Pandemic Causes Food Security to Wobble, While Much of Rural India Still Continues to be Underfed

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

I intended to write about the pandemic’s impact on food security today. As regular readers know, the pandemic has brought this problem to the fore, and it is an issue over which I have great concern. Yet while food security has indeed wobbled as a result of the pandemic,  in many places not accustomed to seeing food supply problems, there has yet to be a widespread lack of  food – despite many areas experiencing shortages of particular foodstuffs (see Food Security: UN Warns People Are Vulnerable to Shortages as the COVID-19 Pandemic Continues).

Although there have been clusters of infection concentrated among those who produce our food – take, as just a few examples, meatpackers in the U.S. and Germany, and migrant or temporary workers who sow, tend, or harvest food – so far, these problems have been manageable to the security of our food supply. (I leave aside the dire impact on workers; see for a discussion of U.S.meatpackers, Meatpacking Companies Dismissed Years of Warnings but Now Say Nobody Could Have Prepared for COVID-19.)

I’m not sure what will happen if the pandemic continues, particularly in regions that account for major shares of local or international food production. But the assumed ability to continue to feed ourselves adequately is by no means a certainty, as the pandemic continues and spreads in much of the world. And one of humanity’s scourges throughout its history – famine – may therefore be set to make an unwelcome comeback.

Indian Malnutrition

Against this grim backdrop, however, what I do want to focus on today is a  paper published by the International Food Policy Research Institute, and summarised n The Wire, After Abysmal Hunger Index Rank, Paper Points Out 3 of 4 Rural Indians Can’t Afford Nutritious Diet. To those who don’t know that much about India, I want to highlight that the bulk of the population resides in rural areas, where people produce the food that they and the rest of the country rely on to consume.

So it’s especially sad these rural Indians cannot afford a nutritious diet – and that this problem predates the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. How many years are we into the so-called Green Revolution and the problem of the adequacy of a nutritious food supply persists?

Over to The Wire:

India has ranked 94 among 107 nations in the Global Hunger Index 2020 and is in the ‘serious’ hunger category. Experts have blamed poor implementation processes, lack of effective monitoring, a siloed approach in tackling malnutrition and poor performance by large states.

Published in the peer-reviewed journal Food Policy, this latest paper, titled Affordability of nutritious diets in rural India, is written by the Institute’s economist Kalyani Raghunathan and researcher Derek D. Headey, along with senior researcher Anna Herforth.

The paper arrives at the conclusion that ‘malnutrition is endemic in India,’ based on information on rural food price and wages gleaned from the 2011 National Sample Survey. The writers use this data to arrive at “the least cost means of satisfying India-specific dietary recommendations…and assess the affordability of this diet relative to male and female wages for unskilled labourers.”

In spite of the fact that, “in 2015-16 some 38% of preschool children were stunted and 21% were wasted, while more than half of Indian mothers and children were anaemic,” the paper finds that “surprisingly few” discuss the role of diets, particularly the affordability of nutritious diets in India.

The Wire featured another recent post in the last few days, highlighting Ithe country’s poor global hunger ranking India Ranks 94 Among 107 Countries in Global Hunger Index 2020. This is a statistic that is prominently left out of the breathless summaries that laud the country’s entry into the middle class.

Effect of the Pandemic

Now, the pandemic has almost certainly worsened India’s hunger problem. The country experienced an extended stringent lockdown that began in March. In spite of this policy, India is at the moment second only to the U.S. in the number of coronavirus cases recorded – although its infection rate has seemingly peaked. It has yet to open up for international flights. Interestingly, despite its relatively poor health care system, its COVID-19 mortality rate is one of the world average, and there is much speculation as to why this is so (see India has one of the world’s lowest Covid-19 mortality rates. But the numbers don’t tell the whole story).

So far, however, India has avoided the outright famine that has afflicted it before, as I previously noted in Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread: Coronavirus and Food Security. Most recently, during World War Two, the country lost millions to the Bengal famine – an entirely preventable catastrophe that was a direct consequence of Raj policy – as opposed to some consequence of being at war. No less than the Indian Nobelist A.K. Sen made his academic bones by writing about this episode, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, and concluded that democracy helps countries avoid famines.

At this point, undernourished rural Indians are no longer confronting outright starvation, but instead suffer from the lack of a nutritious diet. According to the Hindu, one of India’s leading newspapers, 76% of rural Indians can’t afford a nutritious diet: study:

Unlike the Economic Survey’s Thalinomics, which provided a rosier picture of meal costs, this study uses the wages of unskilled workers who make up a larger proportion of the population than industrial workers, and includes items such as dairy, fruit and dark green leafy vegetables that are essential as per India’s official dietary guidelines.

….

The findings are significant in the light of the fact that India performs abysmally on many nutrition indicators even while the country claims to have achieved food security. On Friday, the Global Hunger Index showed that India has the world’s highest prevalence of child wasting, reflecting acute undernutrition. On indicators that simply measure calorie intake, India performs relatively better, but they do not account for the nutrition value of those calories.

The National Institute for Nutrition’s guidelines for a nutritionally adequate diet call for adult women to eat 330 gm of cereals and 75 gm of pulses a day, along with 300 gm of dairy, 100 gm of fruit, and 300 gm of vegetables, which should include at least 100 gm of dark green leafy vegetables. Selecting the cheapest options from actual Indian diets — wheat, rice, bajra, milk, curd, onions, radish, spinach, bananas — the study calculated that a day’s meals would cost ₹45 (or ₹51 for an adult man).

Even if they spent all their income on food, 63.3% of the rural population or more than 52 crore Indians would not be able to afford that nutritious meal. If they set aside just a third of their income for non-food expenses, 76% of rural Indians would not be able to afford the recommended diet. This does not even account for the meals of non-earning members of a household, such as children or older adults.

“These numbers are somewhat speculative, but they do reveal the scale of the dietary affordability problem in rural India: nutritious diets are too expensive, and incomes far too low,” says the paper.

The paper itself is interesting to read – and short, so I reproduce it for interested readers here, Affordability of nutritious diets in rural India. But it lacks any takeaway charts, for those who are visually inclined. Hence my reliance on the widely accessible, secondary press summaries.

The message: pre-pandemic, the International Food Policy Research Institute concluded that most rural Indians lack sufficient quantity of quality of foods to eat. The problem is persistent and will likely only get worse as a result of the COVD-19 pandemic, which has hit India particularly hard

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4 comments

  1. JBird4049

    Hmm, some of what is written here could be said of the United States as well. The nation already already had a hunger problem before the current pandemic arrived. From personal experience the various food pantries were wonderfully inadequate and the qualifications for CalFresh (Californian’s version of SNAP or food stamps) too strict before the current slow collapse of the economy.

    Fortunately for me, the state has loosened and expanded the still inadequate amount of food aid. Between that and my family I have not gone hungry at all since March. I worry about those who do not have such good luck either because they slip between the various qualifications for aid, or don’t have friends, or family to help them.

    More germane to Jerri-Lynn’s post, it is a good indicator of how democratic, how concerned about the general welfare, or how well run a society is by how hungry the lower classes are. The Chinese Empire made hunger, or at least true famines rare, because of the deliberate stockpiling of grain that was released during crop failures. Then the central government was greatly weakened by the Western powers and back came the famines. The British East India Company, and later its replacement, the British Raj, interfered with the local governments’ and populations’ ability to deal with famine using libertarian and social Darwinistic or racist reasoning. As with the Irish, impeding the ability of grain merchants was not acceptable but starving millions to death while grain was warehoused behind walls and armed soldiers.

    In India, Ireland, and even China, the problem was not an absolute lack of food or an inability to ship in an adequate supply of it, but ideologies that became fasbut hionable in the British elites and therefore the government that of the market was best left to run itself (libertarianism) and social Darwinism. Into the first decades of the 19th century, the British government had a policy of government intervention in a famine. Crop failures before then were not allowed to cause the deaths of millions. Then the policy changed around 1820, IIRC. Food was allowed to be shipped out of both India and Ireland during their famines because it was more profitable for the merchants. In Ireland’s case, there was also talk about the “surplus population”… Starting with the British caused Opium Wars, the Chinese central government started to lose the ability to function, including dealing with famine.

    I bring up the British practice from the 17th to 20th century destruction of local governments and institutions followed by the strip mining of resources and lives for profit of entire civilizations often using the military for profit because that is what is happening today. If the United States, and I assume India, had a government that did not function like the Five Families then hunger would not be a problem. But we do have that and that means that despite having always enough food, people are always going hungry. It has been increasing for decades.

    Reply
    1. a different chris

      Good insight and notice the “Green Revolution” is completely orthogonal to the problem.

      Well maybe – what if food was free? in the most bare form of capitalism, then nobody would make any. Oops. You seem to need government, because it needs a populace to govern, and therefore needs to feed said populace. That leads to commanding the production of food.

      Interesting interrelation to, um, chew on. Feeding people has to be worth somebody’s while for some reason.

      Mostly it seems people get fed the best, or at least the broadest, if there is a war on (as long as their side is not losing badly).

      Reply
  2. Mark

    Nutrition is always a tough thing to measure beyond simplistic calorie measures because so what is necessary for a sufficiently nutritious diet is far from settled science. (Not that I’m suggesting the metric used here is in any way inadequate.)

    This discussion also reminds me of the discussion in “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” which touch upon the notion that through much of history peasants in agrarian societies have had poorer diets than pre-historic people.

    The position of rural unskilled people in India (and some other countries) is not to much different from European peasants from 500 years ago.

    Reply

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