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IRRI India, IRRI SARC, convene on Transforming Food Systems through Sustainable Value Chains

04 February Delhi, India - The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) South Asia Office in India convened a multi-sectoral panel discussion on - “Creating Sustainable Value Chains for Transforming Food Systems” on 4 February, at the National Agricultural Science Complex in Delhi. 

Senior representatives from agriculture, nutrition, environment, R&D, and policy deliberated on how to collaborate for operationalizing food system transformation in India and South Asia. The multi-disciplinary perspectives focused on a new paradigm of food systems transformation that is emerging in the context of ‘planetary boundaries’, and is defining the ‘safe operating space’ for imparting stability to earth systems and human health.

Pertinent to this dialogue are both the supply and demand-side challenges. Citing the USD550 billion food sector in India, Mr. Pawan Agarwal, CEO of Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) in his keynote address emphasized the existing demand and supply challenges, for ensuring high standards and safety of food production and consumption. 

“Access, affordability, quality, robust agricultural systems supported by robust supply chain and informed buyers is imperative for transforming food systems,” he said. Thanking IRRI for organizing this timely discussion, he said FSSAI’s ‘Eat Right India’ movement launched in 2018, similarly encouraged a ‘holistic societal approach’ for bringing about a food systems transformation.

Today, more than 4 out of 10 children and 1 in 10 adults in India suffer from chronic undernutrition, trends that are further aggravated by land degradation, climate change, poverty, and slowing growth in the agriculture sector.

Achieving SDG 2, ‘Ending Hunger’, will be challenging, said Dr. Nafees Meah, Regional Representative for IRRI in South Asia, unless multiple stakeholders came together to tackle these issues. “For convergent action on food systems transformation, to move from being ‘food surplus’ to ‘nutrition secure’, we need to bring together gastronomy and food science”, he said. 

Ms. Supreet Kaur, Senior Technical Expert on Nutrition with the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI Aayog), the policy think tank of the Government of India for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, gave a keen policy perspective on the nutritional status of India in the context of the ‘POSHAN Abhiyan’, India’s National Nutrition Mission (The Government of India’s flagship program to improve nutritional outcomes).

One of the key recommendations that emerged was the pressing need for developing and strengthening robust and sustainable value chains with appropriate cropping and mixed livestock/fish systems tailored for specific agro-ecologies in India and South Asia. In the interim, the fortification and/or biofortification of staple crops with iron, zinc, and beta-carotene, low glycemic index, and low arsenic can help address the challenges of poor nutrition and unsafe food, among the more vulnerable consumers, especially women and children, in India. 

Over the past decades, agricultural policies in India have focused on increasing food production. The panel discussed how the current policy focus needs to also consider the negative externalities on nutrition, natural capital, and biodiversity.

While significant steps have been taken to address the challenges arising in the agri-nutrition sphere, a holistic approach is needed that ensures the existing food systems promote :

1)  Access to affordable nutritious and healthy food for all;
2) Sustainable food production, processing, trade and retailing;
3) Mitigating and adapting to climate change, and
4) Improved smallholder farmer livelihoods and resilience by enhancing the prosperity of farming and rural communities.

Other important speakers included, Mr. Basanta Kar, Transform Nutrition Champion and Nutrition Leadership Awardee 2019; Dr. Purnima Menon, Senior Research Fellow, International Food Policy Research (IFPRI); Dr. Arabinda Padhee, Director, Country Relations and Business Affairs; Dr. Shariqua Yunus;  Dr. A K Singh, Indian Council of Agricultural Research, Deputy Director General (Agricultural Extension); Dr. Alok Sikka, International Water Management Institute (IWMI), India Representative; Dr. Sheetal Sharma, Nutrient Management Specialist for IRRI South Asia; and Dr. Dinesh Kumar Scientists ‘G’ from the National Institute of Nutrition. 

A policy brief will be prepared based on the debate and discussions at this panel discussion.