Howarth Bouis, director of HarvestPlus, on India’s strategy to fight malnutrition
Mumbai: India’s efforts to fight malnutrition may not bear fruit unless there is greater focus on policies to promote diets rich in nutrients and micronutrients, said Howarth Bouis, director of HarvestPlus, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Washington. HarvestPlus is an interdisciplinary programme that works with academic and research institutions, civil society organizations, governments and private sector in more than 40 countries to breed micronutrient-rich staple food crops through an ingenious process called biofortification, and to make such food crops widely available to malnourished populations.
Over the past 20 years, Bouis has led global efforts to deal with micronutrient deficiencies at its root: by breeding plants selectively such that they provide more of the critical micronutrients required for healthy growth.
He and his team have partnered with governments and local agencies to introduce biofortified crops such as orange sweet potato, orange maize and yellow cassava with provitamin A in Mozambique, Uganda, Rwanda, and Nigeria. Bouis, who was in India to take part in a biofortification conference, spoke in an interview on India’s strategy to fight malnutrition, and on areas where HarvestPlus could help India address its nutritional crisis. Edited excerpts:
Nearly half of India’s children are malnourished and despite running the world’s biggest child nutrition programme, malnutrition rates have stagnated. What are we doing wrong?
I wouldn’t say I am an expert on India’s malnutrition situation, but there is one trend on which I have done a bit of research. Food prices have been going up over time but we have to make a careful distinction in the Indian case between cereal and milk prices on the one hand, and all other foods on the other hand. After the green revolution, yields of rice and wheat shot up, and prices actually came down. Maybe prices have risen in the past couple of years but over the past 40 years, prices have fallen. The story is similar for milk.
But if you look at all the other food groups such as fruits, vegetables, lentils, and animal products other than milk, you will find a steady increase in prices over the past 40 years. So it has become more difficult for the poor to afford food that is dense in minerals and vitamins. That probably explains the poor nutritional outcomes. I have to further investigate the links between the prices of nutrient-rich food with malnutrition rates in India. But I think it is common sense that as such foods become dearer, you consume less of it and as rice and wheat prices drop, you consume more of those cereals.
Do you consider hidden hunger, or the deficit of specific nutrients, to be a bigger problem than aggregate food scarcity in India?
Hidden hunger is a huge problem here. Two out of three children are anaemic and roughly half of that is because of iron deficiency. Two out of three children are vitamin A deficient, and one out of two children are zinc deficient. Those are very high numbers and the consequences can be pretty severe. For instance, the mental capabilities of children suffering from iron deficiency are compromised throughout their lifetime. Children die in higher numbers, they are more susceptible to diseases, and tend to become stunted.
The focus of India’s proposed food security Act is on cereals and aggregate calories. Do you find that focus misplaced?
Yes. In fact, when I first started working at IFPRI 30 years ago, my job was to look at how economic policies affect food consumption choices and nutritional outcomes. And, I convinced myself that the energy (calorie) problem wasn’t the problem; the problem was vitamins and minerals.
The basic thing everyone does is to buy enough cereals to avoid going hungry unless you are ultra-poor and can’t even do that.
But most of the poor can afford as much of rice, or wheat, as they can eat. And if you look at consumption patterns of these items across income groups, it does not change very much. The huge difference between low-income and high-income groups is in the consumption of non-staple foods—fruits, vegetables and pulses. I think that’s what is limiting better nutrition, not just in India but in much of the developing world.
India’s budget this year has made an allocation of 200 crore to fund pilot projects to evaluate the impact of nutrient farms in districts facing a heavy burden of malnutrition. So, do you see policymakers recognizing the importance of biofortification?
Yes, biofortification, and more widely agri-nutrition linkages, and it reflects a welcome change in attitudes. The initial response to biofortification 20 years ago was lukewarm. Agricultural scientists believed their job was mainly to raise yields and protect plants from pest; they were not interested in developing more nutritious breeds. Nutritionists were uninterested in agriculture. Over time, and especially over the past few years, there has been a growing awareness that agricultural policies have a huge impact on nutrition. We got Dr (M.S.) Swaminathan on our board when we started working in India and he has been making others aware of biofortification, as well as other linkages between nutrition and agriculture.
What are the projects you are working on in India?
We have been meeting with the people at Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and we think they will start collaborating with us now. We have already been working with individual research institutes such as Punjab Agricultural University and Banaras Hindu University for the past six-seven years. A few farmers at Varanasi will get the first lines of high-zinc wheat later this year, which have been developed as a result of that collaboration.
We also worked with the Hyderabad-based International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (Icrisat) to help develop high-iron pearl millet. Nirmal Seeds Pvt. Ltd has sold hybrid pearl iron millet seeds, which are also high-yielding, to about 25,000 farmers in Maharashtra but we believe that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Ultimately, we just want ICAR to take charge of biofortification programmes on their own. Forget about HarvestPlus. This is a good idea, and you have the scientific know-how and the funding in India to do this on your own. We will just like to stimulate such research and provide any technical assistance that we can.