nutrition

In India we have the biggest programs on nutrition and we have also have some of the highest rates of malnutrition. Despite the expanding nutrition programs (checked for the time being by Covid related factors ), malnutrition levels remain high, as revealed also in the latest surveys. This curious and sad phenomenon has been examined by several learned experts, but somehow some very important factors do not get the attention they clearly deserve.

Nutrition of various foods is  related closely to the soil in which food is grown . When the natural fertility of soil is badly affected due to the decline in the organic matter, by the imposing of various harmful chemicals on soil, by destroying earthworms and various micro-organisms in soil, by heavy erosion and in other ways, then the balance of various nutrients in soil is badly disrupted and the nutrition of various food and fodder crops grown in this is also badly disrupted. This cannot be made up by artificial additives. Hence maintaining good soil health and maintaining organic matter of soil are very important in themselves ( it is  increasingly realized that this is also very important for checking climate change  ) but in addition this is also very important for maintaining proper nutrition content of food , as soil is ultimately the greatest and most important source and resource of all farming.

When soil quality is badly impeded in a society of poor people, this leads to very disastrous nutrition results as many people are eating less than needed and whatever they are eating is also deficient  in nutrition due to soil-related factors ( as well as perhaps other factors as well). In rich societies as people are eating a lot, they may make up nutrition deficiencies  but in their case soil-related adverse factors may be reflected in disease.

Secondly a somewhat related factor is that balanced time-honored, traditional diets are fast being replaced by other foods. In India, for example the daal-roti and daal-bhaat traditional diet makes very sound nutritious sense which also relates beautifully and organically to soil-health. For example the proteins and other nutrients of important cereals and legumes often complement each other and hence make for a balanced diet, a scientific fact which is affirmed by common people every day as they find it more nourishing to eat these foods together rather than separately. In terms of soil health , in farming this corresponds to mixed farming of, for example, wheat and gram, or other mixed farming systems and rotations of cereals and legumes, as nutrients needed by cereals are provided free and effortlessly by nitrogen-fixing abilities of legume crops. Unfortunately, these balances of nutrition systems and their organic relationships with soil health have been neglected in recent times.

Instead the official food security system and public distribution system in India gives unbalanced, one-sided importance to just two cereal crops , neglecting pulses and millets, which in turn pushes poorer families towards a more unbalanced diet, leading not just to malnutrition but even higher possibilities of disease. Nutritionally some of the richest millet crops have been increasingly neglected, a fact which has proved costly also for soil health. Such trends towards malnutrition have of course been accentuated by the increasing arrival of packaged junked food even in many poorer households, particularly in urban households.

A frequently neglected factor not just in market-purchased and packaged food but sometimes even in food cooked at home  and even nutrition centers is the quality of cooking/edible oil. Unfortunately the use of hydrogenated edible oils, which convert healthy and useful unsaturated and poly-unsaturated fats in oilseeds to unhealthy and harmful saturated fats has spread widely as this is promoted as cheaper oil in attracted ways by powerful agribusiness companies. In addition some of the cheaper imported oils( including possibility of  GM oils) are also not good for health. The domestically produced GM cottonseed oil, obtained from Bt. cotton, is widely used in some markets for making snacks and namkeens. It will be useful to know and monitor how healthy are the oils  used in our nutrition programs, as preparing safe healthy food is particularly important for small children as well as pregnant and lactating mothers.

All these factors are important but an even more important fact is the simple and very sad reality that a very large number of households in India ( and in several other  countries ) simply cannot afford  adequate and nutritionally balanced food for all family members on a regular basis. Their number is likely to be increasing and will increase more in times of climate change. Even the landless farm workers who toil the hardest directly in producing this food cannot afford this. As long as this very sad reality persists, only nutrition schemes by themselves cannot fill the gap in nutrition; we simply need more justice and equality in the world and ultimately this is the most important fact for ending hunger and malnutrition.

The writer is a freelance journalist whose reports on food and farming issues have been recognized in the form of several awards. His latest books included Man Over Machine ( Gandhian perspective for our times) and When the Two Streams Met ( Freedom Movement of India). Website—bharatdogra.in   


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