India is home to a quarter of the world’s hunger burden with nearly 224.3 million people undernourished in the country. The situation is even more dire among children under the age of five — 36.1 million are stunted, accounting for 31% being chronically malnourished.
While we are setting back-to-back food production records, how are we still struggling with the worsening crisis of malnutrition? The answer lies in the consistent imbalance of nutrients in the staple diet of the common man. While we have achieved food security, it is critical to shift our focus to nutrition security.
With an aim to eradicate ‘hidden hunger’ – undernourishment due to a low-nutrient diet – the Government of India has turned its attention to biofortified crops. Last year, our agriculture minister introduced 17 new biofortified varieties of crops, including rice fortified with zinc and wheat enriched with protein and iron, making a total of 87 biofortified nutrient-rich crops actively being harvested in the country today. Malnourishment is most definitely an agrarian issue, but the cause is even more deep-rooted than we may think. The silent game changer that directly impacts the health (read nutrition efficiency) of a crop is our soil.
The importance of soil health in our diet
To put it in perspective, enriching zinc-deficient soil with a zinc-based fertilizer improves the crop’s nutrient quotient. So, if done for common crops such as wheat and rice, staple food can become nutrient-rich not to mention hyper-accessible, reaching every household in the country. Moreover, even for the farmer, the use of a zinc-based fertilizer significantly increases grain yield – from 6.4% to 50.1% in the case of a wheat crop.
However, today, almost 30% of our land is degraded, according to the ISRO Atlas report published in 2021. Indeed, soil efficiency has reduced over the last decade, with the crop response ratio declining from 13.4 kg to 3.7 kg of grain from 1 kg of NPK-based fertilizers. While fertilizer consumption has grown significantly from the early years of the Green Revolution, the amount of food grain produced per unit consumption of chemical fertilizers has reduced over the last 8-10 years. A contributing factor to this is that when it comes to fertilizer consumption, Indian farmers have strongly been influenced by fertilizer subsidies, overusing bulk fertilizers such as urea and ignoring the importance of secondary fertilizers and micronutrients. This in turn has led to unsustainable farming practices such as poor soil quality, inefficient water use, and glaring gaps in yield and quality of crops.
As per Niti Aayog’s Composite Water Management Index (CWMI) – a useful tool to assess and improve the performance in efficient management of water resources – as many as 16 states appear in the red zone with scores of less than 50 points. So much so, that none of the top 10 agricultural states in India, except Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, score more than 60 points on the CWMI.
Nutrition-use efficiency is directly proportional to soil health, water management and malnutrition in people. Hence, as we step into the years of Amrit Kaal, the time is now to shift our focus to producing food grains – while keeping crop and soil nutrition at the center of agriculture.
Need of the hour is to improve access to innovative micronutrient fertilizers
When more than half of the food that we eat today is produced with the help of mineral fertilizers, it is essential to find nutrition solutions that are crop-, nature-, and farmer-centric. To ensure the balanced application of fertilizers and address the concern of fertilizer and crop response mismatch, our government has made every effort to move towards a Nutrient-based Subsidy Regime (NBS) instead of a long-prevailing product pricing regime. The policy is expected to promote balanced fertilization through new fortified products that will lead to an increase in agricultural productivity and consequently lead to better returns for the farmer.
Yet, more needs to be done. Farmers continue to remain unaware of the importance of secondary and micronutrient fertilizers for optimal soil health. What is complicating the situation is their lack of access to such fertilizers because of the long processing time to register a new fertilizer. To launch a fertilizer in the Indian market, the product first needs to be field-tested for at least two crops over two seasons. Then, the trial data goes through a rigorous evaluation process. If all goes well, this process easily consumes a minimum of two-three years, making value-added fertilizers and specialty nutrients highly inaccessible to Indian farmlands.
The need of the hour is to improve access and favorability towards innovative crop nutrition solutions by allowing trusted companies in the industry to go-to-market basis truthful label claims. This would equip our Indian farmers with the right arsenal for efficient, nutrition-rich, sustainable farming, create a level playing field with their global counterparts and promise them better returns.
A definitive move towards zero hunger
A critical step to achieve the sustainability development goal of zero hunger, no poverty, good health, and well-being is to create a health-positive, nature-positive agricultural economy in the country.
With ease in government regulations, and new policies that support world-class crop nutrition, sustainable solutions to make our crops nutrient-dense will become accessible at the grassroots, making it a win-win for farmer-consumer alike.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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