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Reimagining food systems with lessons from India


The first and historic United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) 2021 which was held in September 2021 concluded after an intense ‘bottom-up’ process conceived in 2019 to find solutions and ‘catalyse momentum’ to transform the way the world produces, consumes, and thinks about food and help address rising hunger.


GS-II: Social Justice and Governance (Issues related to Hunger and Poverty, Government Policies and Interventions), GS-III: Indian Economy. Agriculture (Food Security, Types of Resources), GS-II: International Relations (Important International Institutions and their reports)

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. What is Food Security?
  2. About the U.N. report on Inequitable Food System
  3. About the UN Food Systems Summit
  4. Outcomes of the Summit
  5. Safety nets in India
  6. Challenges in India

What is Food Security?

Food security, as defined by the United Nations’ Committee on World Food Security, means that all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life.

Implications of Covid-19 on the six dimensions of food security

The dynamics outlined above affect food security and nutrition in complex ways. The HLPE Global Narrative report highlights six dimensions of food security, proposing to add agency and sustainability as key dimensions alongside the four traditional “pillars” of food availability, access, stability and utilization.

  1. Availability: While world grain stocks were relatively high at the start of the pandemic and remain strong, this global situation masks local variability and could shift over time. Grain production in high-income countries tends to be highly mechanized and requires little labour, making it less vulnerable to disease outbreaks among farm workers.
  2. Access: More than any other dimension of food security, food access has arguably been the most affected by the COVID-19 crisis. The global economic recession triggered by lockdowns has had a very negative impact on people’s ability to access food.
  3. Utilization: Utilization and nutrition have been affected by the pandemic in important ways. Good nutrition is essential for supporting the human immune system and reducing the risk of infections. However, as people’s ability to access food diminished in the crisis, this had a negative impact on their ability to afford a healthy diet.
  4. Stability: The severe disruptions to food supply chains noted above are affecting the stability of global food supply and access (Bene, 2020). The export restrictions placed on staples like wheat and rice led to higher world prices for those crops, compared to prices for other foods, which generally fell.
  5. Agency: The most marginalized food system participants—including food producers and food system workers—have had little agency as the crisis has unfolded. As outlined above, food system producers and workers have been on the front lines and have suffered higher rates of disease and are affected by supply chain disruptions the most.
  6. Sustainability: The pandemic is intertwined with the sustainability dimension of food security in complex ways. The expansion of industrial agriculture is associated with a rising prevalence of zoonoses—diseases that transmit from animals to humans—of which COVID-19 is a prime example.

About the U.N. report on Inequitable Food System

  • Food systems are a complex web of activities involving production, processing, handling, preparation, storage, distribution, marketing, access, purchase, consumption, food loss and waste, as well as the outputs of these activities, including social, economic and environmental outcomes.
  • Women farmers are disproportionately more affected by climate change and land degradation as they are less likely than men to receive key information on climate and agricultural information that would allow them to plan for climate concerns.
  • Rural women accounting for nearly half the agricultural workforce in developing countries, face discrimination. They have very little land rights, face difficulties obtaining ownership, do not have access to credit and are engaged in unpaid work.
  • Though indigenous women play a crucial role in eradicating hunger and malnutrition, they face high levels of obesity and are more susceptible to chronic diseases due to limitations in the recognition and exercise of rights that have hampered their access to equitable systems of food.
  • Rural women were among the worst affected among the food insecure population of 821 million (as of 2017). As many as 31 African countries depended on external food aid till 2019.
  • Migration among youths over the course of urban transition have had impacts on the gendered nature of economic roles. Such migration has entailed a growing gap between the location of food production and food consumption.
  • A 2020 UN report had hinted how epidemics can significantly reduce women’s economic and livelihood activities, increasing poverty rates and exacerbating food insecurity.

About the UN Food Systems Summit

  • The UN Food Systems Summit 2021 has brought together all UN Member States and constituencies around the world to bring about tangible, positive changes to the world’s food systems.
  • It will seek to set the stage for global food systems transformation to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.
  • The UN Secretary-General will convene the Food Systems Summit with the aim of maximizing the co-benefits of a food systems approach across the entire 2030 Agenda and meeting the challenges of climate change.
  • The Summit aims to provide a platform for ambitious new actions, innovative solutions, and plans to transform food systems and leverage these shifts to deliver progress across all of the SDGs.

Objectives of the UN Food Systems Summit

  • Raise awareness of food systems’ centrality to the entire sustainable development agenda, and the urgency of transforming food systems, particularly in the wake of a global pandemic;
  • Align stakeholders around a common understanding and narrative of a food system framework as a foundation for concerted action, making food and food systems a more widespread issue for advocacy and action to achieve the 2030 Agenda;
  • Recognize the need for inclusivity and innovation in food systems governance and action;
  • Motivate and empower stakeholders who support food systems transformation through the development of improved tools, measurement, and analysis; and
  • Catalyze, accelerate, and enlarge bold action for the transformation of food systems by all communities, including countries, cities, companies, civil society, citizens, and food producers.

Outcomes of the Summit

  • The summit created a mechanism for serious debates involving UN member states, civil society, non-governmental organisations, academics, researchers, individuals, and the private sector, which is to evolve transformative themes and ideas for reimagining food systems to enhance satisfaction of all stakeholders including future generations.
  • The debate and response focused on five identified action tracks namely: Ensure access to safe and nutritious food for all; Shift to sustainable consumption patterns; Boost nature-positive production; Advance equitable livelihoods, and Build resilience to vulnerabilities, shocks, and stress.
  • The summit provided a historic opportunity to empower all people to leverage the power of food systems to drive our recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and get us back on track to achieve all 17 SDGs by 2030.
  • The Statement of Action emerging from the summit offers a concise set of ambitious, high-level principles and areas for action to support the global call to “Build back better” after the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Several themes that have emerged in the discussions and dialogues leading up to the summit find resonance with India’s past and ongoing journey towards creating and improving food and livelihood security.

Safety nets in India

  • One of India’s greatest contributions to equity in food is its National Food Security Act 2013 that anchors the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS), the Mid-Day meals (MDM), and the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) – through which India’s food safety nets collectively reach over a billion people.
  • Food safety nets and inclusion are linked with public procurement and buffer stock policy in India – evident during the global food crises 2008-2012 and during the COVID-19 pandemic fallout, whereby vulnerable and marginalised families in India continued to be buffered against the food crisis by its robust TPDS and buffer stock of food grains.
  • India has taken a bold decision to fortify rice supplied through the Public Distribution System with iron. Agricultural research institutes are about to release varieties of many crops having much higher nutrition as a long-term solution for undernutrition and malnutrition.

Challenges in India

  • Climate change and unsustainable use of land and water resources are the most formidable challenges food systems face today.
  • Dietary diversity, nutrition, and related health outcomes are another area of concern as a focus on rice and wheat has created nutritional challenges of its own.
  • Reducing food wastage or loss of food is a mammoth challenge and is linked to the efficiency of the food supply chain. Food wastage in India exceeds ₹1-lakh crore.
  • It is ironic that despite being a net exporter and food surplus country at the aggregate level, India has a 50% higher prevalence of undernutrition compared to the world average. (However, it is important to note that proportion of the undernourished population declined from 21.6% during 2004-06 to 15.4% during 2018-20.)

-Source: The Hindu

February 2024