More money, less food? The Indian food security puzzle

Farmer in Jamnapur Village, Bihar, India. Photo: P. Casier.

by Charlotte Lau

India is one of the great food security puzzles of our age. By all accounts, the country’s economy is growing rapidly, incomes are reaching historical highs, and between the 1980s and 2005 food prices declined relative to the prices of other goods—yet people are eating less.

Per capita calorie consumption and nutrient consumption in India have declined over the last couple decades, a pattern that began precisely when relative food prices were falling. Indeed, people spend less on food today than they did thirty years ago, but not because they're eating enough. Child nourishment is poor, anemia is rampant, and body-mass indices are among the lowest in the world, leading 20% of children to be so skinny they would be classified by the WHO as “wasting.”

What is going on?

It is this and similar questions that Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo tackle through their work via JPAL (Poverty Action Lab) and in their recent book, Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Poverty. The book has received much attention and acclaim from economist and development communities alike—precisely for its work in better defining household decision making and behavior. In particular, the authors ask: if so many easy, cheap fixes exist, why don’t the poor take advantage of them? Or in the Indian case: why don’t people eat more?

It turns out the answer is: Because they’re eating tastier foods. Or because they’re buying TVs. Or because they’d rather spend money on a wedding.

Banerjee and Duflo explain in a recent Foreign Policy article adapted from their book: “In Udaipur, India, for example, we find that the typical poor household could spend up to 30 percent more on food, if it completely cut expenditures on alcohol, tobacco, and festivals. The poor seem to have many choices, and they don't choose to spend as much as they can on food.”

In one anecdote, the authors recount: “We were starting to feel very bad for him and his family when we noticed a television, a parabolic antenna and a DVD player. Why had he bought all this if he didn’t have enough money for food?  Helaughed and said ‘Oh, but television is more important than food.’”

“Equally remarkable,” the two report, “is that even the money that people do spend on food is not spent to maximize the intake of calories or micronutrients. Studies have shown that when very poor people get a chance to spend a little bit more on food, they don't put everything into getting more calories. Instead, they buy better-tasting, more expensive calories.”

The authors found similar results in two studies in urban China: when poor households were given subsidies for staples, they consumed less of those staples and spent the money saved on tastier calories. Neither caloric intake nor nutritional content increased (and they may even have decreased).

These results square well with similar research in the past. In 1983, a study from Maharashtra in western India found that, given financial support, the very poor did not spend much more on food than the poor, even though the former had only one-sixth of the latter’s income.

Two main lessons emerge from Banerjee’s and Duflo’s enlightening work:

  1. Development and anti-poverty programs fail when they do not appropriately take into account the preferences and decision-making patterns of the poor.  
  2. Go beyond production. Food security is not just about producing enough calories to feed the world; it’s about nourishing them.

Let’s unpack these. Regarding #1, the Economist comments: “To [nutritionists and aid donors], it is hard to imagine anything being more important than food. And the poorer you are, surely, the more important food must be. So if people do not have enough, it cannot be because they have chosen to spend the little they have on something else, such as a television, a party, or a wedding. Rather it must be because they have nothing and need help. Yet well-intentioned programmes often break down on the indifference of the beneficiaries. People don’t eat the nutritious foods they are offered, or take their vitamin supplements. They stick with what makes life more bearable, even if it is sweet tea and DVDs.”

Indeed, another project that Banerjee and Duflo coordinated in India successfully and dramatically improved infant and child vaccination rates (from 6% to 38% for full vaccination, and higher numbers for partial vaccination) by essentially “bribing” families with a bag of lentils each time a child went for a vaccination, and a set of steel bowls when a child received all the basic vaccinations in full. Although it may be a less palatable solution than persuading parents via health education, it worked because it identified reasons for non-action (which can be as bland and unsurprising as procrastination) and then sought to shift those behaviors.

Some have critiqued this method of “nudging,” saying it is paternalistic, but we again defer to the Economist, which excellently articulates the defense: “But a whole host of things are essentially done for us—often by a paternalistic state, which purifies our drinking water and provides sewage systems and so on. There are many, many areas where we simply do not have to take responsibility because stuff is done for us, or made incredibly easy. But the poor must actively decide to ‘do’ them.”

Regarding #2, food security has too often been defined based on producing more or enough food. In some cases, development agencies have also sought to improve access to food, via physical infrastructure, market chain links, or food subsidies. Yet as the Indian case demonstrates, securing food security requires not just production and access, but nourishing utilization—in other words, nutrition.

There has been ample evidence on the importance of nutrition for economic, physical, and educational development. Yet often food policy fails to link up to work on nutrition. Subsidies often explicitly favor cereal farmers to maximize calories rather than nutrients. Poor agrarian households still dedicate their food budgets to expensive grains, sugar, and processed foods, rather than on more nutritional leafy vegetables or coarse grains.

The solution must come in varied forms. Research and field extension to develop and promote biofortified food crops, raising the profile of traditional nutritious foods (and keeping them affordable--e.g., quinoa in Bolivia), and educating and giving land/grants/subsidies to women (who are the primary carers of infants and small children, for whom nutrition is the most important) are some good options. But for development and agricultural agencies, innovative “nudging” may need to play its part too.

Charlotte Lau works with the CCAFS research theme Adaptation to Progressive Climate Change, based in South Asia.