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Transforming South Asia’s Food Systems





IRRI Regional Representative for South Asia Dr. Nafees Meah is the guest editor for the "Food Systems Transformation" issue no. 147, 2021 of the Geography and You (G'nY) Magazine. The following is an overview of the issue as written by Dr. Meah.




Food systems are at the heart of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development because they engage food security and human nutrition, ecosystem services, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and rural prosperity. However, the current food system in South Asia is dysfunctional and what is needed is its transformation to deliver benefits for people and the planet. The challenge now is to articulate in concrete terms how this is to be achieved in South Asia? 

This week, the United Nations is convening a Food System Summit (FSS) in New York. This Summit aims to “serve as a historic opportunity to empower all people to leverage the power of food systems to drive our recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and get us back on track to achieve all 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030”. As an input to this global exercise, I was very pleased to help bring together some of the leading experts working on food system transformation in South Asia to share their perspectives and add to the debate in this special issue of the popular journo-magazine ‘Geography and You’ on Transforming South Asia’s Food Systems, that I had the privilege of guest-editing.

Among our contributors, we were delighted to have Pawan Agarwal and Prof. Saleemul Huq, who are both co-chairs of individual Action Tracks in the UN FSS, and Prof. Ramesh Chand who is the National Convenor for FSS Dialogues for the Government of India. Ramesh Chand neatly encapsulates the challenge now facing India as transitioning from a “grow more” to a “growth plus” model which integrates natural resource management and better nutrition. Saleemul Huq reminds us that “even though climate change is a big negative coming our way, it is not something that has to define or defeat us” - so long as we empower citizens, especially farmers, fishers, and livestock herders.  

To achieve FSS in South Asia requires both a sound evidence base for radical new policies and the adoption of innovations across the food value chain at scale (Meah & Puskur). That means research for development is a critical element in this transition. Micronutrient deficiency remains a major issue across South Asia and one way to address “hidden hunger” in the short term is through biofortification of staple crops (Mohapatra, Yadava et. al.). Extension advisory services (EAS) can play a critical role in scaling up climate-resilient agriculture. However, their capacities to support farmers in adapting to climate change need to be substantially enhanced (Sulaiman). The rapid pace of structural transformation and male migration is furthering the engagement of women in agriculture.  Their involvement in food systems not only enhances their well-being but their families and future generations. However, there is a pressing need for reducing inequities in access to resources (Vemireddy).  

Pawan Agarwal argues that food cannot be considered nutritious if it is not safe. Harmful effects of unsafe food make it impossible to achieve desired nutrition objectives. While this point may seem obvious, there is a paucity of evidence and data on foodborne illnesses and, consequently, food safety has received little attention in South Asia.  The share of India’s agricultural exports in the global market has increased over time. However, analysis of commodity composition has shown that exports are still dominated by rice and crustaceans.  If agricultural transformation in India is to be led by export specialization, then it will remain stunted unless there is diversification of the agricultural export basket (Kannan & Kumar). Finally, much has been written about the “White Revolution” in India.  However, the role that can be played by non-bovine milk is often overlooked (Rout & Verma).  

We hope that this series of papers in this special issue of Geography & You will contribute to delineating how in practical terms food system transformation, which delivers better health and a better environment, will take place in South Asia.


Related links:

Food imperatives in context of the agriculture, nutrition, and environment nexus