactions. Similarly, risks to the environment from outcrossing and development of more aggressive weeds or wild relatives with increased resistance to diseases or environmental stresses, can upset the ecosystem balance. Biodiversity may also be lost due to displacement of traditional cultivars by a small number of genetically modified cultivars.

While biotechnology has several benefits to agriculture but it needs to be thoroughly evaluated on a case to case basis. The evaluation process should also take into consideration experience gained by national regulatory authorities in clearing such products, and careful monitoring of the post-release effects of these products and processes to ensure their continued safety to human beings, animals and the environment.

FAO and the Indian agriculture ministry have jointly launched the seven-year intensive Green Agriculture Project in September this year. How will it help us promote sustainable agriculture, one of the vital points of achieving Zero Hunger?

India’s agriculture sector needs to fully integrate environmental concerns in its policies, plans and programmes to ensure that the sector’s negative environmental impacts are mitigated and positive contributions are enhanced. Environmental mainstreaming is also important to the sector’s own long-term sustainability, especially under the context of a changing climate.

The Green Agriculture Project aims at mainstreaming biodiversity, climate change and sustainable land management objectives and practices  into the Indian agricultural sector. It seeks to harmonise priorities and investments between India’s agricultural and environmental sectors so that national and global environmental benefits can be fully realised without compromising India’s ability to provide and develop rural livelihoods, and meet its food and nutrition security and social (particularly gender) goals.

What kind of structural changes are needed in the mid-day meal scheme to address the issue of hunger among India’s school children?

Social safety net programmes such as the Mid-Day Meal Scheme, Integrated Child Development Services and Public Distribution System have a direct bearing on the local production. While the central government spends billions of dollars annually on such programmes and is responsible for procurement, storage, transportation and bulk allocation, the state governments are responsible for distributing food and other items to consumers through a network of “fair price shops”.

The system focuses on selective high-yielding crop varieties that are procured, transported and distributed across the country, and is based on contract with individual farmers. With government purchase guaranteed, these contracts serve as strong incentives for farmers to produce these selected crops, but also result in the conversion of biodiverse agricultural systems to monocrops.

Rather, farmers should have a strong market incentive for more sustainable practices if these purchase programmes undertook additional criteria for purchasing agro-biodiversity products or environmentally-friendly products, and the demand base would help to reinforce sustainable local farmer practices that also yield additional environmental benefits.

Hence, the government leading the charge on local procurement/sourcing would improve the supply efficiency of safety net programmes, reduce post-harvest losses, reduce transportation emissions, and incentivise production that is harmonised with environmental, agricultural, and social objectives. This in turn will contribute to reduced carbon footprint and enhance the climate resilience of cropping systems.

In addition, along with localised sourcing, the sourcing of local traditional nutritious foods would help in securing nutritional benefits together with the preservation and conservation of indigenous crop varieties and foods.

To what extent can the Future Smart Food Initiative overcome nutrition gap and help Asia achieve Zero Hunger?

The Asia-Pacifi­c region was successful in achieving the hunger Millenium Development Goal (MDG) by 2014-2016. However, the region is still home to 515 million undernourished people, accounting for 64 per cent of the undernourished people in the world, with various forms of malnutrition—stunting, micronutrient deficiencies, overweight and obesity—still in play. Further, these issues manifest from the demand as well as the supply side, specifically, in the form of production and nutrition gaps in the agriculture and food systems.

A key solution to these issues lies in increasing the availability of and access to nutritious foods necessary for a healthy diet. Since conventional staple foods do not supply all the nutrients needed for a balanced diet, tackling the health problems caused by malnutrition requires the transformation of current agriculture and food systems towards more diversity at all levels. Dietary diversity is a cost-effective, affordable and sustainable means of eradicating hunger and malnutrition, and production diversity can help in addressing malnutrition and climate change simultaneously.

For instance, a study by the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) shows that when mung beans are introduced in rotation with winter wheat and cotton during the short fallow period, farmers obtain an income increase from US$1384 to US$2907 from 0.5 hectares of land along with the nutrition benefits of Future Smart Food (FSF).

Thus, using sound scientific underpinnings to promote neglected and underutilized species (NUS) can help diversify food production and diets in economically, socially and environmentally sustainable ways while contributing to the resilience of smallholder and rural populations. This requires the overarching global vision on NUS to be translated into concrete actions on the ground.

Thus, the FAO is working with its Member Countries to reinvigorate both production and consumption of a variety of nutritious traditional foods. The initiative is intended to promote agriculture diversification with sustainable intensification for addressing Zero Hunger. NUS that are nutritionally dense, climate resilient, economically viable, and locally available or adaptable are considered FSF and include Pulses (pigeon pea), roots & tubers (sweet potato) and nutrient-rich cereals (millets & sorghum) that can contribute to the universal goal of ‘Zero Hunger’.

This would also provide focused effort to help marginalised and indigenous people improve their livelihoods and income; and contribute to the preservation and celebration of cultural diversity.

Source: Down To Earth Magazine

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