Fruits, veggies as high-value crops

The Union Budget 2017 was emphasised as pro-poor. Of course, there were charges from opposition parties that it neglected certain sections, but overall, there were several elements which merit applause and encouragement.

In the context of the current gloomy public health scenario in India, it is critical that we analyse the commitments made in Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s Budget speech.

Some of the major highlights with respect to promotion of fruits and vegetable (FV) include: enabling farmers to get better prices for their produce; expansion of the coverage of National Agricultural Market (e-NAM) to 585 agricultural produce market committees (APMCs); financial assistance to every e-NAM market for establishment of cleaning, grading and packaging facilities; market reforms to denotify perishables from the APMCs; integration of FV growing farmers with agro processing units for better price realisation and reduction of post-harvest losses.

Fruits and vegetables are not only important from the country’s economic point of view but also from the citizens’ health aspect. Research and ample evidence shows that regular consumption of at least 400 grams per day fruits and vegetables ensures better health and boosts nation’s productivity. The FV helps us meet the micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) requirement in our body which our largely cereal based diet is unable to provide. This becomes even more critical for younger ages.

Science shows that a largely carbohydrate rich diet (unaccompanied by micronutrients) may predispose us towards chronic diseases like cardiovascular problems, diabetes etc. In short, FVs help to tackle both forms of malnutrition – underweight as well as overweight, obesity.

The PHFI’s (Public Health Foundation of India) recent study (November 2016) on FV had highlighted several of the above mentioned issues as bottlenecks for reduced FV consumption among our population.

We had indicated that government’s efforts in this direction were increasing but needed more coordination with the food and nutrition ministry as well as public health action groups to make a much more significant improvement in health and nutrition status of the masses.

We had reported that the FV supply chains were diversifying with traditional, commercial and modern approaches co-existing. This required innovation in production, transport and retail to meet the changing markets. The assurance by the finance minister to develop a model law on contract farming for all states to adopt, works well and may go a long way in enhancing the quality and quantity of yield.

As public health and nutrition researchers, it is important to highlight a few aspects which can further be worked upon using FV to ameliorate the excessive and pervasive micronutrient deficiency in our population. Efforts could be channelised to encourage research and innovation to improve efficiencies, reduce wastage and improve healthy competition for FV as a high value crop both economically and nutritionally.

Focus on improving provision of infrastructure for storage and transport of perishable produce is required; including through drawing on indigenous techniques. Collaboration and coherence in policies across the supply chain need to be strengthened, with a focus on improving outcomes for consumers in terms of access and quality.

Boosting FV sector
The policy implementation across sectors drawing on expertise from the Ministry of Food Processing and Industry, Department of Agriculture (National Horticulture Board), Department of Health, as well as from states and industry can further provide a boost to the FV sector.

This should be done in line with demanding and creating a conducive environment. People should be able to buy fresh FVs without the fear of being cheated on quantity or quality. The digitisation or cashless economy drive should be built up and/or strengthened in peri-urban, urban as well as rural areas especially for small vendors, local FV sellers and farmers.

The process should appear user-friendly and hassle free, else people will still be looking for change for large denominations, which in turn results in huge losses for business of perishable commodities. We must ensure that this becomes a collective move for the people and by the people against corruption to strengthen the economy as well as health status.

(The writer is Associate Professor, Public Health Foundation of India)

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