Q&A: Gates Foundation on India's agriculture and nutrition challenges

Purvi Mehta, head of agriculture for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in India. Photo by: ILRI / CC BY-NC-SA

DES MOINES, Calif. — 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, the 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.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Fall armyworm has arrived in India, but the corn it prefers is not a staple crop there. What impact is it having on the food system?

The Gates Foundation doesn’t do any work on this one in India yet, but it’s interesting how corn is not — if you compare it with Africa — the predominate item Indians eat. Corn is a fairly new crop from that perspective. The reason India now has so much corn is because of the poultry industry as feed. It’s not such a huge concern of the food system but is a huge concern from an income perspective for the farmers. That needs to be seen.

One of the things I am concerned about most is — because of Green Revolution, mainly — most of India’s public sector focus, research and development focus, is predominately on two crops, which are rice and wheat. Therefore any crops that is not really a staple, we are less capacitated to address those challenges.

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How do you diversify that diet from just rice and wheat?

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.

Within that rice and wheat diet, how do you fortify that? That 56 percent of the rice and wheat is not just calories, but also nutrition. Also, diversification in that diet. 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?

Looking at the bridges between the two is important. 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?

Globally, women are increasingly playing a very important role in agriculture. It needs special attention because, if I look at India, 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. What happens is 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.

Livestock is also very important to us. Digital technology is transforming in India. 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, if you see the conventional extension services in India, only about 40 percent of the farmers had access to any of those extension services. Cell phones have changed that completely: millions of farmers being on WhatsApp groups, peer to peer learning.

That comes with its own challenge also. We need a centralized agency to do a quality control of those messages because the focus so far has been on connectivity and not content. What are farmers telling each other? What are the services that are reaching them? Is it the right pesticide to use? Now, the focus needs to be not just on creating that infrastructure and connectivity but also bringing in quality.

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    Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh is a reporter with Devex based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa wrote about Latin America from McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She worked as a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.