When it comes to having sufficient food, India can pride itself on being ahead of China. But that isn't saying much. The bad news is that we are still 15 years behind China at dinner time.
Due to his smaller pay cheque, an average Indian consumes 20% less calories daily and eats cheaper foods than the average Chinese, who is now virtually at par with ordinary Europeans and Japanese. Once the aam aadmi is more prosperous, India's food self-sufficiency will become a thing of the past.
Like other citizens of developed countries, a Chinese today has more expensive foods like meat, milk products and greens rather than cheap cereals and pulses.
Of course, as incomes of the rural poor rise, prosperity will push up China's demand for meat, oilseeds, vegetable oils, and fruit and vegetables. But by and large China is rapidly reaching saturation levels, leaving little room for rapid growth in food consumption.
India, by contrast, appears still to be in the first stage of the nutrition transition, with substantial potential still for a rapid rise in per capita calorie intake, particularly in the consumption of milk, eggs and meat.
The difference is quite stark. According to FAO data, while cereals formed less than a quarter of the Chinese daily meal in 2002, in India they formed almost 40% of the total food intake. Similarly, while expensive foods like eggs, fish, meat, fruit and vegetables total almost half the calories in China, in India they contributed not more than a quarter.
In the last 10 years, the share of cereals in India's total food consumption has fallen only slightly, and the share of vegetables, dairy products and fruit have not increased as much as in China.
That says something about the pace of India's economic development. According to international trade body Unctad, this indicates that India's dietary pattern has not yet shifted to the same extent as China's over the past decade and as Japan's and the Republic of Korea's in the 1970s and 1980s when they were on the fast track of economic growth.
The evolution of the level and composition of food demand has differed between China and India. By the end of the 1990s, China's average level of daily per capita calorie intake is only 10% short of the level of developed countries.
Due to India's relatively lower level of per capita income, growth in per capita demand for cereals has been much slower than in China over the past two decades, and per capita rice and wheat consumption in India is still well below Chinese levels.
“Indeed, India's average level of daily per capita calorie intake has remained about 20% below the Chinese level. The expectation, therefore, is that the increase in China's level of per capita food consumption in the future will be slower than in the past, while in India there is considerable scope for a further strong increase in per capita food consumption,'' says Unctad's latest Trade and Development Report.
For example, over the past decade, India's aggregate consumption of cereals grew by about 15% and vegetables by about 50%, while that of soyabeans about doubled and poultry almost tripled.