Purvi Mehta on Indian agriculture and nutrition—Addressing agricultural disconnects and food disparities

Purvi Mehta, head of agriculture for Asia at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (photo credit: ILRI).

Purvi Mehta is speaking today at a global conference on Accelerating the End of Hunger and Malnutrition, which is being held in Bangkok and is organized by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). A former leader of capacity development at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), which is supporting this conference, Mehta now heads agriculture for Asia at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

In a plenary panel session at the Bangkok conference this morning, Mehta said the following.

Costs of malnutrition

We must focus on the costs we well as the causes of malnutrition.

The costs of malnutrition are huge.

A stunted child attends school more than one year less than an adequately nourished child.

One of the biggest reasons for children dropping out of school in India is ill health due to malnutrition, which leads to GDP losses of 8 to 10%.


Nutrition ministries

Multi-sectoral approaches to malnutrition are extremely important.

Nutrition has become everybody’s job but no one’s responsibility.

We need to centralize accountability—to establish ministries of nutrition. 


Purvi Mehta was interviewed recently by Devex. Some excerpts from that interview follow.

‘Purvi Mehta didn’t grow up knowing anything about farming. But after studying agriculture at North Carolina State University, she returned to her native India where she worked with 1987 World Food Prize Laureate Dr. M.S. Swaminathan.

India is one of the top food producers in the world.

But India paradoxically also hosts the world’s largest number of malnourished people.

— Purvi Mehta, head of agriculture,
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in India

‘“That was my introduction to development,” said Mehta, who is now the head of agriculture at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in India where she oversees operations across Asia. “That’s when I saw the disconnect between science and society, and the fact that only about less than 11 percent of the science or the scientific technologies and advancement really reach out to developing country farmers. That’s when I started getting very interested in looking at policy issues.”

‘In a country where nearly half the population relies on agriculture for its livelihood, ensuring smallholder farmers have access to appropriate technology to fight pests, increase yield, and grow more nutritious crops is particularly important. Mehta recently sat down with Devex at the 2018 World Food Prize Borlaug Dialogue to talk about agricultural and nutrition challenges in a country that primarily eats rice and wheat, and why gender is a key piece of the Gates Foundation’s agriculture strategy. . . .

‘India is one of the top food producers in the world. But India paradoxically also hosts the world’s largest number of malnourished people. And one of the main reasons for that is lack of diversification in diet and that lack of diversification is very related to agriculture. We are predominately a wheat and rice producing system and therefore if you see the data about 55–56 percent of the Indian diet comes from two crops: rice and wheat.

‘There are huge differences in malnutrition level in terms of the poorest and the richest, so it’s that 40 percent of that difference in diet that is contributing to the malnutrition challenge.

India is one of the largest producers of food and but hosts the largest number of malnourished people, and among the malnourished Indians, the largest number also happens to be farmers.

Food production and food consumption are so delinked.

‘Why is it important to link nutrition and agriculture?
‘Just because somebody produces more food or the yield is better, or the income levels are higher, does not by default translate into better nutrition. India’s GDP has grown and it is one of the fastest growing economies of the world. But if you see wealth going up it doesn’t correlate with the nutrition level. Linking agriculture and nutrition is more important in a country where there is a huge dependence on locally grown and locally sourced food. . . .

‘The reason people do not eat vegetables, and fruits, and meat. and so forth, is because of the affordability factor. So how do you make those foods more affordable? . . .

‘If you look at the Gates Foundation’s agriculture strategy, any investments we do in agriculture must contribute to four things: productivity, income, nutrition, and gender.

‘Why is gender a part of the nutrition strategy?
‘. . . 73–74 percent of the livestock work in India is done by women. But when you define a farmer it is usually a man’s face. You don’t think of a woman as a farmer.

‘There are reasons for that—less than 10 percent of India’s land is owned by women. . . .

[A]woman ends up working in her father’s field, and then in her husband’s field, and then in her son’s field, without owning that land ever and being categorized as a farmer.

She continues to remain a farm laborer.

‘What are some of your women-specific programs?
‘Any agriculture investment we do, especially in India, we are making sure that we are gender sensitive. We have several programs giving market access to women. For example, aggregating women to farmer producer organizations.

If there is one woman who has half an acre of land and going out there and selling her produce, which is maybe two bags of corn, she does not have any agency.

But when 1,200 women come together and it is 1,200 hectares of land and three trucks full of corn, they have huge agency.

‘. . . Women in a places such as Bihar, which is a very remote and underdeveloped part of India, started clicking pictures of their goats with their little cell phones, uploading that goat’s image on an eBay-like Indian site, and started selling their goats as far as 500-600 kilometers away and fetching close to 40 percent higher prices for those goats.

It’s fascinating how cellphones have become one of the most important pieces of farm equipment.

‘What other ways is technology changing farming in India?
‘Communication has improved because of these tools. Classically, . . . only about 40 percent of the farmers had access to any . . .  extension services. Cell phones have changed that completely: millions of farmers being on WhatsApp groups, peer to peer learning. . . .’

Read the whole interview by Teresa Welsh of Purvi Mehta in Devex: Q&A: Gates Foundation on India’s agriculture and nutrition challenges21 Nov 2018.