The main challenge of Indian agriculture is usually seen as productivity, and that too with a focus on the staple crops of wheat and rice. The government’s support system has also been focused on these crops – earlier through an effort to develop new varieties, and now through an elaborate system of procurement at minimum support prices.
Apart from ensuring the livelihood of our large agriculture-dependent rural population, the ostensible goal of this system is to ensure food security and prevent hunger and starvation. But, there is an increasing realization that mere carbohydrates are not enough, particularly since many of the human development or millennium development outcomes that we are seeking depend on good health and nutrition, and not just calorific intake.
This is critical because we desperately want to take advantage of the so-called demographic dividend, and therefore have a national focus on skill development – but, what if poor nutritional levels prevent our youngsters from developing their skills to their full potential?
From Food Security to Nutritional Security
The growing need for nutritional security (rather than food security) is prompting an increasing emphasis on the links between agriculture, food, nutrition, and health outcomes. India does grow crops that can provide proteins and thereby a more balanced diet, and the foods cooked from these are a part of the diet in many parts of our country. Prominent among these are pulses (different types of dals) and millets.
From a cultivational perspective, pulses have some advantages over the main cereal crops – they require much less water and can be grown in less hospitable conditions. However, the markets for pulses are quite volatile and often controlled by the trade, and the government has paid relatively less attention to supporting pulses production – as a result, pulses production has not grown to keep pace with demand, and India imports pulses to meet the gap. The very name used traditionally to describe pulses – “coarse grains” – itself signifies their inferior position! The demand-supply gap and the lack of transparency in the supply chain means that the price of pulses tends to be high and therefore outside the budget of many consumers.
This problem is further complicated by changing food habits. Faster-paced lifestyles and two income families leave less time for cooking. Youngsters prefer packaged snack foods. As a result, diversity in food intakes may be reducing rather than increasing as local foods that contain more nutrition go out of the diet.
How do you make changes in such complex and inter-connected systems where there are multiple players with different motivations, policy trade-offs, and scientific and business challenges?
Fortunately, some people are not daunted by this challenge. I first met Professor Laurette Dube, Chair of the Centre for Convergence in Health and Economics (CCHE) at McGill University, about a year and a half ago. Laurette’s background as a nutritionist and specialist in consumer behavior make her an ideal person to look at these issues.
Laurette advocates a “Convergent Innovation” paradigm to solve such knotty problems.
Convergent innovation involves a multi-disciplinary, multi-stakeholder, co-evolutionary approach. A workshop that Laurette and her team organized on July 16 and 17 at Mumbai signifies how this works.
CCHE’s partners in this workshop were the Tata Cornell Initiative (a research program on enhancing nutritional levels in India, funded by Ratan Tata, and headed by Prabhu Pingali, formerly of the Gates Foundation); the International Food Policy Research Institute, and the CGIAR (the international network of agriculture research institutions – ICRISAT in Hyderabad is a part of this network). Speakers and participants included academics, bureaucrats involved in health and nutrition, journalists, bankers and corporate representatives (a wide spectrum including companies into food processing equipment, snack foods, green retail, and pulses procurement).
CI in Action
The wide variety of ideas that emerged indicates both the potential and the challenges of the convergent innovation approach. While the Government of Maharashtra believes that teaching women the importance of a balanced diet and providing them lessons on how to cook nutritive food in a short time is important, a corporate representative suggested focusing on wherever large numbers of meals are cooked such as in the mid-day meal schemes or the rapidly expanding food services sector.
One corporate representative spoke about the challenges involved in designing new food processing machines for inputs that are not well characterized and studied (including millets) and customers with very strained budgets. Another corporate representative spoke about the difficulties in designing new nutritious packaged food products that simultaneously meet the requirements of the right price point (typically Rs. 2 or Rs. 5), brand image, taste, fun and excitement. He recommended building a dashboard incorporating these dimensions to evaluate product options – his examples showed that, as of today, few millets-based products would be able to pass the dashboard test!
Pepsico’s experience with Iron Chusti brings out the challenges inherent in launching such products. It was developed as a food product specially targeted at anemic girls in a part of Andhra Pradesh. According to the company, a single pack of the ragi and soya-based Iron Chusti meets 25% of the daily iron requirements and upto 50% of the requirements of vitamin B1, B12 and folate for adolescent girls. However at a Rs. 5 price point, the product weighs only 10g, and even though this meets the nutrient needs described above, the consumer considers the product inadequate (at that price) in terms of grammage (weight). Further, there are no standards for ragi and ragi-based foods, and few suppliers of ragi of consistent quality.
The tensions that can arise when people approach problems from different worldviews were quite evident in the workshop itself. While some people appreciated the market-driven perspective of the corporate participants, others from the government and academia argued for increased communication so that people consume healthy foods for the right reasons (nutrition, avoiding anemia, etc.) and not for what they saw as extraneous reasons such as fun or brand image. Some among the latter cautioned against playing into the hands of commercial interests!
But there is hope for a middle path, as many participants appreciated the success of India’s milk revolution and more recent efforts to increase egg consumption by the National Egg Coordination Committee (NECC), and advocated drawing lessons from these experiences. Neither the milk movement nor the NECC have been shy of using marketing methods – Amul is today one of India’s largest brands! There’s no escaping the observation that one of the participants made: “It may be hard to get improved seeds into a remote village, but packaged potato chips are everywhere.”
The good news is that everyone recognizes the problem – India may have demonstrated impressive economic growth numbers in the last two decades, but human development on the parameters that matter has not kept pace. Better nutrition, particularly for girls, is now on the agenda of governments, civil society and even large multinational corporations. But, can they all work together for better outcomes? Convergent innovation could hold the key, and let’s hope these current efforts regarding pulses bear fruit.