By Ellen Carseldine:

Earlier this year, India was officially ranked as the world’s most malnourished country by the FAO, with nearly 200 million of its people going hungry on a daily basis. With a population of 1.2 billion, it may not seem that surprising for India to rank so highly in a world hunger chart. What may surprise you is that for the past decade India has been completely food self-sufficient, growing enough crops to feed its population.

Having surplus food and a starving population is a paradox that contradicts the nation’s recent progress in matters of food security.

Over the past 50 years, India has exploded as an agrarian state, with wheat and rice taking the spotlight. As Dr. Govindan, a wheat breeder at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) explains, wheat has become a major staple.

“Wheat contributes up to 50% of dietary energy, which is so vital in achieving food security in India. About 28 million hectares of area under wheat cultivation, which provides income, food, and life of several million households.”

Wheat and rice cultivation have been so productive in India, tonnes of surplus is now exported to neighbouring countries.

Of course, producing food isn’t the same as consuming it, and to their credit the Indian government implemented the National Food Security Act in 2013, the main objective of which is to make grains available to poor citizens at a heavily subsidised price.

The issue is, eating mainly grains is only beneficial for one’s survival, not one’s health, resulting in a hidden hunger crisis caused by malnutrition that has been left unacknowledged in food security policy.

For GM researchers like Dr. Govindan, the problem of nutritional insecurity can be resolved by improving the nutritional value of simple grains, such as CIMMYT’s HarvestPlus initiative.

“Modern wheat varieties are relatively low in terms of essential micronutrients such as zinc and iron, hence within the HarvestPlus initiative we are improving the nutritional quality of wheat, which can help to achieve the food and nutritional security together.

“One third of Indian population deficient for iron and zinc so biofortified wheat will have significant role.”

For University of Queensland Emeritus Professor Geoffrey on the other hand, intensive farming of wheat and rice may not be the best way forward, favouring practices such as crop diversification and environmentally sustainable farming as the answer to long term food and nutritional security.

“50% of food in the world at the moment is produced by peasants,” he asserts.

“Most peasant farming up until about 50 years ago really relied on organic principles. Human waste, animal waste, was put back into the soil. The sorts of crops that were grown were local variety so… the farmers knew what they were dealing with and could work with the land and with their plants and animals.”

He’s referring to a growing food sovereignty movement, which aims to preserve the integrity of existing small scale production units so that they are both viable economically and farmed sustainably, as well as enabling consumers better access to local, nutritious food.

For India, the 1.2 billion dollar question is whether quantity or quality is more important for such a large population, and if some sort of balance can be struck?