Nafees Meah

Representative for South Asia,

International Rice Research Institute

Nutrition and India’s Food Systems

Food systems are deeply entwined with food security, nutritional health, ecosystems, climate change, and prosperity. The Green Revolution enabled countries in South Asia move from food deficit to self-sufficiency, particularly in cereals. In the process, millions were lifted out of poverty. Despite this, we find ourselves dealing with the ‘triple burden’ of undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies and overnutrition. Levels of stunting in children under 5 years of age and anaemia in women remain shockingly high across South Asia. In addition, rising temperatures are already impacting agriculture, coupled with frequent extreme weather induced crop losses. 

We argue that a new paradigm on food systems is essential if we are to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.  The series of articles in this issue brings together some new thinking. A key natural resource that must be better managed is water and Sinha et al. argue that improved water use efficiency, crop diversification and better regulation are needed to end the overexploitation of ground water in Northwest India. The Indian government, recognising the urgency, has launched the mission POSHAN Abhiyaan, which aims to herald a new era in food and nutrition security—elaborated on by Kar. Whether it succeeds or not will depend on food choices made by people. Demont et al. contend that we need to understand the drivers of food choices better and they describe how this might be done. The silver lining is, as Joshi illustrates how consumption patterns in India are already changing from cereal-based diets towards more nutrition-rich commodities. However, dietary diversification and increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables will be less effective, if climate change causes reduced levels of nutrients (Hemalatha and Vasanthi) or if they are contaminated with heavy metals (Mayuri). Finally, rice being the most important staple in South Asia, research at the International Rice Research Institute is seeking to unlock potential of rice as a source of better nutrition for millions of rice consumers (Ahmed et al.).