Need to rethink food security

A recent study in SPWD’s project location in rainfed eastern India examines the poor state of nutritional security and holds the lack of institutional support in the form of subsidies, loans and crop insurance responsible. The prevailing state of food and nutritional security in the twelve villages located in Joypur and Jhalda-II blocks of Purulia district, West Bengal is looked at in depth. The study brings to light the need for the government to make significant improvements in access to food by the needy and vulnerable.

SPWD has been for long working in the area on agro-ecological innovations that increase natural synergies and reduce external inputs and cost of production. This includes emerging approaches like system of rice intensification, non-pesticide management, and sustainable intensification of farming systems founded on enhancing farmers’ knowledge and management skills.

In SPWD’s project area in Purulia, most of the households grow a single crop of paddy, while some grow a second crop of green gram (moong) or horse-gram (kulthi). Most of the households practice subsistence agriculture and seldom sell their produce. Produce from the farm lasts for about four to six months.

The study respondents observe that there have been changes in climatic conditions in recent past: “rainfall in the last 10-15 years has become highly erratic. Also, there has been a decline in the total intensity of rainfall as well as the number of rainy days. Complaints regarding low yields were also common. Such low yields and erratic rainfall had forced many households to shift entirely to growing a single crop. Similarly, all respondents stated that both summers and winters had become extreme over the years. Due to the intense heat in summers, most of the water bodies in the region dried up. Water scarcity in the region, not only affects humans but also livestock. Extreme weather conditions often result in disease and death of cattle. With the advent of climate change people also stated that, soil quality has also deteriorated overtime which has led to the increase in use of fertilisers. Practising agriculture in such circumstances therefore, becomes extremely challenging and poses a threat to livelihoods, local food systems, and subsistence agriculture and food security”.

Food security woes

The study looks at food consumption score and dietary diversity, and how they are impacted by household level characteristics. The food security score takes into consideration the consumption frequency and assigns distinct weightages to different food groups as per their nutritional value. It is a proxy indicator developed by the World Food Programme in 1996 and involves aggregation of household-level data on diet diversity and consumption frequency, with a recall period of 7 days.

These food groups are then weighted according to the relative nutritional value of the consumed food groups. As per the World Food Programme manual, food groups containing nutritionally-dense foods, such as animal products, are given greater weights than those containing less nutritionally dense foods, such as tubers. The food consumption score was originally developed as a proxy indicator of household caloric availability. Over the years, food consumption score has been validated against quantity of caloric intake, however, it has not been validated against specific nutrient adequacy.

Though majority of households fall in the acceptable category as regards food consumption score, 41 percent of the households fall in the borderline category. Ordinary linear regression was used to understand the relationship between food consumption score and household characteristics. Food consumption score was found to have significant relationship with household size, gender of the household head and social group such as scheduled caste and scheduled tribe.

“Households with less number of family members, female headed households, SC households and even those with better incomes are at risk of food security. Lack of subsistence agriculture and high dependence on procuring food from the local market, makes the households susceptible to price rise. The high price of pulses already restricts most households from consuming them,” says Smita Chakravarty of TERI University, the author of the study.

Results also show inadequate vitamin-A, protein and hem-iron intake indicating a possibility of nutritional insecurity. Most households fail to grow more than a single crop throughout the year due to heavy reliance on rains, lack of irrigation facilities, undulating terrain and poor soil quality. The absence of institutional support in the form of agricultural inputs or safety nets further makes subsistence agriculture difficult. Additionally, high dependence on cereals such as rice and wheat, sourced from the public distribution system as well as local markets further makes the population prone to non communicable diseases such as type-II diabetes.

“In the wake of the ongoing food crisis and the soaring food prices, there has been increased emphasis on building and strengthening local food systems. Within this context, there is renewed attention to attaining food security and improving livelihoods through home gardens. Various benefits of home gardens have been discussed in the context of developing countries. These tend to range from enhancing food and nutritional security, improving health benefits, enhancing status of women, preserving indigenous knowledge and building integrated societies, economic benefits and environmental benefits. However, there have been many constraints on developing home gardens. These include limited access to agricultural inputs, shortage of land, water scarcity, poor environmental conditions, soil fertility and soil erosion among many others,” as per the study.

The author highlights the need to further investigate the situation of nutritional imbalance in the region using anthropometric measures. “In the absence of such measures it becomes difficult to understand nutritional insecurity. Furthermore, there is also a need to promote subsistence agriculture and home gardens by ensuring access to water resources and making suitable arrangements for irrigation. Institutional support in the form of input subsidies, access to credit facility and crop insurances are also needed,” adds Chakravarty.

Study author: Smita Chakravarty

Image courtesy: Paddy processing in West Bengal, India, ILO, Flickr Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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