The green revolution of 1960s has gradually transformed India from a food insecure country to a self-sufficient nation. In 2017-18, total food grain production was estimated at 275 million tonnes (MT). India is the largest producer (25% of global production), consumer (27% of world consumption) and importer (14%) of pulses in the world. India's annual milk production was 165 MT (2017-18), making India the largest producer of milk and pulses, and has the world's second-largest cattle population 190 million in 2012. It is the second-largest producer of rice, wheat, sugarcane and groundnuts, as well as the second-largest fruit and vegetable producer, accounting for 10.9% and 8.6% of the world fruit and vegetable production, respectively.
Despite the rapid development in agriculture sector, India continues to face multiple challenges. The economic progress has also led to a structural transformation wherein the economy has diversified to manufacturing (industry) and service sectors. Subsequently, agriculture’s contribution to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has steadily declined from more than 50% in the 1950s to 17.1%.
The contrast in this development journey can be seen in the malnutrition indicators. India ranks 102 out of 117 countries on the Global Hunger Index. With a score of 30.3, India suffers from a level of hunger that is serious.
1. Land use for food and protection of biodiversity
Current practices of agricultural production are resource intensive, regionally biased and skewed towards carbohydrate-rich cereal crops such as rice and wheat. The increasing food production has led to an imbalance in soil nutrient levels, decline in water table and an overall depletion in the soil health. Soil health is considered good when it has at least 5 per cent organic matter. Unfortunately, the national average for organic matter in soil in India is 0.4 per cent.
Despite being one of the leading producers for many food grains and cash crops, India struggles with agricultural productivity on account of many factors. A major proportion of land holdings are small or marginal which face problems with using advanced mechanization and irrigation facilities. Most of the small land holdings are fragments of larger land holdings which have been passed on within the family or leased to farmers by a large holder. In latter case, formal lease agreements are often missing thereby restricting the farmer’s access to formal credit, subsidies or crop insurance.
2. Use of fertilizers and chemicals in farm operations
Imbalanced application of different plant nutrients through fertilizers is a widespread problem in India. The major reasons are lack of adequate knowledge among farmers about the nutritional requirement of crops, poor access to proper guidelines on the right use of plant nutrients, inadequate policy support through government regulations, and distorted and poorly targeted subsidies.
According to the 29th Parliamentary Standing Committee Report, about 292 districts account for consumption of 85 per cent of all of the country’s fertilisers.
3. Water for irrigation
India is facing a major challenge on the water front. Its per capita water availability of 1544 cubic meters per year, as reported in 2011, has already fallen below the cut-off point of 1700 cubic meters, placing it among the water stressed nations of the planet.
Estimates suggest that in the next three decades, the global food systems will need 40-50 per cent more freshwater than today. Municipal and industrial demand for water will increase by 50-70 per cent during this period, while demand for energy sector will increase by 85 per cent. Irrigation sector with almost 78 per cent share dominates the present and future water use scenario in India.
Various initiatives including crop diversification, rain-water harvesting, alternate cropping patterns, micro-irrigation, hydroponics and related technologies, knowledge and practices amongst farmers, subsidies etc. are under-way to address water productivity.
4. Food loss and wastage
After agricultural produce is harvested, it requires a robust storage infrastructure in order to minimise any losses due to adverse weather conditions or in the process of transportation.
A study by Central Institute of Post-Harvest Engineering and Technology (CIPHET), Ludhiana an ICAR (Indian Council of Agricultural Research) Institute estimated that annual value of harvest and post-harvest losses of major agricultural produces at national level was of the order of Rs. 92,651 crores calculated using production data of 2012-13 at 2014 wholesale prices.
It is estimated that saving one-fourth of the food currently lost or wasted globally would be enough to feed hungry people in the world, of which the highest number (about 194.6 million) are in India. Ministry of Food Processing Industries (MoFPI) has been implementing the Central Sector Scheme of Cold Chain, Value Addition and Preservation Infrastructure since 2008-09.
5. Microbial hazards
Emerging pathogens of concern are those pathogens which are either causing a new illness or the number of cases is now increasing sharply, or they are spreading the disease over a wider geographical area. The recent coronavirus pandemic is one such example of that.
6. Chemical hazards
Use of new chemicals in food production, processing and packaging is introducing newer contaminants into our food supply. Few of the concerns regarding pesticide residues, drugs used in animal husbandry, plastic debris in the marine environment and other chemical contaminants either occurring naturally in foods or being produced during processing or leaching into food from equipment or packaging. The ban of serving food in newspaper was a great step by Indian government as newsprint is made of toxic chemicals which leach into the food.
Trends in Consumption
There is an increased awareness among people about diet-related diseases across the world. This has triggered the trend of seeking ‘health foods’ and unfortunately ‘quick-fix’ solutions which do not need too much of an effort on the part of the individual. This has popularised fad diets or use of superfoods which promise health miracles or an ideal body shape.
1. Fad diets
Fad diets can sometimes lead to health problems. This is most often because they recommend cutting out of key foods from the diet like Atkins, Keto diets, or consumption of large amounts of a single food Cabbage Soup Diet, Banana and Milk Diet, and Boiled Egg Diet.
Though keto diets have shown beneficial effects in patients of epilepsy, there is very little research data showing advantages for normal healthy people. In addition, diets high in animal protein have also been associated with increased urinary loss of calcium and increased load on kidneys. Trying out these diets on one’s own often results in symptoms like weakness, fatigue, dehydration, nausea and headaches. Moreover, people tend to regain any weight lost as soon as they revert to their regular diet and lifestyle. Highly restrictive fad diets should hence be avoided.
2. Understanding Superfoods
The dietary guidelines of all countries emphasize the need for healthy food patterns and making healthy food choices from all food groups. Few foods however stand out from the others in being packed with beneficial nutrients and phytochemicals. Including these in daily diets enhances the diet quality and offers additional health benefits beyond those attributed to the function of nutrients present in them. These foods are referred to as ‘functional foods’ or ‘superfoods.’ The beneficial effects are attributed to bioactive substances present in them.
What is important to understand is that these foods add to the quality of diets and by themselves cannot be responsible for maintaining health of individuals consuming them. People still need to practice healthy lifestyles and eat nourishing meals. The term ‘superfood’ may also be used by some as a marketing gimmick to trick consumers into buying certain food products. These products usually tend to contain one or more of ‘superfruits’ or ‘supergrains’ as ingredients. Any health claims made about the products should be supported by scientific research data.
So what are the potential solutions to the challenges which have been discussed in the above section? There are several lessons to learn from nations around the globe which can be applied in the local context. Let us examine some of these-
1. Nutritious food and healthier food choices
Nutritious food and healthier food choices are at the apex of food and land use reforms. Consumption patterns of 1.3 billion Indians and more than 9 billion people globally are critical factors which shape how food and land use evolves over a period of time. A significant body of evidence has emerged on environmental impacts of various diets, with many studies concluding that a plant-based diet with few animal source foods confers both improved health and environmental benefits.
2. Promoting sustainable and regenerative agricultural practices
Agriculture priorities need to be reoriented to not only produce sufficient calories to feed a growing population but also to encourage dietary diversification that nurtures human health and supports environmental sustainability. Wheat and Paddy (Rice) will face challenges as temperatures gradually increase on account of climate change. Climate resilient or climate ‘smart’ crops such as pulses and millets offer a potential solution while also adding more nutrition to the food basket of a household.
A significant reduction in yield gaps from current croplands is the need of the hour and cropping patterns should be realigned with water endowments of that state/geography.
3. Protecting and restoring forests and other natural ecosystems
India is ranked 10th in the world, with 24.4% of land area under forest and tree cover, even though it accounts for 2.4 % of the world surface area and sustains the needs of 17% of human and 18% livestock population. Protecting and restoring global forests could reduce annual net greenhouse gas emissions by more than eight gigatons carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2 e) by 2050, which is consistent with limiting global heating to 1.5-degrees Celsius.
Between protecting nature and expanding agriculture, there is a real trade-off. However, a zero-expansion policy is imperative so as to avoid encroachment of new agricultural lands into natural ecosystems such as forests. A ‘Half-earth’ strategy is therefore recommended for biodiversity conservation i.e. conserve at least 80% of biodiversity by protecting 50% of Earth as intact ecosystems.
4. Investing in a more diversified protein supply
India has a wealth of natural biodiversity and several indigenous crops like millets, pulses happen to be ideal ingredients for plant-based proteins. Industrial animal agriculture contributes significantly to climate change, pollutes our air and water and uses a tremendous amount of land, water and other precious natural resources. For instance, raising chickens releases 40 times more carbon dioxide per calorie of protein than lentils. About 70% of India’s antibiotics are given to farm animals. The World Health Organisation has said that antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today. Animal protein supply is often threatened by zoonotic diseases and could also pose public health challenges on account of the same.
Recently alternate protein sources have emerged such as plant-based proteins, lab-cultured meat, insects and aquatic based proteins which have the potential to provide consumers with sustainable, reliable, healthier and ethical (in some cases) protein sources. Collaboration with scientific experts, research and development institutions and other stakeholders would be crucial to support innovation and at the same time ensure public health, safety and appropriate labelling for such products.
5. Reducing food loss and waste
According to a report ((Ranganathan et al., 2018), reduction of 25 percent in food loss and waste by 2050 would significantly reduce both demands for land and greenhouse gas emissions. Tangible steps in this direction could include improvement in post-harvest infrastructure, improved food transport, packaging and processing, increased collaboration across the supply chain, training and education of all stakeholders across the value chain.
Preventive solutions at upstream level include resource efficient and regenerative agricultural practices, access to low-cost handling and storage facilities. Post-harvest solutions at intermediate level include increased processing of perishables (e.g. food parks), active and intelligent packaging solutions and use of technology to trace and communicate balance shelf life. Recovery solutions at downstream level include surplus food recovery through food banks, redistribution of close to shelf-life but safe food items through social supermarkets at discounted prices.
6. Building Food smart cities, digitization and stronger rural livelihoods
Innovative high-tech horticulture e.g. hydroponics, vertical farming and low-tech circular economy models e.g. composting of organic matter are experiencing a rise in the urban and peri-urban areas. There are many advantages to urban farming. The land requirement is quite low, water consumption is 80 percent less, the water is recycled and saved, it is pesticide-free and in cases of high-tech farms there is no real dependency on the weather.
Other ways to strengthen local food economies is to have better urban planning, public procurement and new digital platforms to efficiently connect producers with consumers. Technologies such as automation, decision support system and agriculture robots are being widely adopted in the sector globally. Farmers are using the Internet of Things and smart sensors to get access to valuable information like soil moisture, nutrient levels, temperature of produce in storage and status of farming equipment. The sector is also ripe for the use of big data analytics and artificial intelligence, technologies that have been deployed successfully in various sectors across the globe.
7. Using technology to tackle challenges
Documenting the outbreak of food borne illnesses is one of the biggest challenges in India. Hospitals and physicians play an important role in notifying the government about any new disease or pathogen they suspect. To deal with the problem, real time monitoring and tracking needs to be done with hospitals and clinics uploading on dashboards any newly detected cases of food borne illness and, hence establishing an accessible database.
Similarly, data on any hazard detected in food and likely to become a public health problem needs to be communicated effectively to the public with guidelines on how to manage the risk. Effective communication among stakeholders is the key to controlling and limiting disease outbreaks and minimizing consequent economic losses. With advances in communication technology this has become easier.
8. Sustainable Food Packaging
The shelf-life of food is directly related to the type of packaging technology used.
Edible coating/packaging is one of the effective methods to tackle this problem. It provides a two-fold solution. Not only does it protect the wholesomeness of the fruits/vegetables by shielding it from the external environment, but also does not cause any harm to the environment since it is easily degradable. Edible coating can be safely consumed along with the fruit or vegetable (Raghav et al., 2016).
9. Traceable Food transport and storage
Contamination can enter at any stage of food supply chain from farm to fork which includes production, processing, packing, transportation, storage, shelf display and consumption. As a result, the management of the supply chain, more significantly the cold chain related to the manufacture, distribution and sale of perishable, and condition-sensitive products, should be on high priority.
Better methods of traceability of food products such as RFID and Thermochromic labelling can also limit economic loss and adverse health consequences.
Use of Internet of Things (IOT) Solution for the food supply chain has become more relevant to the practical world due to increased use of mobile devices, cloud computing and data analytics in the recent years.
Similarly, a blockchain-based cloud platform has been developed for the food industry by IBM Food Trust and is already employed by major food sellers.
10. Advanced Food safety testing
Food fraud/adulteration in meat, dairy, and fish can now be tested by making use of the unique DNA composition of animals using high end technologies like the Raman Technology, BioSensors and DNAFoil technology. These technologies are handy, reliable and time saving.
Future of food
With advancement of technology and strides being made in the field of food science we can look forward to new food products which are safer and more wholesome. Smart agriculture solutions are likely to boost yields. Better transport and storage will reduce food waste by letting companies monitor conditions like temperature and humidity in real time. Science based solutions which make efficient use of resources is the thrust of all innovations in the food sector.
Researchers have developed a 3D printing technology to prepare food using ingredients like millets, green gram, spices, etc. Taking just five to seven minutes to print, followed by a microwave drying process, this technology may help in customizing food according to the individuals’ requirements.
New and innovative techniques are being used to assess and manage risks. Statistics, for instance, is being used for predictive modelling of microbiological outcomes. Predictive microbiology now offers risk managers scientific tools to estimate the consequences of different food handling and processing conditions on growth, survival and inactivation of pathogenic microorganisms.
Databases like ComBase are now available for big and small food companies providing information on how microbes respond to different environmental conditions and how the microbe levels change over the course of time. Initiatives to develop microbiological modelling programs have been ongoing in the United States, the United Kingdom, Denmark, France, Australia and other countries for a number of years. These programs have resulted in the development of a wide range of microbiological modelling software packages.
Nutritional genomics is a new discipline which has been formed by the integration of the study of nutrition, molecular biology and genomics. It is the science of how nutrients affect the activities of genes (nutrigenomics) and how genes affect the interactions between diet and disease (nutrigenetics). This new science teaches us what specific foods tell our genes to do. Every protein which is synthesized by the cell is a product of gene expression. Nutrients and phytochemicals can interact with genomes causing changes in their expression. At the same time, deficiency of a nutrient can hamper DNA repair and hence normal function. If we learn how our genes operate, the instructions that the genes give to the body and its metabolism, we can radically change how food interacts with our body. This information can be used to lose weight and optimise health by preventing development of diseases.
2. New food science
Food companies are also experimenting with plant-based meat to prepare food like burgers, and sausages, thereby reducing carbon footprint. In addition, scientists are producing Cultured/Lab Grown Meat. Such meat eliminates the need to sacrifice animals by growing muscle tissue in culture from animal stem cells.
3. Gastronomic tourism
Gastronomic tourism has become a major and rapidly growing component of the attractiveness of tourist destinations. People wishing to experience the local tastes in other countries or different states of their country, travel just for the gastronomic experience. The tourism industry is also rising to the expectations of tourists by organising gastronomic tours for experiencing the local cuisine. Such tours consist not only of food guides taking people to restaurants, but also organising cooking demonstrations, cooking classes, visits to vineyards, local food manufacturers and other kinds of culinary experiences. With the growth in this kind of tourism comes the immense responsibility of all stakeholders in providing safe and wholesome food to tourists. With street foods being a major attraction in most cities, creation of Street Food Hubs which provide safe food is an important step in promoting gastronomic tourism.
Molecular gastronomy is a scientific discipline which looks at the science behind food preparation- the physical and chemical transformations which take place during cooking of food. Various new recipes have made their way to restaurant menus using new ingredients or processing methods for preparation and food service. For instance, ice creams and cocktails served with liquid nitrogen are increasing becoming popular.