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High prices of pulses may affect nutrition security, says study

‘Following COVID-19 lockdown, all food groups witnessed spurt in prices compared to 2019’.

Food habits during coronavirus (COVID-19) may have shifted from diverse and nutritive diets to staple foods such as wheat and rice as the prices of vegetables, pulses and eggs rose sharply after the lockdown while those of cereals remained relatively stable, according to a new study by the Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition in New York.

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The study, “Pandemic Prices: COVID-19 price shocks and their implications for nutrition security in India,” authored by Payal Seth, Prabhu Pingali and Bhaskar Mittra, was launched earlier this month.

It analyses prices of cereals (wheat and rice) and non-cereals (onion, tomatoes, potatoes, five pulses and eggs) in 11 tier-1 and tier-2 cities from March 1 to May 31 compared to the same period last year. It uses weekly-level retail data from the Department of Commerce Affairs of the Union government and wholesale prices from the National Egg Coordination Committee. The nationwide lockdown was imposed from March 25.

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The study revealed that following the lockdown all food groups witnessed a rise in prices compared to 2019, but the rise in prices was higher for non-cereals compared to cereals. After the lockdown was lifted, prices of cereals, eggs, potatoes, onions and tomatoes stabilised quickly while those of protein-rich pulses continued to remain high.

Wheat price

Retail wheat and rice prices were either stable or cheaper than weeks preceding the lockdown as well as same time last year. Compared to last year, the potato price was as high as 30-90% in several cities but stabilised by the first week of May; the price of onions was as high as 200-250% immediately after the lockdown in some States and stabilised by April end, and higher in some cases; and tomatoes were higher compared to pre-COVID-19 period but began to show a downward trend. The wholesale prices of eggs show that they fell initially (authors argue it was because of fear of coronavirus through poultry), increased by March end and then stabilised two months later.

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Prices of pulses rose during the lockdown and continued to remain higher than the pre-COVID-19 levels — arhar (tur dal) was up by up to 45%, red lentil (masur dal) by 20-50%, moong dal by 20-80% gram dal ranged from 10 to 40% and urad dal by 0-80%.

Consumption decisions

“The relative stability in cereal prices and enhanced prices of pulses will most likely distort spending and consumption decisions. This will perpetuate reliance on a staple-based, protein-deficient diet. The government can ensure the provision of supplementary protein that is expected to be lost due to the price rise by timely interventions to stabilise the increase in prices,” the authors recommend. They criticise recent amendment to the Essential Commodities Act, which deregulated cereals, edible oils, oilseeds, pulses, onions, and potatoes and argue that policies that insulate non-staple supply chains from price shocks and fluctuations and “repealing jaded restrictions to address farm sector bottlenecks” were critical.

“The report submits that the relatively higher prices of more nutritious food makes it difficult for the poor and marginal population to access such nutrient-rich food. As a result, proportion of such foods in the diets goes further down and is replaced by less nutritious and calorie-dense foods. This is likely to worsen the nutritional status of women and children across India, and more so in the impoverished regions of the country,” co-author of the report, Bhaskar Mittra, told The Hindu in an email.

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