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The Borlaug Blog

Achieving Food Security and Nutrition (SDG2) calls for a multi-sectoral approach going beyond food production

By Uma Lele
9th Winner of the M.S. Swaminathan Award, 2017

I had the pleasure of working with Norman Borlaug and President Carter in the Sasakawa program in Africa. As a student of Indian Agriculture, of course I have seen Borlaug’s large footprint on Indian agriculture, which became the cradle of the Green Revolution. Not only did he introduce new hybrid wheat and rice varieties to India- the famous 18,000 tons of seed shipped from Mexico in 1966 to plant the first harvest, come “hail or high water”, using his access he pushed for policies which made a Green Revolution possible in a matter of a few years, he ushered in new breeding techniques (Rajaram, The Borlaug Blog, November 6, 2017), and even more importantly, he bred generation of distinguished scientists who sustained the Green Revolution, inspired and trained by him. Seven of the 46 World Food Prize winners are from India, including several plant breeders. In 2005 Borlaug was presented the first M. S. Swaminathan Award, set up by a non-profit trust, and named after the father of India’s Green Revolution, to recognize his unique leadership in agricultural sciences and the deep partnership between Borlaug and Swaminathan. Borlaug’s imposing statue stands at the entrance of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), a rare recognition in a proud country that does not easily accord credit to foreigners, after a long history of colonialism.

Much as Borlaug had the rare gift of foresight to move on from the quantity of food production to the issues of food quality and nutrition, with his relentless pursuit of quality protein maize, Swaminathan, now 94 years old, has been persistent in expressing his concern about food insecurity and poor nutrition. At the 9th Award ceremony, on October 30th, 2017, in New Delhi, where I was awarded the Swaminathan Award, noting India’s ranking in the International Food Policy Research Institute’s (IFPRI’s) 2017 Global Hunger Index of 100 out of 119 countries, he sought to know how this could be justified given that India produced over 300 million tons of foodgrain, 150 million tons of milk and over 200 million tons of pulses. We can go on talking about our achievements with regard to record production, he noted, but outside they talk about what we have not achieved particularly in terms of malnutrition, "Malnutrition of our children for 1,000 days is very critical for their brain development. Therefore, there is no time to relax."

Some Indian intellectuals have been reluctant to accept IFPRI’s analysis, accusing it of being “hungry for publicity in the name of the poor”, while denying the extent of malnourishment, as I noted in my Op Ed in the Indian Express (Lele, The Indian Express, November 3, 2017).

Nutrition is a complex challenge with multiple interacting factors explaining the extent of malnourishment. Although there is plenty of evidence globally and in India suggesting that poor nutrition affects early childhood development, learning and earning potential with life-cycle effects on national health and economic growth, there is need for widespread education of people ranging from the elite policymakers to poor consumers to achieve noticeable improvement in the nutritional status of populations. Fortunately India has a new comprehensive nutrition strategy, and recognizing the importance of sanitation to controlling diarrheal diseases, which affect food retention Prime Minister Modi launched a flagship Clean India initiative soon after getting elected. By October 2019, Modi has vowed, every Indian will have access to a toilet, and the country will be free of the scourge of open defecation. Since his coming to power, more than 52 million toilets have been installed. But the trick, sanitation experts say, is getting people to use them (Doshi, The Washington Post, November 6, 2017), much as there is a challenge of improving soil and water quality and burning crop residues in Northwest India which is contributing to the appalling levels of pollution. In short there is no time to rest. For an emerging country with one of the fastest economic growth rates, food surpluses combined with the largest incidence of hunger and infant mortality, India needs to implement its newly announced nutrition strategy with a focus on evidence, results and learning. That calls for a true commitment at the level of the 28 Indian states and over 500 districts with a focus on improved outcomes for the poor and accountability for those in governance. Besides the solutions need to go far beyond the expansion of sanitation, important as that is, to women’s education and participation, an issue that was dear to Borlaug’s heart and remains so with Swaminathan. Dr. Saumiya Swaminathan is the new Dy. Director General of World Health Organization (WHO). She not only provides a role model to women at large but more importantly can play a pivotal role in promoting public health throughout the developing world, continuing Borlaug’s legacy in the next generation.


Uma Lele, 9th Winner of the M.S. Swaminathan Award, 2017

01/22/2018 9:01 AM |Add a comment |Comments (1)
With record production of diversified food in India - challenge remains to come up with pragmatic and achievable action plan and its effective implementation at local, state and national levels . Uma , hope you will continue your efforts .

jitendra srivastava | | 01/22/2018 4:55 PM
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