Striving towards sustainable health through nutrition security amid COVID-19

We as humans have the tendency and thirst to learn new things daily and this pandemic of COVID-19 has given us a lot to learn. Everyone on this planet knows the fear attached to this seven letter word and is since in search of various ways to protect themselves from this infection. People have now known that they need more to stay safe and that social distancing and frequent hand washing alone is not going to safeguard them and their families form this deadly virus. Health, at this time, has been given a priority, and while we talk of health we think of illness, medicines, doctors, and hospitals only. But there are several other factors that affect health on a daily basis. 

According to WHO, “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition”. That gives us the ‘Right to Health’, another right meant to make sure the society is healthy. Good health is also clearly determined by other basic human rights including access to safe drinking water and sanitation, nutritious foods, adequate housing, education and safe working conditions. Thus, the role of food in wellbeing and overall development of a person and society as a whole is imperative and clearly practical during this health crisis emerged due to COVID-19.

Ensuring food security at this moment is itself a challenge among the nations and India is not an exception. In 1993, the Government of India adopted National Nutrition Policy, a multi-sectoral strategy to combat malnutrition in the country under the aegis of Department of Women and Child Development. Since then there are many schemes which have been operating in India like Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), mid-day meal scheme, Anganwadis, and much more. In 2018, POSHAN Abhiyan was launched by GoI under National Nutrition Mission to progressively reduce all forms of undernutrition by 2030. These schemes have ensured to alleviate hunger up to an extent and have created a sense towards food security and nutritional importance, however, there are concerns whether they can really ensure nutrition security during this pandemic?

Also read: Corona and Food Security: Are we there?

The concept of nutrition security was somewhat missing while food security was being implemented until in the 1970s when UNICEF conceptualized this concept as ‘multi-sectoral nutrition planning’ with three determinants: access to adequate food, care and feeding, and sanitation and health. The stability in availability, access and utilization of food leads to the nutritional status of an individual in addition to sanitation and health status. The United Nations System’s Standing Committee on Nutrition (SCN) has proposed the definition of food and nutrition security as “food and nutrition security exists when all people at all times have physical, social and economic access to food, which is consumed in sufficient quantity and quality to meet their dietary needs and food preferences, and is supported by an environment of adequate sanitation, health services and care, allowing for a healthy and active life.”

Recently, the prevalence of undernourishment (PoV) has been estimated to be almost constant at 11%. This growth was before the occurrence of COVID-19 pandemic. With the current task of ensuring food for all, keeping up the level of nourishment at the same time is again a question. Where hunger and malnutrition are always associated with poverty, inequality, marginalization and vulnerability, it can be a regular feature of present society with the kind of food habits we dwell into. The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition has recently mentioned that malnourished individuals with compromised immunity are more at risk and susceptible to the spread of the virus. Our health is affected by what we eat and how we eat, and thus, having access to healthy food is of utmost importance at this level.

India has gained the status of self-sufficiency in food grain production after the introduction of NORIN-10 gene followed by the improved cultivation practices with extensive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. This has resulted in homogenous agriculture with compromised agri-diversity and soil health. There is no doubt that the record grain production had the ability to feed a large number of the population but addressing the macro and micronutrient needs is again a question. In a country where the majority of workforce is engaged in the agricultural sector, ensuring nutrition security through food should not be a problem, however, there has been a mismatch in the agriculture production and nutritional requirement of the country. Our emphasis has always been on quantity rather than the quality of food due to the exponentially growing population. But, emphasizing on dietary diversity is now on-demand as people have understood that diversity in food consumption will only address their multi-nutrient needs.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the nation to shut down the economy in order to restrict the spread of this virus. This has drastically affected the supply-chain of our country leading to less or delayed availability of day-to-day use materials. No doubt that the ‘essential’ items were given priority as this stage and the people had access to basic food and other ‘life-sustaining’ goods. The food-supply chain is somewhat active and there is no shortage of food per se in the market. However, the diversity from our food markets has gone fade. A healthy diet consists of all the macro and micronutrients readily available from a different source of edibles including grains, fruits and vegetables. People nowadays know their dietary needs, thanks to various schemes and campaigns of the government but the availability of this diversity is a matter of concern at this time of restricted manpower and rusty supply-chain.

Nature has bestowed us with enough diversity in terms of food. In a country like India where agriculture is the major source of livelihoods, most of the farmers have small landholdings. These farmers mainly follow subsistence agriculture where the only surplus is sold in the market and a major portion of the family diet is fulfilled through their own farms. Such system ensures the intake of various nutrients in the body leading to better overall health and stronger immunity. What if this system of overall nutrition could be available to all including non-agriculture households? The answer to this question lies among our smallholding farmers. They hold the key to provide complete nutrition to the community by bringing their surplus produce in the market. The government should come forward to provide them with excess support to enhance their productivity and access to the market.

Image for representation – Community-supported agriculture

Smallholding farmers are mainly rural farmers with minimum support and market access. With the current scenario of people returning to their native villages, the state governments have the responsibility of providing them a mean to survive and establish again. This may be taken as an opportunity to revive rural agriculture and with the help of schemes like MNREGA, this workforce should be diverted into diversified agriculture thereby ensuring the supply of diverse food in the market. We can learn from the concept of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) of the United Kingdom which is a partnership between farmers and consumers who share the responsibilities, risks and rewards of farming together. This has led to a local food revolution where farmers receive a more stable and secure income and closer connection with their community, and consumers benefit by eating fresh healthy local food, feeling more connected to the land where their food is grown. Such policies must be adopted in our country too by promoting and strengthening cooperative farming to carry forward the idea of our Prime Minister ‘Vocal for Local’. If required, governments may take the support of international funding agencies like Global Agriculture and Food Security Program or World Bank for this purpose.

There is a gap in understanding the need of an Indian and a Bharat, where the former can choose his food for its nutrition, the latter have no choice at all, and he has to survive. This gap should not get wider in the coming time so that we may not end up winding the collateral damage. Time has come to revitalize our rural economy and strengthening our supply-chain systems for the holistic development of the society through sustainable health. Time is now to go back to our roots with a humanitarian approach promoting sustainable agriculture, empowering smallholding farmers and taking care of the environment. Only then we can assume sustainable development in real sense.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Dr Mamta Arya

Dr Mamta Arya is Scientist (Plant Genetics) at ICAR-National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources, Nanital, Uttrakhand, India. She can be reached at mamta.gpb@gmail.com

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