Food security, challenges and solutions in India, Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka (Part 2)

In the first part of our article we explained the concept of ‘food security’ and showed you different methods to measure it. Furthermore, we explained the precarious situation of malnutrition in India and Sri Lanka, where a combination of Western interventions along with local conditions has led to a high degree of malnutrition within the population. In the first part of this article, we examined the local conditions by drawing attention to unequal income distribution, lack of access to hygiene and education and the disadvantaged position of women. In the following, we will take a closer look at the Western interventions and their contribution to the increase of malnutrition, diseases and environmental degradation.

Additional aspects of food security

Food security is closely linked to agriculture and biodiversity. It is therefore important that biodiversity is preserved and that agriculture is carried out in a sustainable way. Furthermore, plants and animals must adapt to climate changes. Especially the overuse of fertilisers and pesticides has led to serious environmental problems in India and Sri Lanka. The soil is degrading which leads to unfruitfulness in the long term. In addition, the people’s health is affected. In Sri Lanka, it is believed that the overuse of agrochemicals has contributed to serious diseases such as chronic kidney disease. Several studies prove that people are exposed to cadmium and possibly to lead and arsenic. On one hand this is due to residuals in the food chain and on the other hand it it due to contact with pesticides. One reason for this overuse is the government’s subsidies on pesticides, which have been in place since 1962. Despite criticism and evidence that the groundwater is contaminated, the government has only recently begun to advocate organic fertilisers. The following section explains how Western agricultural methods and pesticides were introduced.

The Green Revolution…

In the 1960’s a food shortage occurred in South Asia, especially in India. With the aim to increase agricultural yields, various US institutes carried out research and brought high-yielding varieties, modern machinery, artificial fertilisers and irrigation systems to India and Sri Lanka. It became later known as the ‘Green Revolution’. This modernisation did achieve greater yield in the short term (and thus more food security), but it had devastating consequences in the long term.

…and its aftermath

The initially rising yield soon stagnated and then declined. The massive use of fertilisers destroyed the environment and led to serious health problems. Meanwhile, the irrigation systems lowered the groundwater level and eroded the soil. The focus on monocultures, the use of machinery and the reliance on chemical crop protection reduced the diversity of harvests, plants and animals in the country. In addition, only large and medium-sized farms benefited from the first increase, as they had better access to the new methods. Small-scale farmer either became indebted for the rest of their lives or had to give up their land. However, especially small-scale farmers are important to food security because of their high productivity. Furthermore, the green revolution had an impact on people’s diets. In particular the poorest gave up their diverse diets for the cheaper high-yielding varieties. Their diet thus became less diverse and many micronutrients were lost. At the same time, the price of micronutrient-rich foods rose and made them inaccessible, even to wealthier people.

Biotechnology and genetic engineering

From the 1980’s on, genetically modified plants and biotechnologies were supposed to increase yields. Apart from the still unknown consequences for humans and nature, genetically modified varieties are very expensive to purchase. Since the seeds germinate only once, they must be purchased anew for each sowing, together with the matching fertilisers. Furthermore, the promised success remained absent: the weeds formed resistances against herbicides, so that more, instead of less, had to be applied. At the same time, the pests also formed resistances to the insecticide produced by the genetically modified plants. Thus, the benefits of GMO plants diminished.

Traditional vs. conventional cultivation: In this picture you can see a coconut from traditional cultivation at the top and one from conventional cultivation at the bottom. This shows that a high yield can also be achieved with traditional methods.

Government strategies

These are all challenges that are on top of the Indian and the Sri Lanka governments agendas. The aim is to promote food security throughout the entire life cycle. The Sri Lankan strategy published in 2017 emphasises the need to promote sustainable agriculture. However, the strategy is contradictory: On one hand, agriculture shall be further modernised, and on the other hand, traditional methods are being promoted. The lack of coordination between the ministries and the lack of human as well as financial resources raises doubts about the implementation of the strategies. But there are also positive examples: The Indian government, together with the United Nations, provides school lunches, supports pregnant and lactating women and subsidises grains for the poorest. The “Rajmata Jijau Mother – Child Health and Nutrition Mission” in particular is considered a pioneering project. It supports many preventive strategies: they counsel newly married couples, help pregnant women and distribute food to malnourished children.

In addition, other governmental projects are promoting traditional methods of agriculture and nutrition. Especially millet is experiencing an upswing. The nutrient-rich cereal disappeared from the people’s diet due to the Green Revolution. But it can be cultivated with little inputs and it naturally lowers the blood sugar level, thereby preventing diabetes.

These policies and trends mentioned above have already significantly reduced the number of hungry people, but the figures are still high. In the following, we would like to explain how NILAM contributes to this positive change.

Millet has almost disappeared from the diet of south-Asian people. Now the crop is experiencing a recovery.

How does NILAM contribute to food security?

NILAM takes a holistic approach to sustainability in all its projects. This means that, in addition to the traditional sustainability approach (ecological, economic and social aspects), we also incorporate cultural and community values into our work.

One of our main concerns is to raise public awareness of the challenges addressed in this article. We work closely with our partner organisation SAPPHIRE Trust and the local population to make a contribution to food security, particularly in the context of our agricultural projects: We promote traditional, organic agriculture that does not erode the soil and whose products do not harm the human organism. Farmers are also supporterted in the conversion from conventional to organic farming. The promotion of traditional agriculture and smallholder farming contributes to a sustainable food security of the entire country. This is due to the high productivity on one hand, and the protection of the diverse flora and fauna on the other.

In the near future, we will import organic products from India to Switzerland under our brand ‘Thamarai’, in order to support a healthy and traditional diet in other countries as well. The effect is far-reaching: this gives local farmers the opportunity to sell their products and thus secure a sustainable income. At the same time, they can also consume the food they produce themselves and thus have a more varied diet. ‘Thamarai’ is an innovative organic label because the products are brought straight from the producer to the consumer. The elimination of intermediaries ensures that producers in the country of origin earn an adequate income. You can read more about the different aspects of our work on sustainable agriculture here.

Indigenous, or traditional, farming methods are sustainable and promote food security. On this photo you can see a cocoa farm that operates mixed-cropping instead of monoculture. The farmer plants the cocoa in the shade of the coconut palm instead of exposing the cocoa to the sun as it is done in monoculture plantations.


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