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Monocroppers at increased risk of poor diets during 2020 COVID-19 lockdown

Monocropping farmers were more likely to experience a decline in diet quality during the initial, strictest phases of the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown in India compared to those who cultivated a greater diversity of crops.

Findings are based on three phone surveys of 833 farmers conducted between May and August 2020 by researchers from the Public Health Foundation of India, the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (Hyderabad), Harvard University (USA), and the University of Edinburgh (UK).

Crop Diversity and Diets

Crop diversity influences diets through two major pathways: home consumption and increased income, which can be used to purchase food. During the initial phase of the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown, access to markets was restricted and market demand dropped. Therefore, the second pathway was largely blocked.

Researchers asked farmers about the different crops that were sown in Kharif 2019 and 2020. They also collected information on their frequency of consuming eight food groups: staples, pulses, nuts, vegetables, fruits, dairy, eggs, and fleshy foods (meat, poultry, and fish). The number of food groups consumed every day in the past week was used as a marker of diet quality.

On average, farmers consumed just two food groups per day. Staples and dairy were the most commonly consumed, followed by vegetables. The number of food groups consumed declined most dramatically in the initial phase of the lockdown, from May to June 2020, and then rebounded slightly as the lockdown was eased from June to August.

Most farmers were monocroppers, meaning they only grew one crop in Kharif. In nearly all cases, that one crop was rice. These farmers were approximately twice as likely to experience a decline in the number of food groups consumed from May to June 2020 compared to farmers who cultivated 2 or more crops.

Dr. GV Ramanjaneyulu, Executive Director of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, and a Co-author on the study said, ‘We found that diverse cropping patterns provides nutrition resilience to farmers. Similarly, diverse cropping patterns will help improve climate resilience of Indian agriculture. This way of farming promotes soil health, water retention, and biodiversity, which is important for preventing pest outbreaks.’

Kitchen Gardens Protecting Nutritional Security

About half of farmers had a kitchen garden. These farmers were significantly less likely to experience a decline in the number of food groups consumed throughout the entire lockdown period.

Dr. Aditi Roy, a Research Scientist at the Public Health Foundation of India and senior author on the study said, ‘Our study provides yet more evidence for supporting policies and programs on kitchen gardens in India to improve diet quality. We need objective, systematic evaluation of nutritional and health impacts of these programs.’

Kaela Connors, a Master’s student at Harvard University and lead author of the study, said, ‘Our findings clearly demonstrate that diversifying production systems may be important for safeguarding nutritional security in the event of other large-scale global shocks such as future pandemics and climate change. This has important implications not only for India, but other parts of the world where monocropping is the predominant form of agriculture.’

Findings were published in a special issue of Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, COVID-19: Food System Frailties and Opportunities.

Anonymous data are freely available for download on the Harvard Dataverse.

Related Links:
https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fsufs.2021.695347/full
https://dataverse.harvard.edu/dataset.xhtml?persistentId=doi:10.7910/DVN/JZ511O
https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12571-021-01164-w#article-info