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The struggle for the soul of food

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There is food. There is no food. There is no contradiction in there being food and not-food at the same time.

But the not-food is not ‘no food’, it is primary crop that has been passed to food industry, instead of directly to households, and in that industry it is converted into a raw material that is entirely different from the cereals, vegetables, pulses and fruit forms that we consider food and which farmers grow.

That conversion is the food industry, and the demands of that conversion include the use of ‘high-response’ crop varieties, livestock and aquatic breeds, enormous doses of synthetic agro-chemicals and the flattening of ecosystems.

The food industry makes plants grow by applying pesticides and herbicides that sterilise all other life, takes those grown plants and reduces them to components, re-mixes and alters those components, infuses them with deadly formulations of chemicals so that they withstand the treatment of the supply and retail chain, packages them and sells them as ‘food’. This is the not-food that a majority of households in countries now eat.

The industrial food model is predicated on waste, on a false economy of surplus production of commodities rather than on the basis of ecological sustainability, on a biological science that has hideously distorted the rhythms of life.

In the last few weeks, several incisive new reports describe the problems with the industrial food model, and I have drawn quotes from four here. These are not the first. But the conditions they now describe for an old malady are not what we have seen before.

There is a fifth, which I call a pseudo-report. It describes the problems differently, as if they were disconnected from the source of the problems which the other four reports correctly identify. The FAO State Of Food And Agriculture 2017 report refuses to acknowledge the macro-economic, corporate science and finance capital causes for the problems.

Here are the summaries, with links:

Whereas historically the organisations’ proposal for agrarian reform referred particularly to land distribution and to access to productive resources, such as credit, financing, support for marketing of products, amongst others, the integral or genuine agrarian reform is based on the defence and the reconstruction of territory as a whole, within the framework of Food Sovereignty. The broadening of the object of agrarian reform, from land to territory also broadens the concept of the agrarian reform itself.

“Therefore the contemporary proposal for integral agrarian reform does not only guarantee the democratisation of land, but also takes into consideration diverse aspects that allow families to have a decent life: water, the seas, mangroves and continental waters, seeds, biodiversity as
a whole, as well as market regulation and the end of land grabbing. Furthermore, it includes the strengthening of agro-ecological production as a form of production that is compatible with the cycles of nature and capable of halting climate change, maintaining biodiversity and reducing contamination.”

From ‘Struggles of La Via Campesina, for Agrarian Reform and the Defense of Life, Land and Territories’, La Via Campesina, 2017

The Industrial Food Chain is a linear sequence of links running from production inputs to consumption outcomes. The first links in the Chain are crop and livestock genomics, followed by pesticides, veterinary medicines, fertilizers, and farm machinery. From there, the Chain moves on to transportation and storage, and then milling processing, and packaging. The final links in the Chain are wholesaling, retailing and ultimately delivery to homes or restaurants. In this text we use ‘industrial’ or ‘corporate’ to describe the Chain, and ‘commercial foods’ should undoubtedly be associated with the Chain. Just as peasants can’t be comprehended outside of their cultural and ecological context, the links in the Chain – from agro-inputs to food retailers – must be understood within the market economy. All the links in the Chain are connected within the financial and political system, including bankers, speculators, regulators and policymakers. The Chain controls the policy environment of the world’s most important resource – our food.”

From ‘Who Will Feed Us? The Peasant Food Web vs The Industrial Food Chain’, ETC Group, 2017

A significant horizontal and vertical restructuring is underway across food systems. Rampant vertical integration is allowing companies to bring satellite data services, input provision, farm machinery and market information under one roof, transforming agriculture in the process. Mega-mergers come in the context of an already highly-consolidated agri-food industry, and are ushering in a series of structural shifts in food systems. Agrochemical companies are acquiring seed companies, paving the way for unprecedented consolidation of crop development pathways, and bringing control of farming inputs into fewer hands.

“The mineral-dependent and already highly concentrated fertilizer industry is seeking further integration on the back of industry overcapacity and a drop in prices; fertilizer firms are also moving to diversify and integrate their activities via hostile takeovers, joint ventures, and the buying and selling of of regional assets– with mixed results. Meanwhile, livestock and fish breeders, and animal pharmaceutical firms, are pursuing deeper integration with each other, and are fast becoming a one-stop shop for increasingly concentrated industrial livestock industry. Leading farm machinery companies – already possessing huge market shares – are looking to consolidate up- and down-stream, and are moving towards ownership of Big Data and artificial intelligence, furthering their control of farm-level genomic information and trending market data accessed through satellite imagery and robotics.”

From ‘Too big to feed: Exploring the impacts of mega-mergers, concentration, concentration of power in the agri-food sector’, IPES-Food, 2017

Power — to achieve visibility, frame narratives, set the terms of debate, and influence policy — is at the heart of the food–health nexus. Powerful actors, including private sector, governments, donors, and others with influence, sit at the heart of the food–health nexus, generating narratives, imperatives, and power relations that help to obscure its social and environmental fallout. Prevailing solutions leave the root causes of poor health unaddressed and reinforce existing social-health inequalities.

“These solutions, premised on further industrialization of food systems, grant an increasingly central role to those with the technological capacity and economies of scale to generate data, assess risks, and deliver key health fixes (e.g., biofortification, highly traceable and biosecure supply chains). The role of industrial food and farming systems in driving health risks (e.g., by perpetuating poverty and climate change) is left unaddressed. As well, those most affected by the health impacts in food systems (e.g., small-scale farmers in the Global South) become increasingly marginal in diagnosing the problems and identifying the solutions.”

From ‘Unravelling the Food–Health Nexus: Addressing practices, political economy, and power
relations to build healthier food systems’, The Global Alliance for the Future of Food and IPES-Food, 2017

a) Industrialization, the main driver of past transformations, is not occurring in most countries of sub-Saharan Africa and is lagging in South Asia. People exiting low-productivity agriculture are moving mostly into low-productivity informal services, usually in urban areas. The benefits of this transformation have been very modest.
b) In the decades ahead, sub-Saharan Africa, in particular, will face large increases in its youth population and the challenge of finding them jobs. Workers exiting agriculture and unable to find jobs in the local non-farm economy must seek employment elsewhere, leading to seasonal or permanent migration.
c) The world’s 500 million smallholder farmers risk being left behind in structural and rural transformations. Many small scale producers will have to adjust to ongoing changes in “downstream” food value chains, where large-scale processors and retailers, who are taking centre stage, use contracts to coordinate supply and set strict standards to guarantee food quality and safety. Those requirements can marginalize smallholder farmers who are unable to adjust.
d) Urbanization, population increases and income growth are driving strong demand for food at a time when agriculture faces unprecedented natural-resource constraints and climate change. These increases have implications for agriculture and food systems – they need to adapt significantly to become more productive and diversified, while coping with unprecedented climate change and natural resource constraints.”

From ‘The State Of Food And Agriculture. Leveraging Food Systems For Inclusive Rural Transformation’, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, 2017

Taxing knowledge and nature

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The success of GST cannot come at a cultural cost to India. A well-informed tax system must widen the dialogue finance has with handicrafts and hand weaves. [This article has been published by The Pioneer, New Delhi.]

On 15 September, in a notification about the Central Goods and Services Tax (GST) Act 2017, the Central Board of Excise and Customs exempted “casual taxable persons making taxable supplies of handicraft goods” from requiring to be registered under the Act. The previous day, a similar exemption was given for the Integrated GST, and which concerns the inter-state supply of handicraft and handloom goods, a traffic that contributes a substantial livelihood to many crafts households.

There are a few conditions explained in the stilted language such notifications employ, such as value of sales, the need for craftspeople and artisans to obtain a Permanent Account Number (PAN) and fill out an e-way bill.

Yet these corrections to GST, made by the Ministry of Finance, are the first signals that the entreaties made to the Government of India by craftspeople and artisans are at last being heeded and responded to. They were made, and took shape in the form of a representation, titled “A plea for reconsidering GST rates for the crafts sector” and was submitted in July 2017 to the Prime Minister’s Office.

The reason this representation had been discussed, compiled and delivered was the ruinous effect on the handicrafts and handloom sector of the Goods and Services Tax (GST), which came into force on 1 July 2017 under the slogan, “the single biggest tax reform in the history of the nation”. The representation to the PMO pointed out that this single biggest tax reform had been drafted, passed and was being implemented without a single consultation with the largest national number of craftspeople and artisans in the world.

The representation went on to explain that the GST consultations had not included or even recognised “the widespread existence of crafts people, practices and products based on centuries old histories and skills, which give India a unique place in the world and brings economic benefits to dispersed rural artisans”.

Handicrafts and hand weaves provides employment and livelihood which is, in terms of numbers, next only to agriculture (indeed the two are concomitant, being based on nature and the application of knowledge). While many crafts and artisanal products are seasonal, estimates are that over 110 lakh persons are so engaged, with more than 43 lakh in the handloom sector alone.

Click for a pdf file of this article (courtesy The Pioneer).

The GST crisis for handicrafts and hand weaves has shown that this sector is constantly on the defensive. It can only proceed by causing the recognition in economy that this sector (cultivation and its ‘arts and local manufactures’ included) does not produce only food, it also produces feed for animals, fuel (both traditional fuels and biofuels) and fibres and grasses and woods, the minerals and clays, the colours, for artisanal (and industrial) production, and that the maintenance of the bio-economy – that is the service of balancing our ecological habitats upon whose gifts we base our lives, a balancing brought about by the application of uncountable streams of local knowledge – is fundamental to the well being of the country’s peoples.

“One would assume that natural materials, organic cultivation, reduction of plastics and other synthetic materials, and recycling would figure in the Centre’s approach to policies across the board,” Jaya Jaitly has observed. As president of Dastkari Haat Samiti, the conceiver of Dilli Haat and the initiator of several of India’s most innovative programmes to return dignity and viability to craftspeople and artisans, her expectation of policy coherence is well warranted.

Both dignity and viability are important, and for as long as handicrafts and hand weaves were held in high esteem by the ruling administrations of ancient and medieval, colonial and independent India, both were assured. In the 1951 Census, the first of independent India, among the list of industries and occupations according to which the working population was described were herdsmen and shepherds, beekeepers, silkworm rearers, cultivators of lac, charcoal burners, collectors of cow dung, gatherers of sea weeds and water products, gur manufacture, toddy drawers, tailors and darners, potters and makers of earthenware, glass bangles and beads, basket makers.

The liberalisation and ‘market reform’ which swept through the country from the early 1990s brought with them a view of both macro- and local economics that became more distant from ‘arts and local manufactures’. India began to pay more attention to GDP and less to the meanings which handicraft and hand weaves represented. By the middle of the decade of the 2000s, biodiversity, carbon, ecosystem services, and even cultural services had begun to be discussed and considered. Terms and ideas such as ‘externality’ and ‘social costs’ began to be used to describe the changes to society and environment that were under way, visible but never acknowledged, which weakened and sickened both.

Such discussion rarely recalled quiet efforts that had been made in the same direction only a little earlier, such as in the report of the Steering Committee on Handlooms and Handicrafts for the Twelfth Plan, which had observed that “these two sectors constitute the only industry in the country that provide low cost, green livelihood opportunities to millions of families, supplementing incomes in seasons of agrarian distress, checking migration and preserving traditional economic relationships”.

‘Green livelihood’ made a quiet entry into planning vocabulary then. Now, ‘livelihood’ has been replaced with ‘economy’, which is quite a different idea, and the recent loud calls in favour of a ‘green economy’ for India have helped shelter a variety of very ungreen enterprises and practices. Perhaps in the notifications of 14 and 15 September we are seeing the first admission from the central government’s financial and planning authorities, that there is no need for a new ‘green economy’ (especially one based on expensive finance and fickle technologies) when we have had one for all the ages that we can enumerate.

The notifications are a worthy start, and I submit to the Ministry of Finance that these can and should lead it to consider anew how incentives and encouragements in the form of taxation instruments can do much to renew, revive and strengthen a ‘green economy’ that is the only genuinely grassroots activity India has and can have.

Some aspects that still require consultation and an extra-financial view are that crafts and weaves are not commodities and should not therefore be fitted by force into the Acts’ labyrinthine system of HSN codes, that the imposition of taxes higher than 5% on handicrafts and hand weaves discourages both sustainable production and consumption (at a time when such practices are gaining international currency), and that a well-informed system of taxation must include an understanding of the continuum of natural material, habitat, and the knowledge streams that use and transform nature’s materials into craft and fabric.

The plot to cripple the Bharatiya kamadhenu

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To focus your attention on the terrible fate that threatens our indigenous breeds of cow and buffalo, here are the connections, which are now more than 45 years old, between the period that led to Operation Flood (or ‘white revolution’ as it was also called) and with it the campaign to increase the supply of milk in India by steadily weakening the desi gou, and the situation we have today of a National Dairy Support Project, which continues to do the same.

A little history. At the end of the 1960s, surplus dairy products from what was then the European Community were sent to India through the World Food Programme (WFP). This dairy produce was sold to cooperative and state dairies in Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi and Chennai, ‘reconstituted’ with local milk and sold to city consumers. This project was known as Flood I and was to end in 1975. It continued until 1981.

From the Chapter on Agriculture and Food Management (page 181), the Economic Survey 2016-17, Volume 2, uses language like “terminal value of assets, in this case the no-longer-productive livestock” and warns about social (that is, the Hindu cultural view) policies which “drive this terminal value precipitously down” affecting “private returns… in a manner that could make livestock farming less proftable”. The Finance Ministry and India’s macro-economic planners see our gou and buffalo only as milk producers or sources of meat, and calculate only what it costs to keep them producing or profitable.

Three years earlier in 1978 Flood II had begun. This extended Flood I to the whole country, and was financed by a loan from the World Bank’s International Development Association (IDA) and direct aid from the European Community. Flood II was to conclude in 1985 but was extended until 1987.
In the late 1980s this nearly twenty-year long programme was considered to have:
* improved the living conditions of 10 million families of milk producers by adding 13 million litres of milk per day to the cooperative dairy industry’s processing capacity
* created a milk distribution network covering 142 cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants
* created the infrastructure needed to carry out programmes to promote dairy production, such as artificial insemination, vaccine production, the manufacture of compound foodstuffs
* raised daily milk consumption to 180 grams per inhabitant “to obtain a nutritionally balanced diet”

Now to our recent past. On 15 March 2012 the World Bank approved a National Dairy Support Project (project number P107648) for India. The project began on 22 June 2012, was reviewed in April 2015, had an original closing date of 31 December 2017 which has been revised now to 29 November 2019. It has three components which are: ‘Productivity Enhancement’ (US$193.80 million), ‘Milk Collection and Bulking’ (US$77.30 million) and ‘Project Management and Learning’ (US$22.00 million).

The World Bank’s description of project number P107648 is:
“The National Dairy Support Project (NDSP) which supports India’s National Dairy Plan, Phase I (NDP-I), aims to cover about 40,000 villages across 18 participating dairying states with investments in Productivity Enhancement (e.g., high genetic merit bulls, disease-free semen production, doorstep artificial insemination services, ration balancing program, fodder development) and Milk Collection and Bulking (e.g., village-level infrastructure such as bulk milk cooling units).

Brazenly ‘free market’-oriented in its advice and advocacy, Niti Aayog has mentioned only breeding in its section on livestock, in the policy paper on ‘Doubling Farmers’ Income: Rationale, Strategy, Prospects and Action Plan’, March 2017. The usual complaint of low milk productivity, growth in milk output needed, better feed and nutrition for animals are found in this think-tank’s MNC-directed view.

The description continues: “At its inception, this eight-year project was expected to directly benefit about 1.7 million rural milk producing households through its interventions, a large majority of whom are small holder producers with six animals or less.
“Cumulatively till date, 158 End Implementing Agencies – EIAs (e.g., milk unions, milk federations, dairy producer companies and livestock development boards) are implementing 364 sub-projects across 18 states with a total outlay of Rs. 1904 Crores (USD 292 million), out of which Rs. 318 Crores (USD 48.9 million) are contributed by the EIAs. These participating states account for nearly 95 per cent of India’s milk production, over 87 per cent of the breedable cattle and buffalo population and 98 per cent of the country’s fodder resources. To date, over 2.7 million milk producers have benefited from overall NDP interventions in breed improvement, animal nutrition and bulk milk collection.”

For each of the years 2013 to 2016, the National Dairy Support Project has required the import of “frozen in-vivo produced” and “pure bred” Holstein, Friesian and Jersey bulls. This is to continue for 2017 to 2019 so that the 100 million doses “target” of the artificial insemination programme is reached.

This is the brief outline and background of the government-managed, World Bank-directed programme to weaken generation after generation of our desi gou through a machiavellian plan of cross-breeding them with foreign cattle (Holstein, Friesian and Jersey), so that the gou-based economy of Bharat will be destroyed and replaced by a dairy products industry designed and controlled by multinationals that include Nestlé, Danone, Lactalis, FrieslandCampina, Fonterra, Dean Foods, Unilever, Kraft Heinz, Schreiber Foods and 11 others. It will also be partly controlled by Amul, Mother Dairy, Kwality, Hatsun Agro, Heritage Foods, VRS Foods, Anik Industries, Parag Milk Foods, Creamline Dairy Products and others who greedily want their share of what is calculated to be a market sector worth more than Rs 80,000 crore. There is no desi gou, nor the reverence to kamadhenu. There are only products, consumers and an arsenal of sickening technology and breeding programmes that if not stopped now will result in the remaining 39 desi gou breeds losing their desi qualities.

It is this that lies behind the Rashtriya Gokul Mission that was launched in December 2014, the National Programme for Bovine Breeding, the National Mission on Bovine Productivity that was launched in November 2016 (which includes the Pashu Sanjivni for identification of animals in milk using UID, embryo transfer technology labs with IVF facilities, the e-pashu haat portal, the National Bovine Genomic Centre for Indigenous Breeds), the National Kamdhenu Breeding Centres (one in Andhra Pradesh and another in Madhya Pradesh), and the three subordinate organisations: Central Cattle Breeding Farms, Central Herd Registration Scheme, Central Frozen Semen Production and Training Institute.

This is the horrifying extent of what has been done since 2012, the methods for which were introduced over 45 years ago, and which are now frighteningly augmented by the unchecked and unregulated animal genomics.

The weekly intelligencer

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Indices, prices, data series, readings and jottings of note over the last week, fortnight and month, compiled for the week beginning 6 August 2017.

Quick Estimates of Index of Industrial Production (IIP) with base 2011-12 for the month of May 2017, released by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Central Statistics Office. The General Index for the month of May 2017 stands at 124.3, which is 1.7% higher as compared to the level in the month of May 2016.

India Meteorological Department, Hydromet Division. Until 2 August 2017, 67% of the districts have recorded cumulative rainfall of normal, excess or large excess and 33% of the districts have recorded cumulative rainfall of deficient or large deficient. This compares with 69% and 31% respectively at the same time last year.

Ministry Of Commerce and Industry, Office Of The Economic Adviser. The official Wholesale Price Index for All Commodities (Base: 2011-12=100) for the month of June 2017 declined by 0.1% to 112.7 (provisional) from 112.8 (provisional) for the previous month.

Ministry of Water Resources, Central Water Commission. As on 3 August 2017 the total live storage capacity of the 91 major reservoirs is 157.799 billion cubic metres (BCM) which is about 62% of the total estimated live storage capacity of 253.388 BCM. As per reservoir storage bulletin dated 03 August 2017, live storage available in these reservoirs is 67.683 BCM, which is 43% of total water storage capacity of these reservoirs. Last year the live storage in these reservoirs for the corresponding period was 65.109 BCM and the average of last 10 years was 69.510 BCM.

Reserve Bank Of India Bulletin, Weekly Statistical Supplement. 4 August 2017. Aggregate deposits Rs 106,254 billion. Bank credit Rs 76.888 billion. Money stock: Rs 14,689 billion currency with the public, Rs 101,600 billion time deposits with banks.

Ministry of Agriculture. The total sown area as on 4 August 2017 stands at 878.23 lakh hectare as compared to 855.85 lakh hectare at this time last year. Rice has been sown/transplanted in 280.03 lakh hectare, pulses in 121.28 lakh hectare, coarse cereals in 156.95 lakh hectare, oilseeds in 148.88 lakh hectare, sugarcane in 49.71 lakh hectare and cotton in 114.34 lakh hectare.

Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, Price Monitoring Cell in the Department of Consumer Affairs. Maximum prices recorded (per kilo and per litre) amongst the set of 100 cities monitored during the week of 23-29 July: Rice 52, Wheat 45, Atta (Wheat) 50, Gram Dal 132, Tur/ Arhar Dal 132, Urad Dal 150, Moong Dal 140, Masoor Dal 110, Sugar 52, Milk 65, Groundnut Oil 180, Mustard Oil 170, Vanaspati 120, Soya Oil 110, Sunflower Oil 130, Palm Oil 110, Gur 68, Tea Loose 360, Salt Pack (Iodised) 22, Potato 35, Onion 45, Tomato 100.

Eating out, or India’s exorbitant world food bill

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(This article was published by Vijayvaani in June 2017.)

In the Konkan, small electrically operated oil presses that ingest limited amounts of dried copra to expel oil for households to cook with are common. These can press enough in a day (electricity supply permitting) to fill several dozen glass bottles with coconut oil. As such a filled bottle of freshly pressed coconut oil usually sells for Rs 130 to Rs 160, the price per litre may be estimated at about Rs 180. This price compares quite well with the price range of Rs 190 to Rs 220 that is paid by the household buyer for a litre of branded coconut oil.

But it compares not at all with the trade price of an imported shipment of sunflower-seed or safflower oil which in 2016 was imported into India at an average price of just under Rs 60 per kilogram. India imported 1.53 million tons of sunflower-seed or safflower oil last year, and the Rs 9,080 crore spent on it pushed the total amount spent on imported ‘edible’ oils to beyond the Rs 70,000 crore mark. [The cultivation of oilseeds, like the cultivation of all ‘commercial’ crops that are not food staples, is a matter of crop choice, for which see ‘Why our kisans must make sustainable crop choices’.]

Palm oil

Both by weight and by the total amount paid for it, palm oil is the most visible imported food commodity in India today, and has been for the last five years. In 2016 India imported 8.25 million tons of palm oil (the supplying countries being Malaysia and Indonesia) for which the importing agencies paid Rs 38,900 crore. This immense annual flood of a sort of oil that ought never to have touched our shores let alone ooze into our home kitchens and canteens came at less than Rs 48 per kilogram last year. For this reason – the absurdly low price per landed ton of Malaysian and Indonesian palm oil, a low price that hides from the Indian consumer the deforestation devastation and species extinction in those countries, new cooking oil blends are being shoved into the foods market every other month by the edible oils industry.

Biomedical research which is independent and not either funded by or influenced by the oil palm industry and edible oil traders (which means the world’s largest commodity trading firms) indicates that palm oil, which is high in saturated fat and low in polyunsaturated fat, leads to heart disease. It is considered less harmful than partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, but that is no redemption, for palm oil can under no circumstance be compared to our traditional cooking oils, coconut included.

The colonisation of the Indian kitchen and of the processed foods industry by palm oil has taken place only on the basis of landed price per ton, and that is why this oleaginous menace is now found in many everyday products such as biscuits and crackers and cookies (which school children develop addictions for), snack chips, shampoos, skin care and beauty products, and even pet food. [For a longer discussion on this problem see ‘Let them eat biscuits’ and ‘Cornflakes and oats invasion, 10 rupees at a time’.]

Soya oil

The next largest oily invasion is that of soyabean oil, of which 3.89 million tons (mt) was imported by India in 2016 (3.5 mt in 2015, 2.1 mt in 2014). Most of this was of Argentinian origin, just over 3 mt, and because more than 98% of the soya that is grown in Argentina is genetically modified (GM) the millions of tons of soyabean oil India has imported from that country has been used, blended, fractionated, caked and consumed by humans and animals with no indication about its GM origin and with no tests whatsoever for its effects on human and animal health. In terms of rupees per landed kilogram of soyabean oil, at about Rs 53 it is between palm oil and sunflower-seed or safflower oil. These landed prices show dramatically the effect exporting countries’ subsidies for a commodity category have on the related industry (edible oils) in an importing country.

Just as the vast palm oil plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia have waxed luxuriant in place of the old growth tropical rainforests that were cut down, turning the wildlife of these forests into hapless refugees, swelling the lucrative and thoroughly illegal forest timber trade, so too have the vast soya plantations in Argentina immiserated that country’s rural population and caused hunger because of the soya monocrop that has replaced their food biodiversity and whose need for fertiliser grew (as it did with Bt cotton in India) instead of shrinking. Both these long-drawn out eco-social catastrophes have been prolonged because of the inability or unwillingness of Indian consumers and regulatory agencies to acknowledge the faraway effects of our considerable ‘demand’ for palm oil and soyabean oil.

Pulses

Second to palm oil by weight amongst food commodities imported by India is pulses, of which 6.18 mt were imported in 2016 for a price of Rs 27,700 crore. The annual import pattern of a decade of 4 mt to more than 6 mt of imported pulses last year are a large fraction again of the average 18.7 mt of pulses a year grown in India for the last five years (until 2016-17).

Between 2003-04 and 2009-10 the quantity of pulses (tur or arhar, gram, moong, urad, other kharif and rabi pulses) harvested scarcely changed, averaging 14.2 mt over this period. There was a jump in 2010-11 to 18.2 mt and then another plateau followed until 2015-16, with the average for those six years being 17.7 mt. With the 22.7 mt estimated total pulses harvest in 2016-17, we can hope that another plateau is being scaled, and indeed this pattern of a plateau of several years followed by a modest increase does tend to indicate the following of a more agro-ecological cultivation of pulses (these being in rainfed farms) than intensive cultivation dependent on fertiliser, pesticide and commercial seed. [This does have much to do with cultivation practices in different regions, for which read ‘Seeing the growers of our food and where they are’.]

Sugar

What is a new concern is an item that by weight is fourth on the list of food commodity items imported, and that is sucrose: India imported 2.11 mt in 2016, in 2015 it was 1.6 mt, in 2014 it was 1.37 mt. The country with the greatest consumption of sugar, estimated by the Ministry of Agriculture and the Department of Food and Public Distribution to be around 25 mt per year and growing disproportionately above the natural growth in the number of households, the processed and packaged food sector is the destination for the 2.11 mt of sucrose imported in 2016. A ready consumer for the sucrose is the commercial fruit juice sector, which bases its produce on a small amount of fruit pulp (vegetable extract is often added for bulk), water, chemical preservatives, food-like colours, artificial flavours and sweeteners.

The giant bulk of our sugarcane harvests distract from the ratios calculated – that a ton of raw sugar is obtained from 13 or 14 tons of cane. (This is usually net of jaggery / gur / khandsari and also net of molasses, which is used by distilleries and animal feed.) The mountains of bagasse – the crushed residue from which the sugar has been extracted – which remain are used in the paper and pulp industry, are an ingredient in cattle feed, and are used as biofuel. [Commercial crop or food crop is the question every cultivating household faces. See one district’s example in ‘Masses of cotton but mere scraps of vegetables’.]

Nuts

At 730,000 tons imported in 2016 and under the international trade category of ‘edible fruit and nuts’ is cashew nuts and Brazil nuts, on which Rs 8,345 crore was spent. A second important sub-category is ‘dates, figs, pineapples, avocados, guavas, mangoes and mangosteens, fresh or dried’ and 350,000 tons were imported in 2016 (for Rs 6,204 crore), while 280,000 tons of apples, pears and quinces, 182,000 tons of ‘other nuts, fresh or dried’ were also imported.

Under 23 main categories food commodities, which include 167 sub-categories and more than 400 subsidiary categories, the bill for imported foods (including dairy and beverages) and food products that we purchased from all over the world in 2016 was USD 22,041 million (USD 22.04 billion), or at the average rupee-dollar exchange rate for 2016, Rs 152,088 crore! In 2015 this bill was USD 20,877 million which at the average annual rupee-dollar exchange rate for 2015 was Rs 137,794 crore. In 2014 this bill was USD 19,372 million which at the average annual rupee-dollar exchange rate for 2014 was Rs 123,015 crore.

Globalisation

These amounts are astronomical and underline the strength of globalisation’s thrall by which we are gripped, exerted upon us not only by the World Trade Organisation but also by the agreements that India has signed (or intends to, and demonstrates intent by importing) with regional trade blocs of the European Union, the OECD and ASEAN. The financial allocations to some of the largest central government programmes, and the budgetary sums of some of the biggest successes in the last three years shrink in comparison to the size of these purchases: the spectrum auction in 2015 brought in Rs 110,000 crore, the 2016-17 central government pensions budget of Rs 128,166 crore, the Rs 47,410 crore transferred so far as subsidy directly into accounts under the Direct Benefit Transfer for LPG consumer scheme, the expenditure of Rs 51,902 crore in 2016-17 on MGNREGA (the highest since its inception).

Bringing about stability in farmers’ incomes (let alone an increase), encouraging rural and peri-urban entrepreneurship based on traditional foods cultivated by agro-ecological methods, ensuring that consumers can find [read about the link with inflation in ‘The relative speeds of urban inflation’] and are assured by the quality of food staples which are free of GM ingredients, chemicals and additives, and the saving of enormous sums of money can all be had if we but reduce and then cut out entirely the wanton import of food and beverages, and processed and packaged food products.

Debt and kisan households

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rg_cultivator_hhs_debt_201612For the 21 larger states, this is the picture of how much average debt a cultivator household has incurred, and how many amongst cultivator households are in debt.

The data I have used for this chart are taken from the report, ‘Household Indebtedness in India’, which is based on the 70th Round of the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Government of India, and collected during January to December 2013.

The states are plotted on average debt of such households, in lakh rupees on the left scale, and the proportion of such households, as a percentage of all such households, on the horizontal scale. The size of the circles are relative and based on the amount of average debt.

The average amount of debt per cultivator household seen in this chart is for most of the 21 larger states, lower than the overall rural household average debt of Rs 1,03,457. However the cultivator household is one of six types of rural household (the categories are: self-employed in agriculture, self-employed in non-agriculture, regular wage/salary earning, casual labour in agriculture, casual labour in non-agriculture, others). About 31.4% of all rural households are in debt.

The chart shows that cultivator households in Punjab and Kerala carry the highest amounts of debt, and that a highest percentage of cultivator households carrying debt are in Telengana and Andhra Pradesh. There are two distinct groups. One group of nine states occupies the right and most of the vertical area of the chart. The second group is of 12 states clustered towards the lower left corner of the chart panel.

This difference describes regional variation. In the first group are all the southern states. In the second are all the eastern and central states. Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand cultivator households exhibit the greatest similarity, with average debt of under Rs 40,000 and with less than 35% of cultivator households carrying debt.

Bihar, West Bengal and Odisha are likewise similar, their average debt being less than Rs 20,000. Assam, Jammu and Kashmir, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand cultivator households bear the lowest average debt and less than one in five of such households is in debt.

These are the broad brush strokes of debt amongst cultivator households in the 21 major states painted by the NSSO’s ‘Household Indebtedness in India’ report. A more detailed examination of such debt, and also the debt of the other kinds of rural households, will give us a deeper understanding of the subject.

Written by makanaka

December 16, 2016 at 09:24

Of money good or black, digital or paper

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500 and 1000 Indian rupee banknotes are kept in front of an image of the Hindu deities at a cash counter inside a bank in Jammu, November 10, 2016 REUTERS/ Mukesh Gupta

500 and 1000 Indian rupee banknotes are kept in front of an image of the Hindu deities at a cash counter inside a bank in Jammu, November 10, 2016 REUTERS/ Mukesh Gupta

The decision by the BJP government on 8 November to demonetise the 500 and 1,000 rupee currency notes has been presented as “strength in the fight against corruption, black money, money laundering, terrorism and financing of terrorists as well as counterfeit notes”.

The release added: “Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi made these important announcements during a televised address to the nation on the evening of Tuesday 8th November 2016. He said that these decisions will fully protect the interests of honest and hard-working citizens of India and that those five hundred and one thousand rupee notes hoarded by anti-national and anti-social elements will become worthless pieces of paper.”

Rs 14 lakh crore – 86% of the value of Indian currency currently in circulation – became useless from midnight of November 8, 2016. The Rs 500 notes amount to Rs 7.85 lakh crore and Rs 1,000 notes amount to Rs 6.33 lakh crore, according to Reserve Bank of India data. The immediate result was panic, in hundreds of towns and cities, as citizens ran for ATMs. Confusion prevailed as on the next day, 9 November, all banks were to shut to the public and ATMs too.

There was chaos outside hospitals, railway stations and petrol pumps which were allowed to accept Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes till Friday (but interpreted the directions as they pleased). Smaller denomination notes such as Rs 100 and Rs 50 were in short supply due to the heavy demand. Small traders, rickshaw pullers, taxi and auto-rickshaw drivers, daily wage labour, and unorganised sector workers said they have been hit hard.

This public inconvenience was necessary, said the government, to have the time to restock bank branches and ATMs with new currency notes and to prepare the bank branches for the exchange services they would have to begin on 10 November.

The government explained that:

1. A law was passed in 2015 on disclosure of foreign bank accounts. In August 2016 strict rules were put in place to curtail benami transactions. During the same period a scheme to declare black money was introduced. These efforts have over the past two and a half years, brought more than Rs. 1.25 lakh crore of black money into the open.

2. These efforts have led to India emerging as “a bright spot in the global economy”, a preferred destination for investment and an easier place to do business in. “Leading financial agencies have shared their optimism about India’s growth as well.”

3. Indian enterprise and innovation has received a fillip due to the ‘Make in India’, ‘Start up India’ and ‘Stand up India’ programmes for enterprise, innovation and research in India.

There is no doubt that India’s economy has been plagued by the creation of wealth in some quarters that is obscenely disproportionate to the stated sources of individual and family income (see the press release from the Department of Economic Affairs, pdf). This has for long signalled corruption, and the means by which the corrupt (both giver and taker) become so is cash (but not only). The demonetisation has affected the political class and bureaucracy which accounted for the bulk of the corrupt money. The other difficulty the government and enforcement agencies have grappled with especially over the last decade is counterfeit currency notes, which have been used to maintain anti-national, secessionist and terrorist networks.

With about 86% (by rupee value) of currency in circulation being in the notes that have been demonetised. There are 16.5 billion Rs 500 notes and 6.7 billion Rs 1,000 notes in circulation now, and replacing them with lower denomination notes, and also the new series of Rs 500 and Rs 2,000 notes, will take several weeks.

Old high denomination bank notes are seen kept in buckets at a counter as people stand in a queue to deposit their money inside a bank in the northern city of Kanpur, India, November 10, 2016. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

Old high denomination bank notes are seen kept in buckets at a counter as people stand in a queue to deposit their money inside a bank in the northern city of Kanpur, India, November 10, 2016. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

I have several concerns about the demonetisation of the 500 and 1,000 currency notes, and the accompanying directions that the banking and financial services sector in India is now pushing the public.

Question 1 – Estimates are that currency in public circulation in 2006 was around Rs 4 lakh crore. In 2016 it was about Rs 16 lakh crore. If this estimate is of what RBI printed, why did it for ten years print physical currency at a rate higher than top annual GDP growth estimates?

This article explains the extraordinary rise of cash economy through high denomination notes, powered by generation of black money in real estate, stocking of gold, bribery and corruption. But it does not help answer my question above. “While the high denomination notes made illegal businesses, including hawala transactions to transfer money out of India easy to execute, it has facilitated huge tax evasion even in the otherwise lawful businesses. High denomination notes have made it easy for the bribe taker to handle huge bribes with ease.”

Question 2 – As the 500 and 1000 notes are ‘high value’ and so used for hoarding ‘black’ cash, why is the higher of the two (1000) being replaced by a note twice its value, that is, Rs 2000?

Since yesterday, there have been explanations offered about the effect of demonetisation on consumption and on slowing down an economy whose GDP growth is rated as the best amongst the large economies. “Consumer spending will likely fall in the immediate weeks as households adjust to the new system. India’s economy grew 7.1 percent during April to June, the slowest in 15 months, but the government and experts have been pointing out that a pick-up was likely in the next few months riding on good rains, a pay bonanza for government employees and festive-season buying.”

According to the national income data for the first quarter (April-June) of 2016-17, private final consumption expenditure (PFCE) – which measures household spending – at current prices is estimated at Rs 21.19 lakh crore, or about 55% of the gross domestic product (GDP). These are the numbers that a new class of ‘growth’ advocates in India are betting on. There is a connection to inflation – in the price of services, cost of manufactured articles and the prices of food – which however has not been answered as yet. Raising the denomination of the highest value currency note from Rs 1,000 to Rs 2,000 is in my view such a signal.

A person stands with his documents in a queue outside a branch of the State Bank of india as people wait to exchange old high denomination bank notes in Old Delhi, India, November 10, 2016. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

A person stands with his documents in a queue outside a branch of the State Bank of india as people wait to exchange old high denomination bank notes in Old Delhi, India, November 10, 2016. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

A number of petitions challenging the notification by the Department of Economic Affairs, Ministry of Finance, Government of India (which is the order for demonetisation) have been lodged at various High Courts and with the Supreme Court. Some protest the order as “illegal and arbitrary” and others for the order not granting reasonable time for ordinary citizens (presumably with legitimate cash in hand) to comply without jeopardising livelihood (by having to spend time in bank branches, for which leave is to be taken or a day’s income has to be foregone). While the Supreme Court may hear a petition next week, the response of the Madras High Court – that it cannot interfere in the policies of the government related to monetary system – should help prise open to greater public scrutiny one of the most opaque areas of policy making: the public monetary and fiscal system.

Question 3 – Is the net monetary gain by Government of India – more physical money from the ‘black economy’ brought onto the national accounts books – a way to ensure that India will next financial year also record the ‘fastest GDP growth’ (without the manufacturing, service and agriculture sectors doing so)?

For this question I can see only a few partial answers. These have to do with the enlargement of the digital rupee and digital payments, and this is the most serious concern. A government-appointed panel was set up in August to suggest ways such as tax rebates and ‘cash back’ to incentivise card and digital transactions. The government is also examining the feasibility to create a history for all card and digital payments, how to use the Aadhar database for authenticating card/digital transactions, providing low-cost micro-credit based on credit history.

Another partial answer comes from the Ministry of Finance, which said that “weak global demand” is among the “strongest challenges” in the near term for Indian economy. “Weak global demand is one among the strongest challenges in the near term. Exports and imports together constitute 42 per cent of the GDP (gross domestic product), even at the reduced levels in 2015-16.” The ministry said that reviving the savings and investment cycle in economy is challenging. The savings rate that stood at 34.6% in 2011-12, declined to 33% in 2014-15. Investment rate declined from 39% of GDP in 2011-12 to 34.2% in 2014-15. So these are the conventional macro-economic arguments, but the demonetisation will as I see it push any revival in savings and investment in quite a different direction from what the rural and agricultural base of the population require.

That direction is the ‘cashless’ one, with cash being blamed for fuelling the black economy. This is a danger-filled direction, one which we have already had a troubled history to look back at recently – the micro-credit bubble of the 2000-10 decade – to serve as a guide of what not to do. The banking and financial services industry has been expanding over the last two years, in tandem with the mobile telecom industry, with mobile payments and ‘wallets’.

“You cannot have 12% of India’s GDP in shape of currency,” Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has said. “Ideally developed countries have only about 4% and therefore you have to squeeze the amount of currency available and you need to get people into the habit of using digital, cheques, plastic currency and so on.” This – apart from the short-term gain by herding cash hoards into banks to be taxed – is what the direction is: the rupee as a bit, the rupee’s already tenuous basis in a physical standard now becoming more virtual, and this in a monetary and fiscal environment about which the public has scant understanding and in which the public has no participation.

Such a direction only widens the already troublesome gap between an acceptable physical basis for a value that the rupee represents (we have no gold standard, or any other acceptable equivalent) and the assigning of a notional value to a digital rupee whose issue, transfer and control will be entirely electronic. When viewed against the increasing “liberalisation” (or increasing “reforms”) of the banking, insurance, non-banking finance, financial services, small credit industries that has taken place in the last two years, and especially the opening up of these new services to foreign direct investment (FDI), the picture of the cashless economy so strenuously advocated by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley.

Consider this gleeful reaction from what is called the fintech sector (we had IT, BT and there’s FT): “We might grow 10x when it comes to digital payments. Today, three to five percent of the transactions happen digitally, but we will see a 10x growth to almost 15–20% when it comes to digital transactions in the country. This is huge and this rise in digital transactions will lead to a digital exhaust where better credit risk scoring will happen, catapulting into exponential growth.”

This is the very troubling new landscape that the demonetisation decision – taken with the good reason of weeding out a black economy – has brought the rupee into.

Written by makanaka

November 10, 2016 at 09:26

The relative speeds of urban inflation

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How to read this chart. The light grey bars are the current month's CPI-IW (consumer price index for industrial workers) for each urban centre plotted to the left scale (the current data is for 2016 May). The green square marker is the reading for the difference between the current month's CPI and the average of the previous six months. The yellow square marker is the reading for the difference between the current month's CPI and the average of the previous 12 months. And the red square marker is the reading for the difference between the current month's CPI and the average of the year previous to 12 months ago. These are all plotted to the right scale, and their vertical separation helps tell us whether overall consumer inflation is rapid (or not) compared with other cities. You will find accompanying this chart a table. This associates a city code, such as ST21, used for the charting process, with a city: ST21 the city is Shimla in Himachal Pradesh. Data only (not method or treatment) are from Labour Bureau, Ministry of Labour and Employment.

How to read this chart. The light grey bars are the current month’s CPI-IW (consumer price index for industrial workers) for each urban centre plotted to the left scale (the current data is for 2016 May). The green square marker is the reading for the difference between the current month’s CPI and the average of the previous six months. The yellow square marker is the reading for the difference between the current month’s CPI and the average of the previous 12 months. And the red square marker is the reading for the difference between the current month’s CPI and the average of the year previous to 12 months ago. These are all plotted to the right scale, and their vertical separation helps tell us whether overall consumer inflation is rapid (or not) compared with other cities. You will find accompanying this chart a table. This associates a city code, such as ST21, used for the charting process, with a city: ST21 the city is Shimla in Himachal Pradesh. Data only (not method or treatment) are from Labour Bureau, Ministry of Labour and Employment.

Belgaum and Mysore in Karnataka with 12 points. Warangal, Telengana with 12 points. Panaji, Goa with 12 points. Munger, Bihar with 11 points. Bangalore, Karnataka with 11 points. Salem, Coimbatore and Coonoor in Tamil Nadu with 10 points. Rourkela, Odisha with 10 points. Sholapur, Maharashtra with 10 points. Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh with 10 points.

Charting process codes used for urban centres and the cities they correspond with.

Charting process codes used for urban centres and the cities they correspond with.

These are not Swachch Bharat rankings nor are they ‘ease of doing business’ scores. They are, for each urban centre, the number of points its consumer price index (CPI) increased in May 2016 over the average for the previous quarter. The data is collected and distributed by the Labour Bureau, Ministry of Labour and Employment. This is one of the ways in which the monthly CPI numbers for industrial workers (a somewhat dated term which suited an era when the public sector dominated the economy, but which still relates to urban households) can usefully indicate the acceleration in inflation of household staples.

The picture changes when the CPIs of urban centres for a month (the latest available being 2016 May) are compared with their own averages for the last six months, the last 12 months or the year which ended 12 months ago. When the frame of comparison is the average of the previous 12 months, I find that in 30 of the 78 centres for which a CPI-IW is calculated, the increase is 10 points or more. Warangal in Telengana, Kollam in Kerala and Mysore in Karnataka are 16 points above their previous 12 month average while Munger in Bihar, Rajkot in Gujarat and Jamshedpur in Jharkhand are 15 points above.

This is the relativist picture that perhaps makes the most illuminating use of a monthly index, whatever its faults and shortcomings. The well-appointed chart that I have drawn helps show why the speeds and acceleration, between a current measure and an earlier set of measures, are more important to consider than the absolute numbers themselves. This is an experimental way to help visualise a subject that is alas rather dry but of great import for every single household. I will update this as new CPI numbers are released by the Labour Bureau every month.

Written by makanaka

July 23, 2016 at 22:25

Brazen FAO flies its double helix colours

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The matter that faces us now concerning the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is: how should we consider what its activities represent? Like other UN agencies, the FAO works according to a mandate, which is agreed upon by its member states. Where the FAO is concerned, that mandate has to do with agriculture, not in the form of crops produced per hectare or acre, but in terms of who the cultivators and growers are, what their living and working conditions are, and the manner in which the crop and food they produce reaches the hands of those who need it.

RG_FAO_biotech_201602Looked at in this way, an organisation such as the FAO has as one of its responsibilities the provision of support, in as many ways as possible, of the majority of those who grow food and the majority of those who buy food. In recent years however, the UN FAO has set aside this responsibility, deliberately and according to a plan. This dereliction of duty – in fact it is a duty agreed upon by FAO member states, of which there are 197 – can only be explained in one way: the FAO of today no longer represents the smallholder cultivator and farmer and peasant, and no longer represents the rural communities for whom agriculture is a dominant part of their biocultural life.

If the FAO now functions as an industry association (that is, representing the interests of a range of industries and technologies within the agriculture and food sector) then that is the choice of the organisation, presumably with the consent of the member states. However, such a deviation from its role hitherto then calls into question the funding it receives from said members, for that funding has for the 70 years of the organisation’s existence been predicated upon the FAO fulfilling its responsibility towards smallholder and peasant farmers, wherever in the world they may be. If the FAO is today an industry organisation – which its recent actions proclaim it to be – then the 197 member states must stop giving the organisation an annual contribution.

Via_Campesina_COP21Will such a cessation of financial support make a difference to the FAO of 2016? Let us examine how the organisation is funded. The total FAO Budget planned for 2016-17 is US$ 2.6 billion. Of this amount, 39% comes from contributions paid by member countries, whereas 61% is to come from what are called “voluntary contributions from members and other partners”. Some countries pay more than others, some very much more, some not at all. The USA maintains an outstanding towards the FAO that is ludicrous – it is US$ 96.97 million in arrears.

But what is of concern to us is the alteration in the balance of the members’ contributions and the so-called voluntary contributions, in the rough ration of 40 to 60. This means that 6 out of 10 dollars that the FAO receives is used for what the organisation calls “support technical and emergency (including rehabilitation) assistance to governments for clearly defined purposes linked to the results framework” and which is different from the activities provided for under the “regular budget”.

Under the circumstances that I have just described therefore, the FAO-hosted international symposium, titled ‘The Role of Agricultural Biotechnologies in Sustainable Food Systems and Nutrition’, which is under way 15-17 February 2016, is what any trade organisation would call an interest group gathering with an intent to change policy and practice in a manner that profits and benefits the members of that interest group.

It is opaque to us for now, based on the information provided by the FAO on this symposium, whether the money spent on transporting to Rome “over 400 scientists, representatives of government, civil society, the private sector, academia, farmers’ associations and cooperatives” for a conference to “explore how agricultural bio-technologies can benefit family farmers, particularly those in developing countries, who need to improve nutrition and food systems while facing the challenges of poverty, climate change, and population growth” – whether the money spent to do so comes out of the regular budget or out of a voluntary contribution. An answer either way must only lead to further very critical questions asked of the FAO senior management.

FAO_biotech_msg_1These questions must be asked of FAO at all levels – particularly in FAO member states whose contributions to the organisation’s regular budget may be minuscule, but whose food and agriculture line ministries and departments, whose institutions and laboratories are induced or coerced into accepting an “inter-governmentally mandated package of best practices” that does everything to help the international agriculture biotechnology and industrial crop cultivation corporations and traders, and nothing whatsoever for those member countries’ peasant and smallholder farmers.

What the FAO is doing with this bio-technology symposium is worse than unconscionable and worse than being wilfully unmindful about the evidence of the harm – to animal populations, ecosystems and humans – caused by biotechnologies and especially those employed for agricultural purposes. The serious harm to health and the ecological and agronomical impacts of glyphosate and glyphosate tolerant crops for example are the most thoroughly researched. The same kind of evidence has now emerged for Bt crops and Bt toxins. Evidence that genetic modification per se is harmful is as broad and unimpeachable, with the uncontrollable processes of genetic modification having led to the phenomena of antibiotic resistance (reported from all over the world), the creation of new pathogens, the incidence of cancers, and the hijacking of the human body’s natural nucleic acids to do harm.

FAO_biotech_msg_2It is deliberately misleading and deeply cynical for the FAO to claim, with a banal insouciance, that this symposium “focuses mainly on the broad range of biotechnologies that could result in yield increases, better nutritional qualities, and improved productivities of crops, livestock, fish and trees benefitting family farmers and their food systems, nutrition and livelihoods”. This is the sort of cartoonish PR piffle that the UN sustainable development goals (the SDGs) have been wrapped in to appeal to the social media tendencies of the world’s teenagers.

For the last two years out of the four that José Graziano da Silva has been at the head of the organisation, the tilt towards industrial agriculture and biotechnology has become very much more pronounced compared with the already sorry condition the organisation was during the second term of Jacques Diouf (the Senegalese diplomat who was director-general from January 1994 to 31 December 2011). Under da Silva the “agriculture for nutrition” campaign line has become very much more prevalent, and has been supported – voluntary contributions facilitated by the FAO’s Partnerships and Advocacy Branch (an office by itself, and a very industrious one) – by a host of private sector networks and consortia whose interests encompass biofortification, pharmaceuticals, and agricultural biotechnologies.

The symposium has been condemned fiercely and jointly by 42 international and regional organisations with 131 national and local organisations (173 in all) led by La Via Campesina, Grain and ETC Group. “It is clear that, through the FAO, industry wants to re-launch their false message that genetically engineered crops can feed the world and cool the planet, while the reality is that nothing has changed on the biotech front,” is Via Campesina’s statement which adds that GMO use “throws farmers off the land” while “the industrial food system that it promotes is one of the main drivers of climate change”.

el_salto_magazine_'Transgenicos', El Salto magazine, by jcharlie http://jcharlie.deviantart.com/

‘Transgenicos’, El Salto magazine, by jcharlie http://jcharlie.deviantart.com/

The same corporations (feted by FAO as valuable private sector partners) are going beyond conventional GMO plant varieties toward ‘extreme biotech’ strategies such as synthetic biology to create new genetic constructs, Via Campesina has warned. “Not only do they ignore the rights of farmers, they are using biotechnologies to patent plant genes that are already in peasants’ fields and that we have selected ourselves. They want to forbid us to produce our own seeds and oblige us to buy their patented GMOs every year as well as their toxic pesticides, indispensable to grow those GMOs. In animal husbandry and fisheries where transgenic salmon and pigs already exist, we see the same scenario, the strengthening of industrial production and the increase in the use of antibiotics.”

Grain, which works to support small farmers and social movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems, has in its comments said that two of the FAO keynote speakers at the symposium are known proponents of GMOs, and the agenda and side events over the three days include speakers from the Biotechnology Industry Organization (a biotech trade group in the USA), Crop Life International (the global agro-chemicals trade association), DuPont (one of the world’s largest biotech seed companies) and CEVA (a major veterinary medicine corporation), among others.

“FAO has only invited one speaker or panellist openly critical of GMOs,” Grain has said (that one is from Via Campesina). “One of the two speakers at the opening session is a former assistant director general of FAO who has pushed for so-called Terminator seeds (GMO seeds programmed to die at harvest time forcing farmers to purchase new seeds every growing season), in opposition to FAO’s own public statements.”

Just when the biotech companies that make transgenic seeds are merging, the ETC Group has stated (with Syngenta having agreed to sell itself and its technologies to the government-owned China National Chemical Corporation, or ChemChina, only a fortnight ago), “the corporate vision of biotechnology is showing up at FAO” with the symposium being “another attempt by multinational agribusiness to redirect the policies of the UN agency toward support for GMOs”. ETC Group has demanded that FAO put an end to biopiracy and to its support for genetically modified crops, but as I have outlined earlier, the biotechnology purveyors in the FAO will have none of it because the structures of funding and control have been altered perhaps beyond the reach of the organisation’s member states.

What is left to do? Proscribe the UN FAO for its anti-small farmer and anti-peasant activities, encourage members states to demand that FAO mend its ways or step out of the organisation, and meanwhile demand that governments central and local ban all environmental releases of GMOs and synthetic biology. As the 173 signatories to the statement on the symposium show through their work, action can be taken locally in communities, villages, towns, municipalities, regions, as well as nationally and globally. As for the benighted symposium, here is a news article by FAO on the conference, this is the page for the event, the brochure, summaries of presentations (which provide one more confirmation of the fundamentally destructive intentions of the biotech industry), and a ‘key messages’ sheet from FAO whose manner and attitudes betray the extent to which an industrial mind now runs this particular UN agency.