The role of technology in India's nutritional security

The success of genetic modification technologies lies in supporting public policy and transparency of data obtained during safety studies and field trials
Last Updated : 20 August 2022, 09:37 IST
Last Updated : 20 August 2022, 09:37 IST

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As India celebrated its 76th Independence Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid out the vision for an aspirational India. Indeed, building on a foundation of seven decades of economic progress, India should now look to a future of growth and prosperity on par with developed economies. Core to this goal is the requirement of a healthy population.

India has made stupendous strides in becoming self-sufficient in food, primarily driven by technological investments during the green revolution. Using hybrid varieties of plants, new irrigational methods and chemicals in the form of fertilisers and pesticides allowed India to achieve food security when most of the international community had low expectations of us. However, this shift was more than three decades ago. An aspirational India cannot be satisfied with only achieving food security. An aspirational India has to aim at nutritional security – providing high-quality, nutritious food to all Indian citizens.

Nutritional security would include not only providing necessary nutrition to those malnourished but also targeting those with diet-driven lifestyle diseases. Growing and consuming healthy food has to be at the centre of achieving this ambition. For example, the consumption of iron is a significant component of maternal service schemes – but can that excess iron requirement be met through food instead of external medicines?

Similarly, lack of protein intake can result in malnutrition but can be countered by access to protein. Malnutrition is widespread in children, with a UNICEF report estimating that 69 per cent of deaths of children under the age of 5 years is because of malnutrition. Further, the report suggested that only 42 per cent of children (in the age group of 6 to 23 months) are fed at an adequate frequency, and 21 per cent get an adequately diverse diet. Conversely, India has also recorded a four per cent increase in obesity in both men and women in the last five years, according to the fifth National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5). While a host of reasons drive obesity, access to nutritious food is a key influencing factor. To resolve both undernutrition and obesity, the availability of a variety of nutritious food is essential.

The key to accessing nutritious food lies in getting good agricultural produce – be it crops or fisheries. This would require increasing both the yield and quality of our crops. The PM hinted at organic or natural farming as a potential way of achieving better yields. However, as evident from the recent experience of Sri Lanka, investing in a single form of farming can adversely impact national food security. Changes to agricultural strategies have to be gradual and safeguard against a variety of assaults such as pests, famine and deteriorating quality of soil, whilst increasing yields to suffice an increasing population. No single farming strategy can solve these problems; indeed, India has to deploy a mix of natural, organic and technology-enabled farming to stay apace of our nutritional demands. In this regard, genetically modified crops also increase crop yields by protecting against pests.

Further, India will also require produce that can deliver better nutrition – be it in the form of an increased repertoire of nutrients, reduced harmful components or food that preserves nutrients longer. Achieving this using traditional farming methods is possible only to a certain extent. Traditional breeding also takes relatively longer and may not result in the desired characteristic. The solution to better quality produce lies in innovation – another facet of agriculture that the PM highlighted. His call for the inclusion of Jan Anusadhan – growth driven by innovation – to Jai Kisan, Jai Jawan, is the way forward for Indian agriculture to provide nutritional security.

Genetic modification technologies provide a method to achieve a desirable characteristic while retaining other important food traits. These technologies are relatively faster than traditional breeding and can be targeted to add or subtract particular characteristics. Gene modifications can also result in characteristics that may not be easily achievable using traditional breeding – resistance to bollworms in cotton, for example.

Efforts are being made to fortify traditional staples to deliver more nutrients and produce healthier oils. For example, Genetically Modified (GM) soybean – a good source of protein - has been engineered with relatively lower levels of polyunsaturated fats. The oil derived from this soybean has been demonstrated to confer certain health benefits compared to oil derived from conventional soybean. Further understanding of crop biology and increased dexterity of gene modification techniques will yield crops better tailored to tackle problems that will inadvertently arise as a result of climate change, increasing food demand and decreasing biodiversity.

However, the success of genetic modification technologies lies in the formulation of supporting public policy and transparency of data obtained during safety studies and field trials. Thus, innovation can only thrive when a conducive environment is created. The current narrative of all genetically modified food being unsafe or "bad" precludes any new investment or research in this area. Instead, a case-by-case evaluation of the net benefits offered by a particular genetically modified crop would ensure India avails of beneficial crops whilst also safeguarding the health of our citizens.

As India progresses, we have to aspire to aim for nutritional security instead of only food security. Technology has to be a major driver, and judging emerging technologies without a complete evaluation and benefit to risk assessment would result in India missing out on key advances. Therefore, India needs to embrace the call for Jai Anusandhan and develop policies that can enhance the development and adoption of key emerging technologies.

(Shambhavi Naik is Head of Research, Takshashila Institution)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

Published 20 August 2022, 05:10 IST

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