Oct. 10, 2013

New effort seeks to improve nutrition in India

Prabhu Pingali
Pingali

To nourish the next generation of Indian children, we need to support their nurturers, said Prabhu Pingali, professor of applied economics and management and founding director of the new Tata-Cornell Agriculture and Nutrition Initiative (TCi).

In an Oct. 2 presentation, Pingali outlined his vision for TCi, a long-term project established through a $25 million endowment from Ratan Tata ’59, B.Arch. ’62, chair of Tata Trusts.

Pingali’s main goal is to reduce stunting and malnutrition in Indian children by focusing on their mothers.

“We need to be addressing the very critical time of the first 1,000 days of a child’s life, from conception to their second birthday,” Pingali said. “That requires a healthy mother.”

He plans to harness the expertise of an interdisciplinary cadre of Cornell researchers and students and connect them with peers in Indian universities and governmental and nongovernmental organizations.

Together they will tackle the issue on four fronts: agriculture-led growth initiatives; micronutrient food access and public policies; nutrition behavior change; and water sanitation.

They will also attempt to improve upon a standardized set of metrics to track nutritional changes and corresponding agricultural realities. Although international development experts speak about the link between agriculture and nutritional outcomes, very little actual evidence exists.

“We need to establish a minimum set of core data, which could be as simple as adding one page of nutrition-related questions to an existing agricultural questionnaire, and vice versa,” Pingali said. “Of course, it probably won’t be that simple.”

Women will not only be the beneficiaries of the program, but also active participants and crucial conduits of change.

Pingali said he has already seen evidence of the potential to transform rural communities. During a four-week, 2,500-mile journey to 20 locations across four states, he got a snapshot of a very diverse rural Indian experience.

Pingali said he was struck by the dichotomy of modern India, which is simultaneously emerging and lagging in many areas; the country where the Green Revolution was pioneered still has areas with low agricultural productivity and persistent poverty.

But he was also struck by opportunities. Provisioning the growing urban middle class presents great opportunities for smallholder farmers, for instance, and harnessing social networks to popularize promising new crops such as iron-fortified pearl millet could help diversify and improve everyone’s diet.

As men move to cities to take advantage of emerging urban economies, women are tending the fields as well as the homes. But husbands still control the purse strings and are the first to eat their meals in many households, which often results in undernourished women and children, he said.

Since many of the challenges are deeply rooted in the culture, community solutions are the most effective, Pingali said. Increasingly, those solutions are being instigated by women.

“Something that absolutely amazed me on this trip was the growing strength of rural women’s groups,” he added. “We need to get to these women’s organizations and work with them.”

The rapid growth of cell phones and other technologies in even the most remote areas provides opportunities for women to communicate their experiences, empower a wider audience and amplify change throughout communities, he said, noting that the time is ripe for an agricultural renaissance in India.

“There are significant new investments and a recognition that agriculture is important, from the prime minister down,” Pingali said. “I am very optimistic about the future of India.”

Stacey Shackford is staff writer at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.