Increased production of staple crops and improved varieties offer the chance to deliver necessary calories, iron and other essential vitamins to undernourished people throughout India. A few weeks ago in Hyderabad, TCi coordinated a multi-sector meeting with plant breeders, economists, private agribusiness companies, NGO organizations, and intergovernmental organizations at ICRISAT to discuss how to expand supply and improve demand for protein-dense and biofortified foods in India. The nutriton challenges facing India are extraordinary: the country suffers one of the highest global rates of childhood stunting and malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies, like anemia are estimated to affect more than half of women and adolescent girls.
The Big Question for India:
In particular, the February 26-27th meeting focused on discussing opportunities and challenges around aggregation models that could:
- expand the supply of biofortified pearl millet in Rajasthan, Gujarat and western Maharashtra and,
- increase per capita consumption of protein-dense pulses around the country through increased supply.
Participants in this spirited discussion included a select number of academics and NGO participants, in addition to wide-spread participation by an eager private sector. After an initial day of discussing international and domestic models for aggregation with smallholder farmers, workshop participants broke up into two groups. One focused on the challenges facing increasing the supply of biofortified pearl millet, and the other on the impediments to elevating per-capita consumption of pulses through domestic supply improvments.
Biofortified pearl millet and iron-rich food: expanding production and enabling access
Biofortification technologies—which utilize traditional plant breeding methods and not genetic modification—can help provide access to micronutrients for communities that depend on cereals. Pearl millet is a staple consumed in much of Rajasthan, Gujarat, and western Maharashtra. Biofortification of the crop requires increases in seed production and wide-spread adoption of the hybrid varieties in order to decrease relative prices and increase local demand. Yet millets are grown on marginal lands, with farmers who face lack of access to inputs, credit, and other technologies; including biofortified varieties. Moreover, for demand to increase and for justification for a slightly elevated price, consumers need assurance that they are truly buying an improved product. Among other things, this new market opportunity for smallholder farmers depends on the development of certified supply chains and marketing efforts that can grant farmers price premiums for cultivation and consumers confidence in product value.
On the production front, farmer interest in cultivation of biofortified pearl millet will depend on access to necessary services that can help farmers improve productivity (access to inputs and extension) and certification efforts that can differentiate the product and enable price premiums. On the marketing front, coordinated efforts with public health officials, integration with school feeding programs (e.g., the mid-day meal program), the public distribution program (PDS) and other institutional buyers (i.e., ICDS), was thought to be capable of creating the marketing push for highlighting the benefits of biofortified pearl millet for both urban and rural consumers.
Key take-aways include:
- Biofortification programmes should made integral in all national breeding programmes.
- Policy reform to ensure that varieties have minimum threshold levels of Fe (iron) and Zn (zinc).
- Establishing economically viable testing procedures for assessing the Fe and Zn content of product along the value chain.
- Differentiated supply chains for selling of the varieties (hybrids) to farmers through branding, labeling, and certification efforts.
- Organizing consumer awareness and education campaigns and promotion as ‘health foods.’
- Research and development targeting increased productivity of biofortified pearl millet varieties at farmer level.
Increasing protein intake through pulse consumption throughout India: focusing on raising per capita consumption
Meanwhile, increases in the consumption of traditionally available pulses, including chickpea and pigeon pea (key ingredients in various dahls and other Indian foods) can play a key role in sustaining access to protein-dense food that improve nutrition. Recently, declines in per capita consumption of these protein-dense foods have exacerbated the problem of undernutrition; for the poor in India, many are consuming less than 50% of necessary average protein required. Increased imports from Canada are further reducing the incentive to produce local varieties.
Strengthening demand for pulse production can mean income opportunities for rural families farming marginalized, rain-fed land where little else can grow. Currently, however, the working group noted how incentives at the policy and individual level are not aligned to expand production. Contextual factors suggest multiple reasons why farmers have moved out of pulse production. Imports of pulses have caused relative price decreases, which, along with poor yield prospects for Indian pulses (due to lack of research and investment) further reduce production incentives. Additionally, as irrigation development occurs, farmers move out of pulse production in favor of higher-value alternative cash crops. If pulses remain a ‘poor persons crop’ and not a cash crop, the links between a) improved nutrition though increased income and, b) improved nutrition though increases in available supply (placing downward pressure on prices) could be lost.
Key take-aways from the group:
- New farm management strategies to incentivize cultivation of pulses at the farm-level including intercropping, rice fallows, and residual moisture.
- Procurement by Indian government at a market support price (MSP) in order to kick-start production and offer price incentives.
- Opportunities to link smallholder pulse production to public-distribution system (PDS) in order increase availability in critical areas through a clear market route.
- Increased investment in research including better varieties (e.g., short duration, disease resistance, etc.).
- Open up alternative market routes (including as an ingredient in snack or ‘ready-to-go’ foods).
- Awareness raising and policy focus on vulnerable segments.
Have a look at the TCi power point presentation given during the workshop titled: International Lessons: Models for Linking Smallholder Farmers to Markets :