Pandemic Causes Food Security to Wobble, While Much of Rural India Still Continues to be Underfed
By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
I intended to write about the pandemic’s impact on food security today. As regular readers know, the pandemic has brought this problem to the fore, and it is an issue over which I have great concern. Yet while food security has indeed wobbled as a result of the pandemic, in many places not accustomed to seeing food supply problems, there has yet to be a widespread lack of food – despite many areas experiencing shortages of particular foodstuffs (see Food Security: UN Warns People Are Vulnerable to Shortages as the COVID-19 Pandemic Continues).
Although there have been clusters of infection concentrated among those who produce our food – take, as just a few examples, meatpackers in the U.S. and Germany, and migrant or temporary workers who sow, tend, or harvest food – so far, these problems have been manageable to the security of our food supply. (I leave aside the dire impact on workers; see for a discussion of U.S.meatpackers, Meatpacking Companies Dismissed Years of Warnings but Now Say Nobody Could Have Prepared for COVID-19.)
I’m not sure what will happen if the pandemic continues, particularly in regions that account for major shares of local or international food production. But the assumed ability to continue to feed ourselves adequately is by no means a certainty, as the pandemic continues and spreads in much of the world. And one of humanity’s scourges throughout its history – famine – may therefore be set to make an unwelcome comeback.
Against this grim backdrop, however, what I do want to focus on today is a paper published by the International Food Policy Research Institute, and summarised n The Wire, After Abysmal Hunger Index Rank, Paper Points Out 3 of 4 Rural Indians Can’t Afford Nutritious Diet. To those who don’t know that much about India, I want to highlight that the bulk of the population resides in rural areas, where people produce the food that they and the rest of the country rely on to consume.
So it’s especially sad these rural Indians cannot afford a nutritious diet – and that this problem predates the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. How many years are we into the so-called Green Revolution and the problem of the adequacy of a nutritious food supply persists?
Over to The Wire:
India has ranked 94 among 107 nations in the Global Hunger Index 2020 and is in the ‘serious’ hunger category. Experts have blamed poor implementation processes, lack of effective monitoring, a siloed approach in tackling malnutrition and poor performance by large states.
Published in the peer-reviewed journal Food Policy, this latest paper, titled Affordability of nutritious diets in rural India, is written by the Institute’s economist Kalyani Raghunathan and researcher Derek D. Headey, along with senior researcher Anna Herforth.
The paper arrives at the conclusion that ‘malnutrition is endemic in India,’ based on information on rural food price and wages gleaned from the 2011 National Sample Survey. The writers use this data to arrive at “the least cost means of satisfying India-specific dietary recommendations…and assess the affordability of this diet relative to male and female wages for unskilled labourers.”
In spite of the fact that, “in 2015-16 some 38% of preschool children were stunted and 21% were wasted, while more than half of Indian mothers and children were anaemic,” the paper finds that “surprisingly few” discuss the role of diets, particularly the affordability of nutritious diets in India.
The Wire featured another recent post in the last few days, highlighting Ithe country’s poor global hunger ranking India Ranks 94 Among 107 Countries in Global Hunger Index 2020. This is a statistic that is prominently left out of the breathless summaries that laud the country’s entry into the middle class.
Effect of the Pandemic
Now, the pandemic has almost certainly worsened India’s hunger problem. The country experienced an extended stringent lockdown that began in March. In spite of this policy, India is at the moment second only to the U.S. in the number of coronavirus cases recorded – although its infection rate has seemingly peaked. It has yet to open up for international flights. Interestingly, despite its relatively poor health care system, its COVID-19 mortality rate is one of the world average, and there is much speculation as to why this is so (see India has one of the world’s lowest Covid-19 mortality rates. But the numbers don’t tell the whole story).
So far, however, India has avoided the outright famine that has afflicted it before, as I previously noted in Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread: Coronavirus and Food Security. Most recently, during World War Two, the country lost millions to the Bengal famine – an entirely preventable catastrophe that was a direct consequence of Raj policy – as opposed to some consequence of being at war. No less than the Indian Nobelist A.K. Sen made his academic bones by writing about this episode, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, and concluded that democracy helps countries avoid famines.
At this point, undernourished rural Indians are no longer confronting outright starvation, but instead suffer from the lack of a nutritious diet. According to the Hindu, one of India’s leading newspapers, 76% of rural Indians can’t afford a nutritious diet: study:
Unlike the Economic Survey’s Thalinomics, which provided a rosier picture of meal costs, this study uses the wages of unskilled workers who make up a larger proportion of the population than industrial workers, and includes items such as dairy, fruit and dark green leafy vegetables that are essential as per India’s official dietary guidelines.
The findings are significant in the light of the fact that India performs abysmally on many nutrition indicators even while the country claims to have achieved food security. On Friday, the Global Hunger Index showed that India has the world’s highest prevalence of child wasting, reflecting acute undernutrition. On indicators that simply measure calorie intake, India performs relatively better, but they do not account for the nutrition value of those calories.
The National Institute for Nutrition’s guidelines for a nutritionally adequate diet call for adult women to eat 330 gm of cereals and 75 gm of pulses a day, along with 300 gm of dairy, 100 gm of fruit, and 300 gm of vegetables, which should include at least 100 gm of dark green leafy vegetables. Selecting the cheapest options from actual Indian diets — wheat, rice, bajra, milk, curd, onions, radish, spinach, bananas — the study calculated that a day’s meals would cost ₹45 (or ₹51 for an adult man).
Even if they spent all their income on food, 63.3% of the rural population or more than 52 crore Indians would not be able to afford that nutritious meal. If they set aside just a third of their income for non-food expenses, 76% of rural Indians would not be able to afford the recommended diet. This does not even account for the meals of non-earning members of a household, such as children or older adults.
“These numbers are somewhat speculative, but they do reveal the scale of the dietary affordability problem in rural India: nutritious diets are too expensive, and incomes far too low,” says the paper.
The paper itself is interesting to read – and short, so I reproduce it for interested readers here, Affordability of nutritious diets in rural India. But it lacks any takeaway charts, for those who are visually inclined. Hence my reliance on the widely accessible, secondary press summaries.
The message: pre-pandemic, the International Food Policy Research Institute concluded that most rural Indians lack sufficient quantity of quality of foods to eat. The problem is persistent and will likely only get worse as a result of the COVD-19 pandemic, which has hit India particularly hard