How the crop cultivation and food habits of 1.21 billion are being hijacked
In both 2009 and well as this year, 2012, there were droughts. The impact of one drought on rural cultivating households is considerable, and we have known of the severity of these impacts ever since the chronicling of the famines of 1943-44. What happens when over a five-year period, there are two droughts? Before the end of 2012, we shall begin to know, and this will be a grim learning – drawing from the conclusions of several surveys conducted on drought and its impacts between 1970 and 2002, rural cultivating households suffer annual income losses of at times more than 60% in drought years. Can they recover enough in three years to withstand such drastic income erosion a second time in quick succession? We will learn soon enough, but the circumstances in which we learn is already being influences by major changes afoot.
Let us consider the global concern about drought and the need expressed for support to cultivating (and rural food consuming) populations experiencing drought (and food price inflation) stress. “We cannot allow these historic price hikes to turn into a lifetime of perils as families take their children out of school and eat less nutritious food to compensate for the high prices,” said World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim in a recent statement concerning high food prices. “Countries must strengthen their targeted programmes to ease the pressure on the most vulnerable population, and implement the right policies.” The World Bank, together with other multi-lateral lending organisations and many governments worried about agrarian distress and chronic food price inflation, has spoken often about “measures and policy to protect the most vulnerable against future shocks”.
What sort of measures have been and are being discussed and implemented? They include agriculture-related investment, policy advice, fast-track financing, support for safety nets, the multi-donor food security programmes, and risk management products. The Government of India has also talked about cash transfers and increased investment in agriculture, in the same breath that it has talked about technological ‘solutions’ (the introduction of drought-resistant crop varieties, they like to call it) to surmount the yield per hectare limits currently experienced in food crop staples. How sensible or opportunistic are these measures? How true are they towards being ‘inclusive’ and ‘participatory’ (terms our government and major line ministries, including the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Rural Development, like to use)? How much are they driven by the demands of industry rather than the needs of the food insecure and price vulnerable?
Before I indicate some of the answers, it is useful to look at the conditions in the same sector in our neighbour, the People’s Republic of China.
Inside China, the country is fast approaching the limit of its own available farmland resources – the so-called ‘red line’ for food security of 120 million hectares of arable land, set by the government. China’s typical solution has been to import cheaper agriculture commodities like soybean and maize while saving its farmland for higher-value exports like fish and vegetables. But there is another force driving the rise in soybean and maize imports: the rise in meat consumption in China (a reduced example of which we are seeing in the cities and towns of India, in which the middle class diet includes a growing meat component, usually poultry). In China, meat is increasingly coming from large-scale commercial farms – not small-scale or household farmers – and is therefore dependent on animal feed rather than food waste (which has and continues to be an important portion of animal feed – think goats and chicken – for India’s small agricultural households).
Looking back at the pronouncements of India’s planners – whether in the Ministry of Agriculture, in the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilisers, the directorates in states for major crops and horticulture – and its lobbyists (mostly in the chambers of commerce and trade associations) one comparison made frequently with China is seen: that our per hectare use of fertiliser is low. What they conceal is the tremendous ecological damage that has taken place in China as a result of unregulated growth in the use of synthetic and inorganic fertilisers, which has rendered toxic and sterile vast farming tracts in China. To even consider such an approach in India ought to be anathema to our farmers – but they are being pressured and coerced by a business-centric lobbying front which is alas being supported by the central government and by the governments of major states.
“Smallholder farmers are capable of producing the food necessary to feed their country, but face increasingly difficult barriers,” concluded a recent report from the international NGO Grain, which campaigns for farmers’ rights worldwide. The report by Grain added that government decisions to rely on agricultural commodity imports serve the interests of agribusiness and its need for cheap sources of feed “but threaten the land, livelihoods and local food systems of communities”. It is this linkage that lurks behind the recent ‘reform’ (a distorted and dangerous term) that now has permitted foreign direct investment (FDI) in India’s (and Bharat’s) agriculture and food retail sector.
Such changes come against a legacy of corruption concerning access to and misuse of foodgrains that deeply affect our public distribution system and with it, equitable and affordable access for our population to nutritious food. A recent report in Bloomberg, the international news agency, exposed one such fraud, which found that Rs 2,700 crore worth of foodgrain “was looted by corrupt politicians and their criminal syndicates over the past decade” in Uttar Pradesh alone. The report quoted Naresh Saxena, a commissioner to the Supreme Court who monitors hunger-based programmes across India, as having said: “This is the most mean-spirited, ruthlessly executed corruption because it hits the poorest and most vulnerable in society. What I find even more shocking is the lack of willingness in trying to stop it.” How can they begin to stop it when, in a country whose agricultural production in absolute numbers has reached ecological limits, the food retail and processed food industry continues to demand more? And will pay more for new supplies and will gratify the looters more?
Imagine the psychological effect of this sort of fraud on those who work in and for our agriculture markets. The number of regulated (secondary) agricultural markets (‘mandis’) stood at 7,157 as of March 2010 (compared to just 286 in 1950). There are also reckoned to be about 22,200 rural periodical markets, about 15% of which function under the ambit of APMC (Agricultural Produce Market Committees) regulations (there are at least 27 such acts in different states). It is against this density of local collection and distribution that the impact of agri-business on inflation (both direct and indirect) may be viewed. The direct impact of agribusiness is visible in the form of food price inflation, as the Reserve Bank of India has also observed. There is demand arising from increasing population and (especially in urban and urbanising centres – see this report in a business daily, which ignores entirely the food demand footprint of urbanising India) prosperity has outstripped the growth of agricultural output, hence food inflation in India will certainly to persist and deepen (in rural areas as a result of the agri-business-led escalation of marketing channels and investment in infrastructure to move crop and food – the current government and its industry partners are doing all they can to convince middle-class urban India this is good for ‘growth’).
There is a dictatorial emphasis on food processing, on trading (consider the number of commodity exchanges today compared with ten years ago, and the much enlarged scope of their futures trading business, all of which requires access to stored raw crop that serves as the basis of such trade) and on marketing. The growing demand for protein-rich and what are called “high-value foods” (fruit, vegetables, edible oil and meat) is simultaneously raising the demand for what the food industry (processed food manufacturers, food retailers, crop terminal markets promoters, exporters) calls “high quality, safe and convenient (frozen, pre-cut, pre-cooked and ready-to-eat) foods”. Hence the view now shared by the central government, planning agencies and business and industry associations is that meeting these demands will facilitate growth (of national GDP and of the agriculture sector; see the National Summary Data Page for growth rates, however meaningless these are to the cultivating households of rural Bharat) and moderate inflation (in complete disregard of evidence from countries all over the world in which the growth of modern food retail has contributed to inflation in the prices of food staples).
The strength of the ‘growth’ totem does not diminish, and nor does the artificially inflated appeal of the ‘growth is good, more growth is better’ fiction. This is wholly and utterly misguided and mischievous and is responsible for deepening the agrarian distress in Bharat. How entrenched this fiction is can be seen in allegedly authoritative pronouncements that can be found even by the RBI, which recently said: “There is, however, near unanimity, amongst all that agriculture and agri-business growth is a necessary prerequisite for moderation of inflation, particularly food inflation, as well as for acceleration and sustenance of inclusive growth.” Growth as defined by the resource-intensive and ecologically destructive direction of the central government, Indian business and an urban middle class divorced from rural realities has directly caused this same inflation the RBI (and others) is complaining about. Yet in the policy space the contradiction is ignored – true reform that benefits Bharat rather than India is not considered.
Our central problem in the near future will continue to be the divide between Bharat and India, between food growers and the food consuming populations they support (usually unseen and unheard, often unrepresented). The English-language media that represents the interests of the well-off urban elite have become uniformly uncritical of the different aspects of agri-business and the ‘supply chain’ (another loaded term that spells danger for rural Bharat) which are being transformed (to be fair, major regional language media can be equally uncritical). Reports such as these, one from an Indian business and finance daily, Mint (which holds up GM food as the panacea for India’s food insecurity, and the other from the Wall Street Journal, which is read and quoted in business circles (which said the new ‘reforms’ are not comprehensive enough), reflect the aspirations and tendencies of urban upper middle class India and the disproportionate influence this minority enjoys over national policy, especially policy concerning agriculture and food.
These media views celebrate “rural prosperity” which is “thanks to government job schemes” (no mention of the labour distorting effect of MGNREGA (the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) that is now widespread and which has pushed up farm labour costs to benefit the manufacturers of agricultural machinery – see this report for one of the implications of this cost rise, and see this compilation [pdf] by the Indian Social Institute on NREGA-related wages news), the drive for more “domestic demand from rural areas” (to benefit the consumer goods companies and their financiers primarily), the need for “better private-sector jobs in manufacturing and services”, the obsession with how to “boost purchasing power” and the tiresome illogic of “a virtuous cycle of growth”.