A food and agri trojan horse for South Asia
What happens when the formation of a “multi-country multi-institutional research programme consortium” is announced, the aim being to aid nutrition in South Asia? In my view, what happens is the beginning of a carefully guided construction of evidence, in some form, that will aid – not nutrition, but – the further industrialisation of crop staple cultivation, its transformation into processed food, and its delivery to urban consumers through retail food oligopolies.
Am I right or wrong? Time will tell, and as this is designed to be a six-year long programme, I think we will see early evidence by end-2013. The programme’s full name is curious as it is revealing – ‘Leveraging Agriculture for Nutrition in South Asia (LANSA)’. Is the mix of agriculture in South Asia currently unable to provide nutrition? If so what has changed from say 50 years ago? What does ‘leveraging’ mean and who will move the levers? To what end? As I see it, the programme’s name advertises its provenance, and this is the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).
In the view of the CGIAR and its constituent research institutes, agriculture’s most important task “is to provide food of sufficient quantity and quality to feed and nourish the world’s population sustainably so that all people can lead healthy, productive lives”. According to the CGIAR (and its donors, and its powerful collaborators and patrons, more of which below) achieving this goal “will require closer collaboration across the sectors of agriculture, nutrition, and health, which have long operated in separate spheres with little recognition of how their actions affect each other”.
This view is insidious and its logic is cunning – the CGIAR and its patrons use the climate change problem, they use food insecurity as a totem, and use food price volatility as justification for what they present as solutions. Until the rise of industrial agriculture and chemical fertiliser and the mechanisation of everything from field preparation to remote sensing, agriculture and nutrition and health existed at the core of the holistic existence of agrarian societies.
Because the CGIAR imprint is so visible, it becomes immediately clear when we look at the members of this consortium, for the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) is there. But not leading. The leading institution is the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) of India, and who better – for the CGIAR and its determined patrons – than to have as a helmsman in this spinerette of policy than the man who partnered Norman Borlaug all those years ago in the Punjab? Ah yes, in the shaping of modern agriculture contemporary history does provide inspiration, and I will tell you why in a moment more.
The excuse presented for LANSA to be brought to life is an unremarkable one, it is not original and has been used and abused for all sorts of schemes and programmes ever since India’s days of ‘garibi hatao‘, the 1960s mobilisation cry that was also an election slogan. “Despite rapid economic growth in South Asia, its rates of child undernutrition remain the highest in the world, with nearly half of children stunted or underweight,” complained the LANSA flyer, and added, “progress to reduce these rates is extremely slow. Ironically, most people in the region make their living from farming, which researchers say, offers great potential for improving nutrition”.
Great potential yes, but improving nutrition? We shall see. The programme (according to the scanty literature available, in concert, on all the partners’ websites) “will first examine existing agriculture policies and activities, looking at India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan” (why are Sri Lanka and Nepal excluded? I have a theory, and will comment in a follow-up post). “It will then propose new initiatives to link agriculture and nutrition in the region, working closely with key decision-makers to ensure the research meets their needs.” Read that again – to ensure the research meets their needs! What happened to the children you were so concerned about, dearies? “The goal is to promote cooperation throughout the region, given the trans-border nature of many of the region’s food- and nutrition-related issues”. Yes we share rice and wheat growing ecologies, but what trans-border cooperation does this vastly ambitious consortium have in its collective mind? That too, I think, we shall see soon enough.
I have named two of the members of this group, and the others are: the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC, Bangladesh), the Collective for Social Science Research (CSSR, Pakistan), the Institute of Development Studies (IDS, UK), and the Leverhulme Centre for Integrative Research on Agriculture and Health (LCIRAH, UK). Let’s take the last first. This is the philanthropic part of the Lever that we find today, far more omnisciently, via Unilever, for whom processed food is a large and growing part of its businesses. The IDS is at first glance an odd member of the group, but it has worked with the centres from both Bangladesh and Pakistan, and moreover, carries some weight with the government of Britain, whose chestfuls of pound sterling are fuelling the whole enterprise. Policy-making connections apart, this does seem to me to be mercenary of IDS, but perhaps that is the new nature of development research outfits, and neither vintage nor experience now provides insulation from the temptations of the infernal market.
What have they said they will attempt? The minimalist pamphlet mentions three “core research questions” and these are: 1. How can agriculture be provided with an enabling environment in which to leverage nutrition? 2. How can agriculture and agri-food chains be incentivised to be more pro-nutrition? 3. How can more pro-nutrition agricultural interventions be designed and implemented?
I find these very worrying. What is meant by “enabling environment”? Does it mean the same as “reform” and “austerity” for example? Are they intending to tamper with India’s mid-day meals programme from which many millions of schoolchildren benefit – and who currently (most of them every schoolday at least) eat fresh cooked meals instead of packaged, processed, biofortified, micronutriented cardboard? That second core research question reads like MBA gobbledygook to me, but coming from this famously wise group, becomes all the more worrying – “agri-food chains” and “incentivised” and “pro-nutrition”? Who will do the incentivising and at what public cost – isn’t that a fair research question too? And the third one has “pro-nutrition” again, this time combined with “interventions” – by who? Tesco and Walmart?
It is troubling that hovering behind all this trendy goal-setting and consortium building is the hungry shadow of the CGIAR and its powerful patrons. It has striven mightily to place the agriculture, nutrition, and health combination on the development agenda (formally with the IFPRI ‘2020’ conference in 2011) and including the CGIAR Research Program 4 (insiders call it CRP4). But there are the close links that are far more alarming – to USAID’s Feed the Future, to the World Economic Forum’s New Vision for Agriculture machinations and to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and its championing of agri-biotech. These, in our era, are designed as the heavy machinery that supports foreign and trade policy in the international sphere. With such connections LANSA, I fear and suspect, is a new food and agriculture policy trojan horse being readied for South Asia.