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Achieving better nutrition
The Asian region
The four statements at the inaugural function by heads of the institutions organizing this workshop showed deep appreciation of the fact that without an interphase approach to food problems, solutions would hardly be possible. A merely technical solution is no solution at all, and many other steps remain before it can become a reality in practice.
Technology transfer from introduction to acceptance and to use is, of course, not a new phenomenon. It has occurred through history. For example, it is difficult for us to realize in India that such familiar items as groundnuts and chillies were brought to this country by the Portuguese only in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: did they gain such rapid and widespread acceptance only because they fulfilled some long-felt need? And if so, was it just by word of mouth that they took root so firmly? The introduction of tapioca or cassava is even more recent. A mere 150 years ago a ruler from Kerala on a visit abroad was so taken with the plant that he brought it back with him and impressed its virtues on his subjects. Even royal pressure will not, however, explain its adoption almost universally by a population accustomed to using rice as a staple.
Too often there is a tendency by agricultural scientists to force some rotation system or agricultural technology on the farmer. What he needs is technical options that are of assured stability so that his risk is minimized. At present the farmer grows what he is used to or what he thinks will bring him a good return, and this has led to distortions in the food-supply mix. India has really no farming policy as such, and to influence production, it is only such incentives as price-fixation and subsidies that are open to government to achieve a better balance of foodstuffs in nutritional terms. The overbalance of cereals in relation to both pulses and oilseeds is a well-recognized aftermath of the Green Revolution, and it is driving us towards the sort of protein imbalance that did not exist in the past. A dwindling supply of coarse cereals is further upsetting the eating patterns of the poor. In making production decisions, the consumer must be given voice, since it is she who knows the day-to-day difficulties of existence.
Solar radiation is attracting worldwide attention as the cheapest energy form available to us. Many devices have been fashioned, but perhaps not enough attention is being given to identifying the target users. How does one get such technologies to be accepted? People must see any change in practice as meeting a need that is really felt. Experience has shown that anything charitable will not be accepted: the technology must stand the commercial test over time. The function of sponsorship is to bring innovation to the notice of people and to demonstrate its benefits. Solar cooking devices have not made much headway. Possibly they are better adapted to community or medium-scale use rather than by the individual household. Again, agricultural operations like drying and storage that need diffuse energy are more likely to eventually find acceptance than those requiring concentrated energy, like pumpsets or electricity generators. Further, time is needed for the good points to be realized and spread. Once this happens, and the device is not totally beyond economic reach, adoption should fallow. Funds for these promotional steps, and agencies to carry them out, must be institutionalized to speed up the process of adoption.
The last two decades have demonstrated that toxins of many types exist in a wide variety of foods. Each one involves a social management component of a different kind, which makes a general solution that much more difficult. The common people have a real problem when faced with buying insect-infested grain or ergot-infested bajra Harassed in so many ways, they have not the time or space to use some special technique to deal with each problem, like floating bajra in salt solution, or placing groundnut oil in the sun. Of course there is a cost attached to centralized detoxification of such materials, but surely this cannot be balanced against the health of the people. In the long term the only solution is preventive action in the field and during storage, for which measures must be instituted.
Scientists have a social duty to perform. They must step down from their laboratories to proffer information and advice at all levels. Perhaps this is best left to older scientists, since the bench work must go on, and this can only be done by the younger scientific community. Becoming a crusading scientist at too young an age will spell the death of science itself. But the elder scientist has a duty to educate and inform which he must not evade.
If diets were to be well balanced using natural foodstuffs, fortification would be unnecessary. But since they are not, there seems to be a distinct place for judicious fortification. An excellent example is the addition of iron to common salt to mitigate anaemia, an almost universal phenomenon in the country. Many agencies have been involved in this effort - scientific, nutritional technological, government policy - and indeed the co-ordinated effort is an excellent example of meaningful interphase activity, with many hurdles being overcome one by one. Only the last stages, production of iron-fortified salt and its distribution and marketing, still remain to be done. Other fortification possibilities need to be screened: perhaps one can never hope to reach every single person likely to benefit, but even if a fair proportion of potential beneficiaries is covered, the effort would be worthwhile.
How are the nutritional cost-benefits of various agricultural systems to be quantified? Again an interdisciplinary team effort is needed so that optimal nutritional mixes can be brought to the notice of planners. Clearly a nutritionist should find a place in such an organization as the Agricultural Prices Commission. Nor is there much time to lose if the shortfalls in pulses and oilseeds are to be redressed.
There are a number of similarities between Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, and India in terms of agriculture, nutrition, and food technology and management. Yet there are specific ecological and logistic differences too. Bangladesh represents essentially a riverine economy, Nepal a mountainous one, and the food transport problems of each require a totally different approach. India and Sri Lanka have a comparatively sophisticated infrastructure over other countries in the south Asian region. Even so, integrated policies are desirable in the region in matters concerning food. One way to work these out would be through networks between institutions that specialize in specific areas. Such network building has been a key concept of the UN University approach, and the UNU would support the forging of such links between institutions in the countries represented at this workshop. It is therefore for those present at this workshop to become agents of change. Though transfer of technology can occur both through centralized and decentralized interactions at various levels, promotion at institutional levels will have a greater and more sustained impact. There is great scope for the forging of such institutional networks, since the problem common to all these countries is to employ agriculture as a resource to stimulate industrial development and raise the economic level of the masses.
Many ideas concerning interphase areas have been put forward by the panel participants. Any new foodgrain variety developed by agricultural scientists must be subject to nutritional evaluation, technological study, and consumer testing so that later problems are minimized, and a standing board should be constituted for this purpose. Women decide on food in the home, and attention must be given to ways of continuously involving women and their organizations in innovative practices, use of food mixes, nutrition education, and child health. University curricula can also be oriented both in theory and in practice towards the rural family and community. Food is a perishable commodity, and its storage is fraught with hazards of many kinds and at many levels of sophistication. Proper storage must be seen as part of the stability of the food system in terms both of prices and consumer satisfaction. To transfer the excellent results of research to the farmer, agricultural extension services must be greatly expanded. To transmit food and nutritional knowledge to the people also, a network of extension activities are called for: after all the battery of the car must be energized to get it moving. In transferring results to the field, the economic stability of the technology, seen in relation to the socio-economic pattern of the farmer's life, is as important as the technology itself.
The intense desire noted in the workshop for interdisciplinary dialogue must be carried further. In effect this can be done in two ways. Many ideas that carry weight, like the Pugwash movement, or the Club of Rome, have been launched without the benefit of rigid or institutionalized structures, through a loose association, in effect a think-tank. One well-known innovator, Sir Robert Watson Watt, the inventor of radar, has gone so far as to say that an institute develops vested and bureaucratic interests and should be knocked down every ten years and built somewhere else round a new dynamic leader! Another route open to us is to establish the dynamics of meaningful dialogues between specialist institutions, for the good of nations and of the common people. Fortunately, with the United Nations University we have an international agency that is constituted specifically to carry forward this very function.
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