India Understands Health and Agriculture (but the U.S. Doesn't)


AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi

Last week in New Delhi, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh kicked off a conference on agriculture and nutrition that I attended with a speech about how his government is focusing on "millets with a high protein, fiber, and mineral content" and on a system for small farmers that's critical to ensuring "nutritional security" in India. From John Kufuor, the former president of the Republic of Ghana, attendees learned about a Grains and Legumes Development Board that supplies seeds to farmers to improve the quality of their produce. And Daniel Balaban, the president of Brazil's National Education Development Fund, referred to the $1.8 billion his country will spend this year on an initiative incorporating homegrown vegetables into a feeding program to nourish some 47 million school kids.

Listening to all that, I couldn't help but think about the U.S. government's policies in regard to food. Just two weeks ago, the United States Department of Agriculture released its new Dietary Guidelines: We'd waited five years to learn that we should eat "less foods" and "cut back on foods and drinks with added sugars." The recent one-year anniversary of Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign marked the fact that we are now officially one fifth of the way closer to our major food suppliers "decreasing the amount of sugar, fat, and salt found in school meals" and one tenth of the way closer to doubling the amount of produce served in school meals.

Why is it the leaders of places like India and Ghana can talk about the need for agriculture to incorporate nutrition and health, while my own government can go no farther than to publish a bunch of platitudes?

Why is it the leaders of places like India and Ghana can talk about the need for agriculture to incorporate nutrition and health (not to mention the livelihoods of small farmers), while my own government can go no farther than to publish a bunch of platitudes and vague dietary aspirations? Okay, Michelle Obama gets some credit for focusing attention on the issue of childhood obesity. But 10 years to double the amount of produce in school lunches? Does that mean that by 2020 my now-five-year-old will receive two grapes alongside her Friday hot lunch of pizza and French fries? (By way of contrast: From 2004 to 2008, Brazilian schoolchildren increased their consumption of fruits from 28 to 62 percent, and that of vegetables from 57 to 80 percent.)

Organized by the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute, or IFPRI, the conference was focused mainly on low-income countries, but the various panels and plenary sessions served mostly to remind me how far we rich people are from getting a clue. New York Times columnist Mark Bittman betrayed no irony whatsoever, for example, when he recently referred in that paper to Michael Pollan's "ground-breaking" slogan "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Of course the issues change as countries achieve different levels of economic success—the Kennedy School's Robert Paarlberg gave a fascinating presentation on the challenges facing governments as their citizens move through different dietary stages—but are we Americans really so out of touch as to believe that the rest of the world wasn't onto these concepts ages ago? (Ingredients in Brazilian school lunch: rice, beans, vegetable oil, salt, meat, tomato, banana.) And that it didn't take reading a 256-page book to get them there?

Presented by

Jocelyn Zuckerman

Jocelyn C. Zuckerman is an adjunct professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and the former deputy editor of Gourmet magazine. A former Peace Corps Volunteer in rural Africa and a current Rosalynn Carter Fellow focused on Haiti, she has a particular interest in hunger and the developing world.

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