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Hunger and technology

Introducing nutritional considerations into agricultural and rural development
Formulation of supplementary infant foods at the home and village level in Thailand
Home and village prepared weaning foods project


Introducing nutritional considerations into agricultural and rural development

M.S. Swaminathan
Planning Commission, New Delhi, India

At the World Food Conference held in Rome in 1974, it was unanimously resolved that all governments should strive to ensure that by 1984 "no child, woman or man goes to bed hungry and that no human being's physical or mental potential is stunted by malnutrition." Unfortunately, the available statistics show that the number of people going to bed hungry was greater in 1980 than in 1974. Why is it that this target, which was considered to be realistic in 1974, is still proving to be only rhetoric? Why is it that we have yet to witness the needed blend of political will, professional skill, and human action that alone can ensure that such a target is achieved within a specific time frame? We should carefully analyse the factors that govern this indifference as well as the inability to provide everyone born in this world with his or her daily bread, in spite of the fact that food occupies the first position among the hierarchical needs of human beings.

In the 1960s it was widely believed that a growth in GNP would automatically help to raise the nutritional status of the rural and urban poor. Since this hope was not realized, it was felt that in addition to programmes designed to stimulate economic growth, direct intervention strategies would also be needed. UNICEF, FAO and the World Food Programme, WHO, and IBRD (the World Bank) have done much to promote and assist the implementation of appropriate nutrition supplementation programmes for the benefit of the vulnerable sections of the population. Many non-governmental and voluntary organizations have also played a significant role. It is, however, widely accepted that intervention programmes have not so far had the anticipated impact in many areas.

The FAO's fourth World Food Survey (1977) showed that the per capita energy supply in the years 1972-1974 came to 107 per cent of requirements, compared to 101 per cent in 196(1963. The problem, therefore, does not lie solely in the realm of food production and availability. The pattern of distribution and consumption of available food is equally important. Thus, the energy available per person in the developed countries in 1972-1974 was about 32 per cent more than the FAD/WHO estimated requirements, while in the developing countries it was about 4 per cent less. Food availability is skewed not merely among nations but also within nations.

In the developed countries, the percentage of cereal used for animal consumption has been steadily increasing, thereby causing a greater per capita requirement for cereals. The developing countries primarily use grain for direct human consumption. In fact, food grain fed to animals in the developed countries amounts to almost as much as the total of cereals consumed as food by over 70 per cent of the world's population living in the developing countries.

It is unlikely that this situation will change, considering the difficulties experienced in organizing a dependable and just world food security system. It will, therefore, be essential for every country faced with the problems of under-nutrition and malnutrition to develop its own nutrition strategy for enabling all citizens to have equal opportunities in terms of the full expression of their innate physical and mental potential.

In order to develop a scientifically sound and economically feasible nutrition strategy, it will be necessary to understand the nature of the nutrition problem not only within a country but also, in the case of large countries like India, in different parts of the country. The general nutrition problems of the population as well as the specific nutrition problems of pre-school children and pregnant and nursing mothers will have to be clearly understood. For example, in the Indian context, where a cereal like wheat or rice is the staple grain, Sukhatme has shown that inadequate calorie intake is the major cause of malnutrition.

Protein deficiency may also be a problem in areas where a tuber crop like cassava is the staple. An important consideration that has not been fully taken into account in assessing the extent of malnutrition is that there is no absolute energy requirement for any given day or period but that the individual is in homoeostasis end that his requirement is controlled by a metabolically regulated system.

It is also known that in rural areas there are seasonal variations in terms of incidence of malnutrition. Studies in some parts of India have shown that the time spent in breast-feeding was markedly reduced during the period when the post-harvest workload was very high for mothers. Such seasonal fluctuations in food intake are reflected in similar variations in the incidence of kwashiorkor. It is, therefore, necessary that in-depth studies be conducted on the seasonal incidence of low birth weight, maternal nutrient deficiencies, and kwashiorkor.

Such high variability in both the qualitative and quantitative dimensions of the nutrition problem underscores the wisdom of examining possible solutions in the context of agricultural and rural development. Agriculture is the backbone of the rural economy and hence agricultural advancement and rural development are, in most cases, concurrent and interrelated events. They are both highly location-specific with reference to the packages of technology, services, and public policies needed to stimulate and sustain them. Integration of nutritional considerations in agriculture and rural development planning is, therefore, likely to yield more rapid and reliable results than the many interventions and "fire-fighting operations" undertaken so far.


Once the precise nutritional maladies of each region are known, appropriate remedies through suitable readjustments in land and water use can be brought about. In the tropics and sub-tropics, where many of the nutrition deficiency problems occur, there is particularly great scope for developing simple home-grown remedies for overcoming the nutritional disorders of the area. Unfortunately, however, the institutional devices for imparting a nutritional dimension to crop planning do not exist today in most of the developing countries.

Where land is not socially owned but is under the control of individual farmers, the decision on land and water use by a farming family is based on considerations of cost, risk, and return. Much of the land in developing countries, however, is under cropping systems designed to meet the household needs of the farming family rather than of the market. It would, therefore, be necessary to understand the basic rationale behind current land-use patterns before attempting to restructure them. It is equally essential that the rationale behind the whole system of farming be studied rather than just one component of the system.


1. Multiple-Cropping Systems in Irrigated Areas

Various two-, three-, and even four-crop sequences are now being followed. In promoting multiple-cropping systems, attention should be paid to ensuring that grain and fodder legumes find a place in the rotation. Also, crops susceptible to the same pests and diseases should not be grown in succession. Introduction of grain and fodder legumes in the rotation will improve human nutrition as well as soil fertility. A rotation of mung beans, rice, and wheat is a good method of combining cereals and legumes in north-west India. Short-duration varieties of pigeon pea (Cajanus cajan) have made rotations of pigeon pea and wheat possible. A jute-rice-wheat rotation is becoming popular in parts of Assam and West Bengal in India as well as in Bangladesh.

The introduction of relative insensitivity to photoperiod and temperature through breeding has been responsible for the development of "period-fixed" rather than "season bound" varieties. For purposes of breeding varieties for multiple-cropping, the yield per day has to be used as a selection criterion in segregating generations. Also, other factors such as seed dormancy will need attention, since, if a crop ripens before the monsoon rains have ceased, the grain will sprout if there is rainfall at harvest time.

2. Rain-fed Farming

Production possibilities in high-rainfall areas are similar to those in irrigated areas. However, in the unirrigated semiarid areas commonly referred to as dry-farming areas, considerable production risks exist. Grain legumes, sorghum, millet, and oilseed crops are most frequently grown in such areas. A wide variety of fruit trees can also be grown. Research thrusts in semi-arid areas should lay stress on water and soil conservation and land-use planning based on precipitation, evapotranspiration, and the moisture-holding capacity of the soil. Contingency plans should be developed and introduced so as to minimize the risk of total crop loss during aberrant weather. It is also necessary to find more profitable crops for some of the semi-arid areas. There are many under-exploited plants with potential economic value.

Plant breeders should develop varieties that can be grown in flood-free seasons in chronically flood-prone areas and drought-resistant varieties in drought-prone areas. For this purpose, there has to be collaboration between plant breeders and agro-meteorologists.

3. Mixed Cropping and Intercropping

Various crop combinations are used by farmers, particularly in unirrigated areas, but not all are scientifically sound. Therefore, intercropping systems based on complementarity between the companion crops have to be developed. Among the major components of complementarily are: (i) efficient use of sunlight; (ii) ability to tap nutrients and moisture from different depths of the soil; (iii) non overlapping susceptibility to pests and diseases;
(iv) introduction of legumes to promote biological nitrogen fixation and increase protein availability.

4. Multi-level or Three-Dimensional Cropping

In farm lands where a wide variety of plantation crops, fruit palms, and other tree crops are grown, it is possible to design a crop canopy in which the vertical space is utilized more efficiently. Plant architects will have to take into account the effective use of both horizontal and vertical spaces when breeding varieties for use in three dimensional crop canopies. Efficiency in such a cropping system will again be based on the extent of the complementarily generated among crops in the system. For example, studies in India have shown that coconut, cocoa, and pineapple form a good combination that takes advantage of sunlight efficiently in a combined canopy and also extracts nutrients and moisture from different depths in the soil profile.

Studies on the root systems of companion crops are of particular importance. The introduction of grain and fodder legumes in these three dimensional crop canopies will provide opportunities for animal husbandry. A careful study of all the major farm-land cropping systems based on the extent of symbiosis and synergy among the system components will be useful in developing specifications for plant breeders to use in developing ideotypes (i.e., conceptual plant types) for efficient performance in three-dimensional crop canopies.

5. Kitchen Gardens and Home Fishing Operations

Kitchen gardens can be one of the most efficient systems of farming from the point of view of culturally adapted solar energy conversion. Vegetables rich in beta carotene and iron need to be developed and popularized. If planned intelligently and scientifically, backyard gardens, roof gardens, and other methods of growing vegetables and fruits in whatever space is available around mud huts or brick houses can make a substantial contribution to improving nutrition. Where ponds are available in large numbers, home fishing can be an excellent method of supplementing both food and income.

6. Forestry and Agro-forestry

The importance of improving the productivity of forest canopies cannot be over-emphasized. Agro-forestry has been defined as a sustainable management system for land that increases overall production by combining agricultural crops, tree crops, forest plants, and/or animals simultaneously or sequentially. Silvi-pastoral, silvi horticultural, silvi-agricultural, and other combined land-use systems are extremely important for the food, feed, fuel, and fertilizer needs of people in many hilly regions. Plant breeders have yet to give attention to breeding varieties suitable for such systems of silviculture. Shrubs and trees suitable for growing in "energy plantations" in villages and initiating "gasoline agriculture" need to be identified and improved.

7. Mixed Farming

Mixed farming systems may involve (i) crop-livestock, (ii) crop-fish, and (iii) crop-livestock-fish production programmes. In South-East Asia, fishing in rice fields is common. Minimal use of pesticides will be important in order not to cause fish mortality and transfer of toxic residues through the food chain. This will involve maximum use of genetically resistant varieties and the development of integrated pest-management systems.

8. Sea Farming

There are considerable opportunities for the spread of scientific sea-farming practices involving an appropriate blend of capture and culture fisheries. The rate of growth of oysters, mussels, prawns, lobsters, eels, and a wide variety of marine plants and animals is high in tropical seas. If, along with such integrated sea-farming practices, the cultivation of suitable, economically valuable trees like casuarina, cashew nut, and coconut can be popularized along the coast, thriving coastal agricuiture-mariculture systems can be developed. In addition to improving income and nutrition, such farming systems can help arrest coastal erosion.


In order to help restructure land-use patterns on scientific lines, it would be desirable to organize land-use boards with interdisciplinary expertise. Each board could cover a specific agro-ecological area. Such land-use boards should assist farmers in optimizing the economic benefits available from land and water through attention to the following major components of scientific land use.

1. Ecology

Land use based on ecological considerations will help to maximize the economic benefits from a given environment and minimize damage through man-made as well as natural processes of desertification. The aim should be to prevent the destruction or diminution of the biological potential of land. Agro-meteorological research data will have to be integrated in crop-planning models, so that contingency plans suited to different weather probabilities can be prepared.

2. Economics

In order to reorient land and water use on the basis of sound principles of economics, it is essential that production, storage, processing, and marketing be viewed as a total system. Equal emphasis will have to be paid to both production and post-harvest technologies. The prevailing mismatch between these two areas of the production consumption chain is harming both producers and consumers. To bridge the gap between potential and actual farm yields, it will be necessary to identify and remove the precise constraints operating in each area.

When post-harvest technology is neglected, opportunities for the preparation of value-added products are lost. For example, food production statistics simply state that during 1978 and 1979 India produced about 131 million tons of food grains. This ignores the fact that the plants represented in these statistics produced over 400 million tons of dry matter, out of which grains constituted about 131 million tons. If the entire biomass is viewed as an asset and is utilized effectively, new avenues of income generation can be opened up. A part of it is currently used for feeding animals or as fuel. But by analysing the dry matter yield part by part and introducing techniques of preparing value-added material, we can enhance rural incomes.

If we address this question in relation to each major farming system, we will find a vast untapped potential in efficient biomass utilization. Rice thus becomes a source not only of grain but also of enriched straw for fodder for landless labourers' animals, compost for mushroom production, rice bran oil, de-oiled bran, and silicon extracted from the husk for photo-voltaic cells. Similarly inadequate utilization of total biomass prevails in almost all economically important plants, farm animals, and fish.

3. Energy

The energy needs of agriculture will have to be carefully worked out, and an integrated energy supply system involving a suitable blend of renewable and non-renewable forms of energy will have to be introduced. So far the pathway to productivity improvement adopted in both developed and developing countries has tended to rely heavily on a growing consumption of non-renewable forms of energy We will have to reverse this process through the promotion of organic recycling techniques and through the widespread use of biological sources of fertilizer like azolla (the blue green algae) and symbiotic and nonsymbiotic forms of nitrogen-fixing organisms.

The current tendency to cultive energy-rich crops like grain legumes and oil-seeds under conditions of energy deprivation must also be corrected. Phosphorus conservation and recycling will be particularly important, since phosphorus is a non-renewable resource. These steps will be facilitated if the farmers in each area organize renewable-energy associations and adopt a scientific energy-conservation, generation, and utilization methodology.

4. Employment

As early as 1862 Col. Baird Smith, who investigated the causes of the famine of 1860-1861 in the North-West Provinces in India, mentioned that Indian famines are more "famines of work than of food, since when work can be had and paid for, food is always forthcoming." The situation today in the field of nutrition is one of providing the wherewithal to purchase food rather than the availability of food in the market. All estimates of employment potential show that the majority of people in India will have to depend upon agriculture, agro-industries, and small-scale industries as the major source of income until the end of this century.

Thus the state land-use boards will have to develop a package of incentives and disincentives that will help to achieve the objectives of increasing income, employment, and food production from the land, water, and sunlight resources available in each district.

Each board should include a nutrition scientist who could play a part in suggesting suitable crops that would help to meet the following needs:

a. preparation of home-made weaning foods;
b. providing some critical nutrients missing in the diet, such as vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, etc.;
c. developing a combination of cereal grains and legumes so that all the essential amino acids can be provided in the diet;
d. introducing appropriate fodder legumes and shrubs that could provide the calories and proteins needed by farm animals, thereby enabling the introduction of larger quantities of animal foods like milk and milk products, eggs, etc., into the diet;
e. developing suitable agriculture-cum-aquaculture techniques that could help in promoting dietary combinations like rice and fish, potato and fish, etc.; and f. promoting agro-forestry systems of land management where appropriate botanical remedies for specific nutritional maladies of a region can be incorporated.


In addition to detailed attention to scientific planning of land and water use, it will be essential to promote relevant research in the area of post-harvest technology. Post-harvest technology research should, on the one hand, aim at providing the consumer with clean and healthy food, and, on the other, prepare value-added products in the village itself. Production technology should be such that it does not cause problems of pesticide residues in the edible plant parts. Also, problems of mycotoxicosis arising from inadequate grain-drying are becoming widespread. Therefore, the whole area of grain-drying and storage requires greater attention.

It is common experience that the poor, who are already undernourished, tend to purchase infected grains, fruits, and vegetables because traders sometimes sell them at lower prices. Thus the poor are doubly hit, first by calorie inadequacy and second by the consumption of infected grains. Severe liver disorders resulting from the consumption of grains infected with Aspergillus flaws or contaminated with weed seeds carrying liver toxins have been reported in recent years.

In countries like India the majority of farmers have less than one hectare of land to cultivate. They have to meet their own food requirements and in addition should have some surplus produce for sale. An important method of obtaining supplementary income in such cases is the integration of animals in the farming system. However, where even the human population suffers from insufficient calorie intake, calorie deprivation is even greater for animals. The yield of milk and meat becomes very low under such conditions. It is, therefore, necessary that suitable technologies be developed for preparing fortified feed material from all cellulosic wastes and from agricultural raw material. Fortification of straw with molasses and urea as well as microbiological enrichment of starchy materials like cassava will have to be more widely adopted.

The other area of relevance in terms of agricultural programmes is the addition of nutritional considerations in forestry projects. Suitable trees that can provide fruits, nuts, and foliage of interest from a nutritional viewpoint will have to be introduced in programmes such as "A Tree for Every Child," village forestry, etc. There is a vast untapped potential in this field.


Rural development, in the ultimate analysis, involves the provision of opportunities for the optimum utilization of human resources in rural areas. Human resource development in its turn can take place only on the basis of nutrition. Thus, there is a vicious circle whereby, because of inadequate nutrition, the human resource is unable to make its due contribution to agricultural and economic development, and lack of development means inadequate diets. It is, therefore, necessary to base rural development programmes on the primary aim of providing opportunities for the human population to achieve optimum expression of its physical and mental potential. Such programmes should have the following four major components: a. economic emancipation of the family, with particular attention to provision of adequate employment opportunities for women, who are largely engaged at present in unpaid and underpaid jobs often characterized by physical drudgery; b. education of children and adults; c. provision of minimum needs, such as a safe drinking water supply, health care, rural communication, etc.; and d. promotion of a small family norm through education in the use of contraceptives and family planning.

Experience with programmes such as the Food for Work Programme of the Government of indict and the Employment Guarantee Scheme of the state government of Maharashtra in India has provided useful insights into methodologies for improving nutrition. For example, the Employment Guarantee Scheme of Maharashtra revealed that there was a predominance of females in 52 out of 87 selected kinds of work. Female participation was, on average, 57 per cent in many rural work programmes. A similar observation has been made in several areas where the Food for Work Programme has been in progress. The fact that women can have additional income and, in the case of the Food for Work Programme, can also receive food grains directly has an important implication from the point of view of child nutrition. Detailed data will have to be gathered on this subject. In this connection, the following recommendations of the Programme Evaluation Organization of the Planning Commission of the Government of India, in its final "Report on the Food for Work Programme" (November 1980), is of particular interest.

A majority of the rural poor, particularly women and children, at present suffer from malnutrition. It will, therefore, be appropriate if the Government widens the scope of the items which can be provided under the Food for Work Programme. In this connection, attention may be drawn to the items provided by the

FAO-United Nations World Food Programme as well as by the US Aid Programme being undertaken in several developing countries of the world. Under the World Food Programme, items like cereals, i.e., wheat, flour, maize bulgar-wheat and sorghum, protein-rich foods, such as milk, meat, cheese, fish, pulses, wheat soya blend, soy-fortified bulgar-wheat, soya-fortified sorghum grits, corn soy milk, and corn soya blend are supplied.

Inclusion of such items will help to improve the nutrition of the rural poor, particularly of women and children. To meet some of the regular needs of the rural poor, fodder and fuel items should also be made available to them under this programme. A beginning may be made with milk supply, because in several areas "Operation Flood" has enlarged these supplies. Large scale preparation of Sukhadi, a nutritive sweet at present being provided to the tribal people in Gujarat under the Food for Work Programme may also be undertaken and supplied to the weaker sections.

In order to locate the real felt needs of the village community, it may be desirable to organize or activize the local groups, unions, associations and other voluntary agencies working for the welfare of the rural poor. Several State Governments have also established Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Development Corporations. These Corporations could also play a vital role and coordinate such activities if they establish branches in the rural areas. These groups can locate the felt needs of the local people and suggest to the Government items which can be taken up under the integrated programme.


The need for an integrated approach to nutrition problems can hardly be over-emphasized. Even where staple grains are made available to the poor, lack of safe drinking water increases intestinal infection and can take away the benefit of the enhanced calorie intake. Hence, the supply of clean drinking water is a must. The intake of fats and oils also needs to be increased in poor nations. The problems of hunger and malnutrition can be solved more quickly and more easily than would appear feasible from the impact of past programmes, provided we reorient our entire thinking in this field.

Thus far this paper has concentrated mainly on analysis of issues and problems. It has not given commensurate attention to the design of action programmes at the field level that can gain momentum on their own through a process of self-replication. Without the capacity for replication, special nutrition intervention programmes tend to collapse as soon as the external inputs are withdrawn. What is now necessary is to help people to improve their own nutrition. This can happen only if nutritional aims form an integral part of agricultural and rural development. At present, they have tended to be operated on parallel, or at any rate separate, streams administered by totally different government departments or voluntary agencies. A symphonic approach to rural development is now needed, where employment, income generation, education, and nutrition all become catalysts for each other. In my view, the starting point for such a "peoples' nutrition movement" would be the organization of multidisciplinary land and water use planning groups in appropriate clusters of villages.

In order to achieve speedy eradication of under-nutrition and malnutrition, every country should have a national food security system with the following major components:

1. Ecological Security

Ecological security is essential for maintaining a renewable base for agriculture through the conservation of land and water resources, flora and fauna, and favourable atmospheric conditions, with particular reference to CO2 concentration. If this is not done, sustained agricultural advances will not be possible.

2. Technological Security

Technology should help to achieve the desired growth rate in agriculture coupled with stability of production. There has to be as much emphasis on factors that promote stability as on those that enhance productivity. Among the major factors causing large undulations in production from year to year are (i) weather abnormalities, (ii) pest epidemics, and (iii) public policies in the area of pricing and marketing. All these groups of factors need attention.

3. Safe Storage and Building Up of Grain Reserves

Storage losses at the home, market, and public storage levels should be minimized. Every country will have to build up a reasonable grain reserve and locate the reserves at strategic points, particularly in areas that are prone to drought, floods, or other natural calamities. Steps are needed to avoid both distress sales of produce by poor farmers and panic purchase by affluent consumers.

4. Social Security

Social security measures should involve a household approach to poverty alleviation through steps designed to increase the income of the family through appropriate opportunities for individual, wage, and salaried employment. Programmes like the National Rural Employment Programme of indict that aim to give wages both in cash and kind would be very beneficial, particularly in areas not well endowed with communication and marketing facilities. Producer-oriented marketing and consumer oriented distribution are both important. Socially relevant marketing techniques, such as the distribution of milk and fruit juices in vending machines put up in low-income areas in towns and cities, would help to bring nutritious products within the purchasing capacity of the economically handicapped sections of the population and thereby widen the base for the consumption of foods and beverages of nutritive value.

5. Nutrition Education

Even where incomes are adequate, there can be various nutritional disorders as well as malnutrition, because of lack of knowledge of the importance of balanced nutrition. Thus, blindness induced by vitamin A deficiency still persists in these circumstances. In all such cases of avoidable nutritional disorders, it is necessary to launch an intensive eradication drive like the successful WHO supported campaign for the eradication of smallpox. It should be the endeavour of national governments to completely eliminate such disorders within a specific time frame.

I believe that if developing countries reorient their approach to nutrition along lines that would help them launch a self-replicating movement of improved consumption of food of the desired quantity and quality, and if the industrialized and oil-rich countries are willing to contribute more to the assistance of such a programme in the poorer nations, the World Food Congress goal of achieving a reasonable degree of freedom from hunger by 1984 is still within the realm of realization, at least with regard to pre-school children and pregnant and nursing mothers.


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