Study uncovers factors behind rural malnutrition

Villagers replace protein-rich grains with rice, eat sugary food

A shop in a Telangana village is stocked with packaged food items. Photo: ICRISAT

A new study from the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) is reshaping our understanding of India’s rural health crisis by shedding light on the unexpected causes driving the rise of rural obesity and malnutrition.

Challenging common assumptions, the issue extends beyond the surge in convenience food consumption. The study in Telangana, India, shows that many rural families now eat more carbohydrates because they are more affordable and more convenient than trying to source limited protein and micronutrient rich options.

The study also highlights the lack of access to protein and the importance of traditional food systems, and nutrition-sensitive food supply chains.

People are also eating more sugary packaged foods because they are easily available in stores and have a longer shelf life than healthy fruits and vegetables. Those who move to cities from rural areas also change what they eat because they are exposed to widespread packaged food advertising.

Jacqueline Hughes, director general of ICRISAT, said that as policymakers navigate this nutritional challenge, the cost of inaction on the public health system would outweigh the cost of action.

“There is a need to work closer with the food processing industry to blend heritage with health by making nutritious products such as millet more attractive to consumers.

“Ultimately, it comes down to economics and education. ​ICRISAT, through its Agribusiness Innovation Platform, and with its partners is leading the way in developing affordable, nutritious products and educating the market of their health benefits.

“We are collectively responsible for nurturing a harmonious balance between nourishment and tradition by reinvigorating the rich tapestry of traditional food systems in rural India to combat the alarming surge in obesity and malnutrition,” said Hughes.

Alwala Narayya, a 74-year-old from Aurepalle in Telangana, recalls how his family once used to eat sorghum but now rarely do. “We mainly used to eat sorghum which has been replaced by rice because it’s cheaper and easier to find. “We also used to collect wild fruits and food from the forest. But now they are also harder to find because there’s less forest,” said Narayya.

Strategies to address rural malnutrition

To address the problem, the study suggests teaching people about nutrition, informing them about healthy food, using digital tools to spread the message, and growing local food.

Victor Afari-Sefa, who leads the Enabling Systems Transformation research program at ICRISAT, said, the cornerstone of rural sustenance lies within community markets. “To truly enhance the nutritional landscape in rural areas, we must delve into the economics of these markets, grasping their ever-changing dynamics, inclusivity, and accessibility.

“By better understanding the intricacies of market mechanisms, we can chart a path that empowers rural communities with broader access to nourishing food choices” said Dr Afari-Sefa.

ICRISAT researchers  have devised a scoring-based methodology to understand how farming, food, and nutrition are connected.

Shalander Kumar, Cluster Leader – Markets, Institutions, and Policy and the lead author said this study provides substantial evidence for policymakers to address the triple burden of malnutrition: the coexistence of undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies, and over-nutrition in rural India.

“This marks another step in our journey of better understanding how to make rural India healthier by understanding complex and interrelated linkages between science, economics and sociology.

“Solutions indicate that traditional farming systems and markets have an important role in making sure people can access more nutritious food in rural areas and close to where they live and ICRISAT looks forward to presenting more solutions in this arena,” said Kumar.


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