Pawan Agarwal Discusses the Drive Towards Healthy Diets in India28 September 2023
India’s rich culinary diversity and deep-rooted agricultural traditions place the country in a unique position to champion the cause of healthy, affordable, and sustainable diets. From my vantage point as the former CEO of the FSSAI and currently leading the Food Future Foundation, the choice to delve into the food sector has been fuelled by a deeper desire to understand and make a difference in this increasingly important area.
Food systems aren’t just essential for human sustenance; they play a pivotal role in maintaining ecological balance. Their importance has, unfortunately, not been highlighted adequately. Given the multifaceted challenges facing our food systems, innovative and contemporary solutions will be the cornerstone of progress in the upcoming years. The large and complex challenges facing our food systems require fresh thinking, making it perhaps one of the most exciting areas to work in during the coming decades.
Food Security vs. Nutrition Security
India, in recent years, has admirably addressed food security challenges, even assisting other nations grappling with the same. However, nutrition security remains elusive. The country’s predominant focus on staples like rice and wheat means most diets are high in carbohydrates but low in essential nutrients. This strategy doesn’t only impact health but has environmental repercussions, leading to overutilization of freshwater resources, soil degradation due to excessive fertilizer application, and dwindling biodiversity. The need of the hour is to diversify agricultural practices and promote a varied diet.
It’s vital to aim for a holistic food system that addresses nutrition and environmental sustainability in tandem.
Self-regulation vs. State Regulation
India’s food market, with its fierce competition, often finds businesses at a crossroads between profitability and public health. While there are instances where companies have voluntarily chosen healthier production practices, the temptation to produce high-margin, ultra-processed foods is undeniable. It’s crucial that regulations walk the fine line between fostering a competitive business environment and safeguarding public health.
Root Causes of Nutritional Challenges
The main contributors to undernutrition include a lack of diverse diets, particularly among women and children, leading to intergenerational malnutrition. This isn’t just about calorie intake; it’s the “hidden hunger” caused by micronutrient deficiencies that exacerbates the problem. Conversely, the obesity epidemic can be traced back to easy access and aggressive promotion of ultra-processed foods.
Global conglomerates, armed with substantial financial clout and sophisticated marketing techniques, have significantly influenced the Indian food market. Their presence has inadvertently pushed local entities to prioritize profitability, sometimes at the cost of health. This intense competition often nudges Indian companies towards producing unhealthier options.
Changing Consumer Behaviour
The past two decades have seen a paradigm shift in Indian consumer preferences. The quest for convenience, driven by a fast-paced lifestyle, has often come at the expense of nutritional value. This trend has been exacerbated by the industry’s keenness to cater to these changing preferences without adequate emphasis on health implications. The industry has been quick to adapt to these preferences, often at the cost of people’s health.
Managing Lifestyle Diseases
Poor diets are a significant concern, whether in poverty or wealth, one is for lack of food, the other for the lack of knowledge of food. Thus, diet-related health concerns are ubiquitous, spanning both ends of the economic spectrum. While the availability of food has been addressed to an extent, there is a glaring gap in terms of knowledge of food and nutrition. Integrating food literacy in school education in the same manner as foundation literacy and numeracy is the way forward so that children as they grow up develop a positive relationship with food and are able to make informed choices for themselves.
Comprehensive campaigns, focusing on imparting knowledge about balanced diets, could be a game-changer.
Market Forces and Outcomes
An outright prohibition on certain foods may not be the solution. Instead, cultivating health-centric ecosystems, especially in educational and public spaces, might yield better results. Furthermore, incentivizing companies that prioritize health could drive positive change.
Impact of ATNI’s India Index
Tools like the ATNI’s India Index can act as catalysts, propelling companies towards healthier offerings. Such endeavors, when supported and acknowledged by the government, can lead to widespread industry transformation.
While both metropolises offer diverse culinary options, Mumbai’s more health-conscious demographic has seemingly influenced local businesses to offer a wider range of nutritious dishes.
In conclusion, the journey towards healthier, sustainable, and affordable diets in India is complex, but with collective efforts, it’s a vision we can realize. Steering India towards a healthier, sustainable, and affordable dietary landscape is undoubtedly challenging. However, with a coordinated effort from all stakeholders, this aspiration can certainly become a reality.
The ATNI Socials Blog is a series of personal commentaries to stimulate discussion on how to transform markets so that they provide more nutritious, affordable and sustainable foods. Our hope is to trigger understanding around the causes and the cures for access to nutrition.