Game of Grains:
Why India’s agri-food policies need a holistic review by Raghavan Sampathkumar, SmartAgBiz, Singapore
Milling and Grain has invited Raghavan Sampathkumar, an agribusiness professional, based in Singapore, to provide an overview of changing food policies on the ‘food basket’ in developing countries such as India. Mr Sampathkumar analyses key trends in the global agri-food sector and writes commentaries and columns related to food prices, food crisis, sustainability, hunger and poverty
he term ‘food basket’ here in India actually means a real basket that an average Indian homemaker takes to shop for groceries and food. Some decades ago, her basket (nowadays, ‘his’ too), will contain plenty of vegetables, small millets and a rich variety of leafy greens in addition to staple grains, such as rice and wheat. However, many of the above items had been vanishing, albeit slowly from the food basket, and most of these are not even known to the millennials and Gen X. Even the older generation, that is popularly called as the baby boomers, and who used to consume these diverse foodstuffs everyday had, to a large extent, forgotten them. The transformation of diet in India over the past few decades is mindblowing in the extreme and disturbing to boot. In this article I would like to discus the key macro trends in the consumption of select food crops in India; possible causes of the transformation of diets; potential impacts on health and wellbeing and, finally, the importance of enabling policies that can augment not only food but the nutritional security of a country. Although this analysis is primarily related to India, the recommendations and implications can be applied to any country that shares a similar agrarian, demographic and socio-economic profile.
Is shrinking diet diversity a serious concern?
If one might think how relevant or important diversity in diets is - that is, the different types of commodities and foods that supply nutrients - then they should consider this. In a recent study 34 | Milling and Grain
on how and from where population in different countries derive their calories revealed that in the past 50 years, more and more countries became dependent on fewer crops. In other words, diets of majority of people in several countries across the globe are becoming homogeneous and the dependence on few key crops such as wheat, maize (corn) and soybean. If harvests in any of the major regions that produce these crops face adverse weather, the ramifications go deeper and wider across the globe. Prices tend to soar, and producing countries may take knee-jerk reactive measures to curb trade which will further strangle global availability. Any increase in food prices will push millions deep or deeper into hunger and poverty, particularly in the low-income food deficit countries in Asia and Africa. These issues may cause social unrest and may lead to unexpected situations like the recent Arab Spring.
Possible causes impacting diet diversity
Rising disposable incomes in tandem with economic growth are driving dietary changes particularly in favour of animal protein which in turn drives enormous growth in corn and soybean sectors. The much-celebrated middle-class boom in Asia where more than a couple of hundred million people came out of abject poverty in the last three decades and growing affluence in the middle-to-high income socio-economic classes have also contributed significantly to this phenomenon. However, these few major crops have gradually been replacing a huge variety of traditional and indigenous food crops across the world. For example, in India, there used to be a time when minor