India’s grain and pulses – balancing yield and nutrition

Increased food grain production may not be always good news

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grain
If food production has risen, so has population and demand

As climate change wreaks havoc, and an uneven and inconsistent rainfall pattern puts farmers in distress, concerns over crop production and food security take center stage. Food grain production in India has risen over the years per se. Let’s look at the bright side first.

In the Indian July 2022 to June 2023 crop year, the final estimates for food grain output were 329.68 million tons, up 4% or 14.1 million tons from a year ago. In fact, government data shows food grain output rose over the past decade – from 257 million tons in 2012-13 to 315.6 million tons in 2021-22.

The production of rice in 2022-23 was estimated at a record 135.75 million tons, up by 6.28 million tons from the previous year. Wheat production was estimated at 110.55 million tons, up 2.8 million tons more than the previous year. Total pulse production during 2022-23 was estimated at 26 million tons.

Rising demand

However, if food production has risen, so have population and demand. Take for example pulses or dal, a staple in Indian meals and key for meeting the population’s protein and nutrition requirements. A comprehensive article in Business Standard on 29 January explains the demand-supply gap in pulses amid India’s race to become self-sufficient in food grains.

According to the article, a demand-supply projection of major agriculture items by the NITI Aayog a few years ago forecast that by 2032-33, India’s pulses consumption would rise to 35.24 million tons, but supplies would fall short, at around 33.95 million tonnes. Attributed to the rising population and faster-growing demand, the country would be forced to continuously resort to imports.

The BS report quoted senior officials who said India’s reliance on pulses import has declined over the years from 4-6 million tons annually to just 2.5-3 million tons. However, in 2023-24, the projected imports of 3.5 million tons are the highest since 2017-18. This is partly due to lower kharif production due to an uneven monsoon with the changing monsoon patterns in recent years attributed to significant climate change by scientists.

Traders and market players quoted in the article say imports of urad, tar and masoor would continue unabated till March 2025 and the government’s target of self-sufficiency in pulses by 2027 end was not possible, which is a matter of concern.

Losing nutrients

A flip side of the race to boost crop yield, as seen in the green revolution, is the loss of nutrients. Another article by Down To Earth quotes Sovan Debnath, a soil scientist at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), who warns how we are heading toward food devoid of nutrients such as a host of vitamins, which are essential for growth, disease prevention and maintaining overall health and well-being.

According to the DTE report in November 2023, Debnath and 11 other scientists from ICAR, Bidhan Chandra Krishi Viswavidyalaya, and the National Institute of Nutrition in Telangana published a seminal study that says the green revolution has helped India achieve food security, but by compromising its nutritional security.

The study reports that the breeding programs focused on developing high-yielding varieties have altered the nutrient profiles of rice and wheat, two major staple food grains of India, to the extent that their dietary significance to the population has diminished. While chasing yield, the plant genetics have been tinkered with so much that they no longer do the fundamental job of delivering nutrition from the soil to the grains.”

Side by side, the concentration of toxic elements increased in the food grains. “In the past 50 years, the concentration of essential nutrients such as zinc and iron has decreased by 33% and 27% in rice, and by 30% and 19% in wheat, respectively. In contrast, the concentration of arsenic, a toxic element, in rice has increased by 1,493%,” the DTE report says.

Another factor that has led to an imbalance in nutrition is the increased push for wheat and rice through the public distribution system in states where the highly nutritious millet varieties have been staples for ages. Recently, the government has encouraged farmers to cultivate millets – which can grow in rough conditions – in place of the water-guzzling rice that has to battle uneven monsoons. This serves two purposes. Meeting the gap in nutritional deficiency and adapting to the changing climate and rain patterns. 

All in all, there is a call from agri-experts and scientists to keep nutrition on a par with yield if issues such as malnutrition and micronutrient deficiency have to be addressed. Only then can the low-income groups across urban and rural belts, who cannot afford dietary supplements, become healthy. Clearly, nutrition and health are the road to wealth.

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