02 May, 2020
10 Min Read
By, M.S. Swaminathan, an eminent agricultural scientist, is the Founder of the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai. Nitya Rao is a Professor, of Gender and Development at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, U.K.
The current national lockdown to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the problems of food, nutrition and livelihood security confronting a large number of rural people, in particular, migrants to cities.
While some measures have been announced, such as the provision of additional rice or wheat, some pulses and oil-free of cost, as well as 1,000 cash for the purchase of other essential commodities through the Public Distribution System (PDS), we need to understand the different dimensions of food security in a holistic manner in order to address this problem in its totality.
Problems faced by farmers
Farmers are confronted at the moment with labour shortages.
Many of the inputs, including seeds, are expensive or unavailable.
Marketing arrangements including supply chains are not fully functional.
Pricing is not remunerative, and public procurement is also not adequate.
Absence of demand, the lack of storage or value addition facilities, especially for perishable commodities.
We do not yet know exactly what the impact of the current pandemic will be on the kharif sowing and food availability in the future.
Issues to be addressed to tackle food security are
1.Availability of food in market (This is a great accomplishment by Indian farmers who converted a “ship to mouth” situation to a “right to food”)
2. Access to food. (It is a function of purchasing power)
3. Absorption of food in the body or its utilisation (Dependent importantly on sanitation, drinking water and other non-food factors, including public health services.)
Access to food (Widen the food basket)
Through National Food Security Act (NFSA) and the PDS, government has assured some additional food to every individual during this crisis.
This should be further strengthened and the food basket widened by including millets, pulses and oil.
Steps should also be taken to avoid hidden hunger caused by the deficiency of micronutrients in the diet.
It is important to pay attention to the life cycle approach advocated in the NFSA, particularly the first thousand days in a child’s life, when the cognitive abilities of the child are shaped.
Food Security and Job Security
Food security and access to nutritious, good quality food is also contingent on job security.
Today, a lot of people employed both on farms and in the non-farm sector are without jobs.
If job security is threatened, then so is food and nutrition security.
Value addition to primary products is one way of ensuring job security to people.
One example of such value addition is the Rice Biopark in Myanmar, wherein the straw, bran, and the entire biomass are utilised (Rice biopark is also the solution for stubble burning in India).
The Amul model provides a good example from the dairy sector of improved incomes to milk producers through value addition.
Attention needs to be given to the horticulture sector on a priority basis. Women farmers are at the forefront of horticulture and special attention needs to be given to both their technological and economic empowerment during this crisis.
Work under MGNREGA
A second pathway to livelihood security for small and marginal farmers and landless households, and women within them, is strengthening the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).
The definition of a worker in MGNREGA has so far been applied only to unskilled, manual work, and not to skilled jobs in agriculture and allied activities.
Given the lack of jobs and incomes ,it is imperative to expand the definition of work in MGNREGA to cover skilled work related to farmers and their farming activities.
This is particularly important for women farmers and workers, who should not just be given tasks of carrying stones or digging mud. Women also engage in a range of essential care tasks, including caring for children, the elderly and sick people. These tasks, need to be recognised as work and supported with appropriate education, including on nutrition.
Focus on non-food factors
Third dimension of food security is absorption of food in the body or its utilisation, which is dependent importantly on sanitation, drinking water and other non-food factors, including public health services.
These services are functional depends on the capacities of the local panchayats and their coordination with other local bodies.
Farmers making losses, and agriculture moving from being job-led to jobless, raise questions about the sustainability of the production cycle. At the same time, this can have long-term consequences on nutrition and health security.
If we can ensure food availability, food access and food absorption, then we have a fairly robust system of food and nutrition security.
It is very critical to highlight the linkages between agriculture, nutrition and health.
India avoided what could have been a big famine in the 1960s through the help of technology and public policy.
Through a combination of farmers’ cooperation, technological upgrading and favourable public policies in procurement, pricing and distribution, we can deal with the fallouts of the pandemic
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