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How GM ‘science’ misled India

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For the last decade, the reckoning of what agriculture is to India has been based on three kinds of measures. The one that has always taken precedence is the physical output. Whether or not in a crop year the country has produced about 100 million tonnes (mt) of rice, 90 mt of wheat, 40 mt of other cereals (labelled since the colonial era as ‘coarse’ although they are anything but, and these include ragi, jowar, bajra and maize), 20 mt of pulses, 30 mt of oilseeds, and that mountain of biomass we call sugarcane, about 350 mt, therewith about 35 million bales of cotton, and about 12 million bales of jute and mesta.

The second measure is that of the macro-economic interpretation of these enormous aggregates. This is described in terms of gross value added in the agriculture (and allied) sector, the contribution of this sector to the country’s gross domestic product, gross capital formation in the sector, the budgetary outlays and expenditures both central and state for the sector, public and private investment in the sector. These drab equations are of no use whatsoever to the kisans of our country but are the only dialect that the financial, business, trading and commodity industries take primary note of, both in India and outside, and so these ratios are scrutinised at the start and end of every sowing season for every major crop.

The third measure has to do mostly with the materials, which when applied by cultivating households (156 million rural households, of which 90 million are considered to be agricultural only) to the 138 million farm holdings that they till and nurture, maintains the second measure and delivers the first. This third measure consists of labour and loans, the costs and prices of what are called ‘inputs’ by which is meant commercial seed, fertiliser, pesticide, fuel, the use of machinery, and labour. It also includes the credit advanced to the farming households, the alacrity and good use to which this credit is put, insurance, and the myriad fees and payments that accompany the transformation of a kisan’s crop to assessed and assayed produce in a mandi.

It is the distilling of these three kinds of measures into what is now well known as ‘food security’ that has occupied central planners and with them the Ministries of Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Consumer Affairs (which runs the public distribution system), and Food Processing Industries. More recently, two new concerns have emerged. One is called ‘nutritional security’ and while it evokes in the consumer the idea which three generations ago was known as ‘the balanced diet’, has grave implications on the manner in which food crops are treated. The other is climate change and how it threatens to affect the average yields of our major food crops, pushing them down and bearing the potential to turn the fertile river valley of today into a barren tract tomorrow.

These two new concerns, when added to the ever-present consideration about whether India has enough foodgrain to feed our 257 million (in 2017) households, are today exploited to give currency to the technological school of industrial agriculture and its most menacing method: genetically modified (GM) or engineered seed and crop. The proprietors of this method are foreign, overwhelmingly from USA and western Europe and the western bio-technology (or ‘synbio’, as it is now being called, a truncation of synthetic biology, which includes not only GM and GE but also the far more sinister gene editing and gene ‘drives’) network is held in place by the biggest seed- and biotech conglomerates, supported by research laboratories (both academic and private) that are amply funded through their governments, attended to by a constellation of high-technology equipment suppliers, endorsed by intergovernmental groupings such as the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), taken in partnership by the world’s largest commodities trading firms and grain dealers (and their associates in the commodities trading exchanges), and amplified by quasi-professional voices booming from hundreds of trade and news media outlets.

This huge and deep network generates scientific and faux-scientific material in lorry-loads, all of it being designed to bolster the claims of the GM seed and crop corporations and flood the academic journals (far too many of which are directly supported by or entirely compromised to the biotech MNCs) with ‘peer-reviewed evidence’. When the ‘science’ cudgel is wielded by the MNCs through their negotiators in New Delhi and state capitals, a twin cudgel is raised by the MNC’s host country: that of trade, trade tariffs, trade sanctions and trade barriers. This we have witnessed every time that India and the group of ‘developing nations’ attends a council, working group, or dispute settlement meeting of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The scientific veneer is sophisticated and well broadcast to the public (and to our industry), but the threats are medieval in manner and are scarcely reported.

[This is the first part of an article that was published by Swadeshi Patrika, the monthly journal of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch. Part two is here.]

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Written by makanaka

July 21, 2017 at 18:53

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.

The meat map of the world

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The economies in Asia and elsewhere will see around 80 percent of the growth in the meat sector by 2022. The biggest growth will be in China and India because of huge demand from their new middle classes. Chart: Meat Atlas

The economies in Asia and elsewhere will see around 80 percent of the growth in the meat sector by 2022. The biggest growth will be in China and India because of huge demand from their new middle classes. Chart: Meat Atlas

Industrial livestock production in Europe and the USA began when feed, energy and land were inexpensive, the ‘Meat Atlas’ has explained, which is published jointly by the Heinrich Böll Foundation and Friends of the Earth Europe.

Nowadays, feed, energy and land have all become scarce and costs have gone up. As a result, total meat production is growing less quickly than before. “The market is growing only for pigs and poultry. Both species utilise feed well and can be kept in a confined space. This means that they can be used to supply the insatiable demand for cheap meat,” the Meat Atlas has said.

By 2022, almost half the additional meat consumed will come from poultry. Beef production, on the other hand, is scarcely growing. The USA remains the world’s largest beef producer, but the meat industry describes the situation there as dramatic. For 2013, it expects a fall of 4-6 per cent compared to 2012 and predicts the decline to continue in 2014. In other traditional producing regions including Brazil, Canada and Europe, production is stagnating or falling.

MeatAtlas2014_P11a_section“The star of the day is India, thanks to its buffalo meat production, which nearly doubled between 2010 and 2013. India is forcing its way onto the world market, where 25 percent of the beef is in fact now buffalo meat from the subcontinent,” said the Atlas (see this news report from 2013 June).

According to the US Department of Agriculture, India became the world’s biggest exporter of beef in 2012 – going ahead of Brazil. Buffaloes are considered inexpensive to keep by the USDA (what benchmark do they use for husbandry I wonder). Thus the USDA considers buffalo meat a dollar a kilo cheaper than beef from Western cattle. In addition, the Meat Atlas has reminded us, the Indian government has invested heavily in abattoirs. Moreover, faced with the high price of feed, Brazilian cattle-raisers are switching to growing soybeans which has presented an opportunity for Indian buffalo-meat exporters.

China and India differ markedly in their food consumption patterns. In India, a vegetarian lifestyle has deep cultural and social roots. In surveys cited by the Atlas, a quarter or more of all Indians say they are vegetarian. “But the number of meat-eaters is growing. Since the economic boom (my note: usual dreadful mis-labelling here; it is no ‘boom’ but a slow destruction) in the early 1990s, a broad middle class that aspires to a Western lifestyle has emerged (true enough). This includes eating meat which has become a status symbol among parts of the population. Nevertheless, meat consumption in India is still small – per person it is less than one-tenth of the amount consumed in China.”

MeatAtlas2014_vegetariansThe costs borne by the environment because of the world’s fondness for animal-origin protein are probably the biggest, but are still difficult to calculate despite some 30 years of following advances in environmental economics. This helps us estimate some damage to nature in monetary terms. It covers the costs of factory farming that do not appear on industry balance sheets, such as money saved by keeping the animals in appalling conditions. The burden upon nature also grows by over-fertilisation caused by spreading manure and slurry on the land and applying fertilisers to grow fodder maize and other crops.

Of Elsevier, Monsanto and the surge for Seralini

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Support for the team of scientists led by Giles-Eric Séralini, a professor of molecular biology at Caen University (France), is growing quickly every day following the appalling (but unsurprising) turfing out of the famous Seralini study from the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology.

The industrial combines that work with governments, multilateral lending agencies, corrupt politicians, venal bankers and (to add to this merry list) scrupleless publishers have been hard at work in the last week. Through their public relations peons, they have swamped the world’s newspapers and television channels with reports claiming that the ‘retraction’ by the Elsevier journal, Food and Chemical Toxicology, of the Seralini study is a step forward for science and a step closer to helping end hunger.

The level of public awareness about the dangers of GM food and seed needs independent and credible science as a partner. Here, anti-GM protesters in Bangalore, Karnataka, India

The level of public awareness about the dangers of GM food and seed needs independent and credible science as a partner. Here, anti-GM protesters in Bangalore, Karnataka, India

This is the most virulently cynical twisting of the truth in a long and gory history of truth being twisted in order that the food and cultivation options of millions remain, not a choice of options but the diktat of the corporations (GM seed, poison pesticide, poison fertiliser).

What did the Seralini group find? Their toxicological study on GM maize and Roundup herbicide involving 200 rats was done over two years, and found an alarming increase in early death, large tumours including cancers, and diseases of the liver and kidney. The study, published in 2012 by this journal (which has condemned Elsevier to lasting infamy and driven a spike through the cankerous heart of the sponsored scientific journals ancillary industry) was not the first to show the effects of Monsanto’s packaged poison (farmers in every country know the truth), nor was it the only one to show adverse health impacts from GM feed or Roundup herbicide.

What then? At the end of 2013 November (about a fortnight ago) PRNewswire reported ‘Elsevier announces article retraction from journal Food and Chemical Toxicology’ (2013 November 28).

This immediately set off the mobilisation amongst the hundreds, then thousands, who had been following the course of the Seralini study and the repugnant reactions to it by the GM food and seed industry (Monsanto, Bayer, Dow, DuPont, Syngenta, BASF and their subsidiaries and national partners).

In an open letter to the editor of Food and Chemical Toxicology the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER) bluntly said that the journal’s retraction of the Seralini team’s paper “is a travesty of science and looks like a bow to industry”. ENSSER reminded the worldwide audience that the Séralini group had found severe toxic effects (including liver congestions and necrosis and kidney nephropathies), increased tumor rates and higher mortality in rats fed Monsanto’s genetically modified NK603 maize and/or the associated herbicide Roundup. There it was, clear as day.

ENSSER went on: “Even more worrying than the lack of good grounds for the retraction is the fact that the journal’s editor-in-chief has not revealed who the reviewers were who helped him to come to the conclusion that the paper should be retracted; nor has he revealed the criteria and methodology of their reevaluation, which overruled the earlier conclusion of the original peer-review which supported publication. In a case like this, where many of those who denounced the study have long-standing, well-documented links to the GM industry and, therefore, a clear interest in having the results of the study discredited, such lack of transparency about how this potential decision was reached is inexcusable, unscientific and unacceptable. It raises the suspicion that the retraction is a favour to the interested industry, notably Monsanto.”

Elsevier is attempting to erase from the public record results that are potentially of very great importance for public health. The support for the Seralini study and studies like it will ensure that does not happen.

Elsevier is attempting to erase from the public record results that are potentially of very great importance for public health. The support for the Seralini study and studies like it will ensure that does not happen.

The Elsevier journal, coming under baleful condemnation from all quarters for its cowardly act, essayed a response meant to be collective but which mired itself in administrative cover-thy-bum murkiness and addressed none of the substantial matters raised by the open letters which are gaining supported every day. Unable to see the writing on the crumbing frankenfood wall, The Economist, that gormless right-wing leaflet despised by fish’n’chips vendors, stumbled in with an editorial titled ‘Fields of beaten gold: Greens say climate-change deniers are unscientific and dangerous. So are greens who oppose GM crops’.

With the retraction of the Seralini team paper by the Elsevier journal, the Economist’s leader gibbered feverishly, “There is now no serious scientific evidence that GM crops do any harm to the health of human beings. There is plenty of evidence, though, that they benefit the health of the planet. One of the biggest challenges facing mankind is to feed the 9 billion-10 billion people who will be alive and (hopefully) richer in 2050. This will require doubling food production on roughly the same area of land, using less water and fewer chemicals. It will also mean making food crops more resistant to the droughts and floods that seem likely if climate change is a bad as scientists fear.” As you can see, this specious and laughably binary argument is the kind that the CGIAR and its thought-control institutions (such as the International Food Policy Research Institute) have sloshed through governments in the South for the last decade, mostly successfully.

But the world’s scientists cannot be bought and cannot be bullied en masse. The Institute of Science in Society wrote and circulated an open letter on the retraction and also included in it a “Pledge to Boycott Elsevier” – this letter has now been signed by 454 scientists and 813 non-scientists from 56 different countries!

The ISIS letter to the feckless Elsevier journal has said, very firmly: “Your decision to retract the paper is in clear violation of the international ethical norms as laid down by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), of which FCT is a member. According to COPE, the only grounds for retraction are (1) clear evidence that the findings are unreliable due to misconduct or honest error, (2) plagiarism or redundant publication, or (3) unethical research. You have already acknowledged that the paper of Séralini et al (2012) contains none of those faults.”

Moreover, the ISIS open letter has addressed in one fiery sweep the GM food and seed industry and their craven partners in governments, the journal publishers and their smarmy influence brokers alike: “This arbitrary, groundless retraction of a published, thoroughly peer-reviewed paper is without precedent in the history of scientific publishing, and raises grave concerns over the integrity and impartiality of science.”

Elsevier is already notorious for having published six fake journals sponsored by unnamed pharmaceutical companies made to look like peer reviewed medical journals; this particular journal, Food and Chemical Toxicology, had recently appointed ex-Monsanto employee Richard Goodman to the newly created post of associate editor for biotechnology; Elsevier remains the target of a still-current boycott initiated by eminent mathematician, Sir Tim Gowers, as a protest by academics against the business practices of Elsevier, especially the high prices it charges for journals and books; and this now thoroughly invalidated journal had also retracted another study finding potentially harmful effects from GMOs.

Are roads good for farmers or is research best? FAO’s annual measures both apples and oranges

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The FAO’s annual State of Food Agriculture in 2012 is called ‘investing in agriculture for a better future’. As the FAO’s premier ‘flagship’ report for the year, it is dense, is heavy with agri-oriented macro-economics, and is equally heavy with data and unabridged explanations of the roles of public investment and measures of agricultural productivity.

This is only a very fleeting sampling of the content of this year’s SOFA (as it is rather irreverently abbreviated into, both within FAO and outside it) and here I have picked out some thought-provoking material from the chapter on ‘channelling public investment towards higher returns’. [The State of Food and Agriculture main page is here. For those in a hurry there is an executive summary. The full report [pdf] can be found here.]

The magnitudes in the left panel are returns to one monetary unit of different types of public spending in terms of the value of agricultural production or productivity expressed in the same monetary unit. The agricultural performance variable is measured slightly differently in each country: agricultural GDP in China, agricultural total factor productivity in India, and agricultural labour productivity in Uganda. The magnitudes in the right panel are the reductions in the population size of the poor per monetary unit spent in each area of spending. The respective monetary units are: one million rupees in India; 10,000 yuan in China; and one million Ugandan shillings in Uganda. Chart: FAO SOFA 2012

The magnitudes in the left panel are returns to one monetary unit of different types of public spending in terms of the value of agricultural production or productivity expressed in the same monetary unit. The agricultural performance variable is measured slightly differently in each country: agricultural GDP in China, agricultural total factor productivity in India, and agricultural labour productivity in Uganda. The magnitudes in the right panel are the reductions in the population size of the poor per monetary unit spent in each area of spending. The respective monetary units are: one million rupees in India; 10,000 yuan in China; and one million Ugandan shillings in Uganda. Chart: FAO SOFA 2012

Country studies in several regions have found – said SOFA 2012 – positive relationships between government expenditure on agriculture and growth in agricultural and total GDP, while confirming that the type of expenditure matters. “In Rwanda,” said SOFA, “1 dollar of additional government expenditures on agricultural research increases agricultural GDP by 3 dollars, but the effects were larger for staples such as maize, cassava, pulses and poultry than for export crops. In India, expenditures aimed at improving productivity in livestock had greater returns and were more effective in mitigating poverty than general public investment in agriculture.”

The magnitudes are the reductions in the number of poor people per monetary unit spent in each area of expenditure. The respective monetary units are: one million baht in Thailand (i.e. reduction of number of poor people per one million baht spent in different sectors); one million rupees in India; 10 000 yuan in China; and one million Ugandan shillings in Uganda. Chart: FAO SOFA 2012

The magnitudes are the reductions in the number of poor people per monetary unit spent in each area of expenditure. The respective monetary units are: one million baht in Thailand (i.e. reduction of number of poor people per one million baht spent in different sectors); one million rupees in India; 10 000 yuan in China; and one million Ugandan shillings in Uganda. Chart: FAO SOFA 2012

The FAO report quotes from and refers to substantial literature on public investment in agricultural research and development, which SOFA 2012 shows has been one of the most effective forms of public investment over the past 40 years. The FAO’s prescription (or should it be direction?) is that because R&D drives technical change and productivity growth in agriculture, it raises farm incomes and reduces prices for consumers. I do think bits like this (which do tend to litter recent SOFAs) ought to be balanced by other views from FAO’s abundant research on ‘technical change’ and ‘productivity growth’, concepts that for the majority of small cultivators and for the majority of poor consumers of food mean more varieties of processed food from a shrinking variety of cereals being made available at higher prices.

Regrettably, the FAO burbles on about how “the benefits multiply throughout the economy as the extra income is used to purchase other goods and services, which in turn create incomes for their providers”, and about how “the welfare effects are large and diffuse, benefiting many people who are far removed from agriculture, so they are not always recognised as stemming directly from agricultural research”.

Surely, a tome as magisterial as the SOFA is meant to be needn’t grasp at such emblematic straws? For most smallholder cultivating households, the portion of agricultural income in total household income varies widely, and varies within a year between seasons. It is in my view therefore quite impossible to speak of benefits multiplying throughout the economy and of immeasurable but present welfare effects. How and for who, a SOFA should tell us, but this one does not.

The SOFA 2012 has added that “after agricultural R&D, the ranking of returns to other investment areas differs by country, suggesting that public investment priorities depend on local conditions, but rural infrastructure and road development are often ranked among the top sources of overall economic growth in rural areas”. Yes indeed they are, and I can say from experience in India that a better road (not a ‘good’ road, which is hard to find especially once a couple of monsoon months have had their way with roads) does local ‘mandis’ (farmers’ markets) much good.

The magnitudes are returns to one monetary unit of different types of public spending in terms of increased agricultural production or productivity measured in the same monetary unit. The agricultural performance variable is measured slightly differently in each country: agricultural GDP in China, agricultural total factor productivity in India, and agricultural labour productivity in Thailand and Uganda. Chart: FAO SOFA 2012

The magnitudes are returns to one monetary unit of different types of public spending in terms of increased agricultural production or productivity measured in the same monetary unit. The agricultural performance variable is measured slightly differently in each country: agricultural GDP in China, agricultural total factor productivity in India, and agricultural labour productivity in Thailand and Uganda. Chart: FAO SOFA 2012

“In Ethiopia, said the SOFA, access to all-weather roads reduced poverty by 6.9 percent and increased consumption growth by 16.3 percent. Returns to public investment in road infrastructure in Ethiopia were by far the highest of all categories. In Uganda, the marginal returns to public spending on feeder roads on agriculture output and poverty reduction was three to four times larger than the returns to public spending on larger roads.”

Well, yes and no is my view. Roads are used for non-agricultural purposes too, and tend more often than not to ‘open up’ (for better or worse) land use options along their length. If the incomes of agriculturally-dependent households became more varied because of family members being able to use new roads to find new wage opportunities (not necessarily agriculture-related) then how is one to apportion the additional benefit between being able to cart crop produce with less trouble than earlier, and between making use of a new informal labour transportation option that brings in extra wage earnings?

“Public goods in rural areas also tend to be complementary,” said SOFA 2012. In general yes, I agree. But then the SOFA cues the industrial-speak. “For example, in Bangladesh, villages with better infrastructure benefited more from agricultural research than villages with poorer infrastructure; they used more irrigation, improved seed and fertiliser, paid lower fertiliser prices, earned higher wages and had significantly higher production increases”.

This is an over-optimistic way of putting matters, and analogously, urban households that have access to a faster broadband service ‘benefit’ more from e-governance than households still using dial-up modems – but is there a demonstrable link to better or lower income? Moreover, ‘more’ and ‘better’ and ‘improved’ really is the language of industrial agriculture (and I can’t see lower fertiliser prices having been any more than a blip, certainly not a lasting condition).

The FAO’s SOFAs are always exceedingly valuable volumes, and provide much that sharpens our knowledge about food and agriculture, and they certainly widen our views about factors that can convincingly be linked with others which were hitherto ignored (or not attempted because of a lack of data). There is however to FAO first and to its many hundreds of thousands of ‘dependents’ (self included) next, the danger of following too enthusiastically (and uncritically) the ‘growth is good’ and hence more ‘growth is better’ train of advice. No doubt SOFA 2012 has passages that are likely more judicious, and we will examine these over the next few months.

FAO’s World Food Day sermon, well balanced with a few blind spots

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This is worth a close read for it reflects, in my view, the pull and tug of various opinions and convictions inside the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the single entity that we rely on the most to inform us about the state of cultivators, what they’re growing in our world, and who isn’t getting enough of those crops as food.

I have extracted some important paragraphs of this publication [get it here as a pdf], and commented on them. Here goes:

“At the level of individuals, people living on less than US$1.25 a day may need to skip a meal when food prices rise. Farmers are hurt too because they badly need to know the price their crops are going to fetch at harvest time, months away. If high prices are likely they plant more. If low prices are forecast they plant less and cut costs.”

Yes and no. The one-dollar-a-day global poverty line really ought to be done away with. It means nothing at national level and less within countries. Trying to equate real prices and actual consumption (in grams or hundred grams a day) with purchasing power parity-adjusted international dollars is generally a pointless exercise that generates lists and rankings that distract rather than inform. Anyway, the important part of what FAO said here is that when they’re under a certain daily income line, people can’t buy food to eat what they need to. The comment on farmers making decisions based on expected prices is a good one, something that most people miss, assuming that farmers are as interested in food security as academics are – which is quite untrue. For a farming household, sowing a field is a cost, and that cost needs to be more than recouped in order to make the decision to sow a good one.

“Rapid price swings make that calculation much more difficult. Farmers can easily end up producing too much or too little. In stable markets they can make a living. Volatile ones can ruin them while also generally discouraging much-needed investment in agriculture. Recognizing the major threat that food price swings pose to the world’s poorest countries and people, the international community, led by the G20, moved in 2011 to find ways of managing volatility on international food commodity markets. Under the presidency of France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, the world’s 20 largest economies agreed that any strategy directed to that purpose should have the protection of vulnerable countries and groups as its main priority.”

Now here’s the FAO getting to grips with today’s problem. Rapid price swings is what we tend to call volatility – this can be volatility in retail food prices, or in input prices for farmers, or in offtake (purchase at the farm gate or local market) prices of harvested crops. I don’t see any stable markets the FAO is referring to here. Under Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) the stability is constructed by coordinating a monstrous array of incentives and subventions – causing instability elsewhere in the world and particularly when that ‘elsewhere’ is importing (under duress) European agri products and processed food. But that’s another though related story.

The idea of “much-needed investment in agriculture” is an ill-defined one. The best investment a farmer can make, so goes an old Indian proverb, is that she walks the soil of her field every day with her bare feet – and that means for the farmer to till her land and come face to face with her natural resources and biodiversity. It is not the sort of investment the ‘market’ can understand. But FAO ought to, especially since it also has a Save And Grow programme aimed at addressing the organic, low input, community side of cultivation. This is an example of the contradictions in this FAO document. The “international community” is a tired and non-existent label, describing nothing while pretending to be collegial. Mediocre editorial writers still use it but no realists do. The G20 statement this time around may be a little less wishy-washy than it was last year, but that is scant comfort to the hungry or to the cultivators of small plots.

“Today’s turbulent commodities markets contrast sharply with the situation that characterized the last 25 years of the twentieth century. Between 1975 and 2000 cereal prices remained substantially stable on a month-to-month basis, although trending downwards over the longer term. For despite rapid population growth – world population doubled between 1960 and 2000 – the Green Revolution launched by Dr Norman Borlaug in the 1960s helped food supply to meet and even exceed demand in many countries, including India, thanks to the work of M. S. Swaminathan, then Director of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute.”

Oh dear. This is one step forward and three back for the FAO. It should not – not – go looking at Green Revolution history in an attempt to encourage beleaguered small farmers and consumers battered by food price inflation. Yes, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and CIMMYT (the CGIAR International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre) will establish the Borlaug Institute for South Asia in India. This institute will be at the forefront of the so-called Second Green Revolution in eastern India (and thereafter sub-Saharan and East Africa). The kind of infrastructure demanded by the first Green Revolution by way of irrigation canals, dams with extensive command areas, provision of rural electricity to run pumpsets with, heavily subsidised inorganic fertilisers produced by a monolithic industry closely allied to the petro-chemicals industry and fossil fuel suppliers – all these were overlooked in the rush to raise yield per hectare. We do not want to see that being attempted again with public monies. It is this investment – rather this big fat public money pipe – which kept cereal prices “substantially stable on a month-to-month basis” in what used to be called the First World. It is not possible there now, it is not possible here (Asia and Africa) now. And that’s what FAO should have said, clearly and bluntly.

“In fact there was, in the Western Hemisphere at least, an over-abundance of food, caused in no small part by the generous subsidies which OECD countries paid to their farmers. But the picture today is a very different one. The global market is tight, with supply struggling to keep pace with demand and stocks are at or near historical lows. It is a delicate balance that can easily be upset by shocks such as droughts or floods in key producing regions.”

So it does try to say this, in a push-me-pull-you sort of way, but the truth is there is no delicate balance. Markets do not tolerate delicate balances because investors have no time for such niceties.

“In order to decide how, and how far, we can manage volatile food prices we need to be clear about why, in the space of a few years, a world food market offering stability and low prices became a turbulent marketplace battered by sudden price spikes and troughs.”

Hear, hear.

“The seeds of today’s volatility were sown last century when decision-makers failed to grasp that the production boom then enjoyed by many countries might not last forever and that continuing investment was needed in research, technology, equipment and infrastructure. In the 30 years from 1980 to date the share of official development assistance which OECD countries earmarked for agriculture dropped 43 percent. Continued under-funding of agriculture by rich and poor countries alike is probably the main single cause of the problems we face today.”

Why does the FAO continue stubbornly to see “investment” as an output of only, and exclusively, national agricultural research systems that are in the vast majority of countries government departments with little real connection to growers and household consumers, or are adjuncts of industrial agriculture multinationals? The seeds of volatility (FAO’s pun, not mine) were planted when commodity exchanges invented commodity futures in collusion with banks and investment consulting companies – production booms were not, in the ecological economics framework of measuring things, booms of any kind, nor were they seen in many countries other than the subvention-drunk OECD of the 1970s and 1980s. In this para, FAO has blundered clumsily by now apportioining some blame to “continued under-funding” while having already mentioned the “generous subsidies” years in the West.

“Contributing to today’s tight markets is rapid economic growth in emerging economies, which means more people are eating more meat and dairy produce with the need for feedgrains increasing rapidly as a result. Global trade in soymeal, the world’s leading protein feed for animals, has grown 67 percent over the past 10 years.”

Hear, hear. Type 2 diabetes and the burden of non-communicable diseases (see the WHO’s recent campaign) have also increased dramatically as a result of the wanton carpet-bombing of “emerging economies” (another revolting label) by the food-agbiotech-retail MNCs.

“Population growth, with almost 80 million new mouths to feed every year, is another important element. Population pressure is compounded by the erratic and often extreme meteorological phenomena produced by global warming and climate change. A further contributing factor may be the recent entry of institutional investors with very large sums of money into food commodity futures markets. There is evidence to suggest that food prices may have surged partly as a result of speculation. But there is considerable debate over the issue.”

Yes and no. FAO is right about the impact of population growth, about climate change (it has an enormous amount of documentation on the subject), about institutional investors and how they distort prices and about food speculation and its effects on street prices. There is plenty of evidence. There is not “considerable debate”, unless the FAO thinks that the angry bleatings of bankers to the contrary is some sort of debate. If so, it should consult its fellow UN agency, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), which this year released a study titled ‘Price Formation in Financialized Commodity Markets: The Role of Information’. The UNCTAD experts who wrote this paper concluded that the commodities market isn’t functioning properly, or at least not the way a market is supposed to function in economic models, where prices are shaped by supply and demand. But the activities of financial participants, according to the study, “drive commodity prices away from levels justified by market fundamentals”. This leads to massively distorted prices, which are not influenced by real factors but by the expectation that economic developments will improve or worsen.

“Lastly, distortive agricultural and protectionist trade policies bear a significant part of the blame. In addition, with agriculture now substantially part of the wider energy market, any shock to the latter – such as unrest in a producing country – can have immediate repercussions on food prices. Responding to food price volatility therefore involves two different kinds of measures. The first group addresses volatility itself, aiming to reduce price swings through specific interventions while the other seeks to mitigate the negative effects of price swings on countries and individuals. One measure frequently invoked under the first heading is the setting up of an internationally held food stock able to intervene on markets to stabilize prices. But FAO’s view is that such a stock would be of dubious value, as well as expensive and difficult to operate. Also, government intervention in food markets discourages the private sector and hinders competition.”

Again the FAO push-me-pull-you is at work here, but the premier food agency has made some important points. The connection between agriculture and energy is one – and that means biofuels, which has a para to itself in the FAO document. Conflict is also brought in as a factor affecting prices – in how many food-producing and exporting countries is there now war or armed conflict? The idea of ‘strategic food reserves’ – which countries in South-east Asia and in the Persian Gulf region are pursuing – has been given short shrift, rightly in my view. But once again the FAO makes a tired attempt to placate the pro-WTO groups by bemoaning protectionist trade policies – which in WTO-speak means no barriers to entry for OECD food products anywhere so that all that accumulated legacy subsidy can pay back a little. Not acceptable, FAO folks. And to round off the contradictory para, the FAO statement again criticises “government intervention” as hindering competition. Governments have to serve their citizens according to constitutions and charters – these are internal matters and this is where sovereignty and self-determination come before market. Better believe it FAO. At least, for now.

The man who (almost) sold his mother for fertiliser

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Five recent news features from the IPS (Inter Press Service) network describe problems of agriculture and livelihood in Africa and South America. The report from Malawi is shocking – of how a young man attempted to sell his mother so as to buy fertiliser!

Thou Market, southern Sudan. Across the Sahel, women generate income from balanites seeds, which are about half oil and a third protein. After processing at home, they can be turned into many tasty items, including roasted snacks and a spread not unlike peanut butter. They also supply a vegetable oil that is a prized ingredient in foods as well as in local cosmetics. (From 'Lost Crops of Africa: Volume III: Fruits', The National Academies Press. Photo: Caroline Gullick)

Thou Market, southern Sudan. Across the Sahel, women generate income from balanites seeds, which are about half oil and a third protein. After processing at home, they can be turned into many tasty items, including roasted snacks and a spread not unlike peanut butter. They also supply a vegetable oil that is a prized ingredient in foods as well as in local cosmetics. (From 'Lost Crops of Africa: Volume III: Fruits', The National Academies Press. Photo: Caroline Gullick)

Climate Change Means New Crop Health ConcernsIn Brazil, the Climapest project has brought together 134 researchers from 37 institutions to evaluate the potential effects of climate change on crop health, and to guide policies and provide options so that this South American and global agricultural leader can adapt. The changes in climate “will not necessarily aggravate the crop diseases” in all cases, because warmer temperatures or increased carbon gases could impede the proliferation of certain microorganisms, but it is important to be ready for future scenarios because “generating solutions takes time,” explained Raquel Ghini, project leader.

Funguses, viruses and other agents that are harmful to agriculture are among the organisms that react fastest to changes in the climate, because of their short life cycles and their ability to reproduce quickly. Climapest began in January 2009 and has a four-year mandate to study 85 problems of plant health affecting 16 crops, including major exports like coffee, soybeans and fruit (banana, apple and grape), as well as African palm and castor oils, both of which are gaining ground as raw material for biodiesel.

Small Scale Farmers Face Uphill Battle – “Small farmers need substantial infrastructure to be competitive. If not, we can’t deliver according to our clients’ needs,” said Alan Simons, an emerging small-scale farmer in South Africa. “Big farmers kill you, they flood the market,” he added.

“Bigger farmers have an advantage over smaller farmers because smaller farmers face bigger obstacles to getting into the market,” said Chair of the Department of Agricultural Economics at the University of Stellenbosch, Professor Nick Vink. “Geographically they are mostly further away from the market, infrastructure is often geared to working with large quantities of produce, the transaction costs of working with small amounts of product are higher, and last but not least they get no support from the state.”

Zinder, Niger Republic. Aizen occupies some of the hottest, driest locations ever faced by plant life in the modern era. Yet it not only survives, it yields enough useful products to sustain human life almost by itself. In at least a dozen countries, people virtually live off aizen fruits, seeds, roots, and leaves. The bushes typically give a lot of fruits, which mostly ripen at once. The fruits shown here are unripe, and would normally be collected only after they turn yellow. But because of the food shortage, people are often unable to wait that long. ((From 'Lost Crops of Africa: Volume III: Fruits', The National Academies Press. Photo: Eden Foundation)

Zinder, Niger Republic. Aizen occupies some of the hottest, driest locations ever faced by plant life in the modern era. Yet it not only survives, it yields enough useful products to sustain human life almost by itself. In at least a dozen countries, people virtually live off aizen fruits, seeds, roots, and leaves. The bushes typically give a lot of fruits, which mostly ripen at once. (From 'Lost Crops of Africa: Volume III: Fruits', The National Academies Press. Photo: Eden Foundation)

So how do small farmers cope? “Marketing holds the key to making profits”, said Jeptha. “You need to have contracts and a proper market. Your produce should be sold before you plant them. You must know where you are going to deliver it before you plant that seed,” he said. Farming short cycle crops is also key. Simons farms green beans, baby marrows and gem squash – crops that can be harvested within eight weeks. Small farmers don’t venture into fruit farming. It can take up to three years for fruit trees to bear fruit, a major risk for the emerging small farmer who has little start up cash.

Desperation Over Subsidies – Many needy farmers are being left out of a government fertiliser and seed subsidy programme in Malawi, and are employing desperate measures in order to access these commodities. A 21-year-old man, Jolam Ganizani, from Malawi’s central district of Ntchisi, is in police custody after he attempted to sell his own mother to use the money to buy fertiliser and seed.

Police prosecutor Sub Inspector Peter Njiragoma told local journalists last month that Ganizani had confessed to the police that he was so poverty- stricken that he felt that selling his mother would be the solution to his problems. “He had wanted to use the money obtained from selling his mother to buy farm inputs which would assist him to grow a lot of crops and harvest more,” explained Njiragoma.

Few trees on earth engender respect like baobab. Millions believe it receives divine power through the branches that look like arms stretching toward heaven. The baobab is entrenched in the folklore of much of Africa. This is partly because of its singular appearance but also because of the cures and the foods it provides. ((From 'Lost Crops of Africa: Volume III: Fruits', The National Academies Press. Photo: Jerry Wright)

Few trees on earth engender respect like baobab. Millions believe it receives divine power through the branches that look like arms stretching toward heaven. The baobab is entrenched in the folklore of much of Africa. This is partly because of its singular appearance but also because of the cures and the foods it provides. (From 'Lost Crops of Africa: Volume III: Fruits', The National Academies Press. Photo: Jerry Wright)

According to the police, Ganizani was working with a herbalist in Mozambique who advised him that his mother could be used as a slave by businesspeople. Malawi is highly susceptible to human trafficking because of high levels of poverty, low literacy levels and HIV/AIDS, according to a local NGO, the Malawi Network Against Child Trafficking, MNACT.

New Vegetables in Kenya’s Food Markets – Kale is also popularly known as “sakuma wiki”, a name that loosely translated means that it can sustain people throughout the week due to its extreme affordability, particularly for those who earn a dollar and below a day. It is thus the single most popular and available vegetable. “In spite of its popularity, varieties of kale available to farmers are generally of poor quality, yield easily to diseases and their production is also low,” explains Catherine Kuria.

Vegetables are grown by an estimated 90 percent of Kenyan households, with Kale accounting for the highest production. In a bid to improve food security and consequently alleviate hunger, new varieties of kale have been developed that are more productive and can cope better with the unpredictable climatic changes across the country. These new varieties are expeted to aid a government programme called ‘Njaa Marufuku Kenya’ which basically means eliminating hunger in Kenya. This programme supports agricultural development initiatives targeting the poor in rural areas, where an estimated 60% live below a dollar a day.

Dantokpa market, Cotonou, Benin. “Mustard” made from seeds of the savanna tree commonly called locust in English is essential for making nutritious soup. Across West Africa locust bean is a major item of commerce, as is its major processed form, dawadawa, a nutrient-dense, cheese-like food. These together constitute an important economic activity for women. Production of the pungent paste is a traditional family craft and although most is produced for home use, some ends up being sold in local markets. ((From 'Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables', The National Academies Press. Photo: L.J.G. van der Maesen)

Dantokpa market, Cotonou, Benin. “Mustard” made from seeds of the savanna tree commonly called locust in English is essential for making nutritious soup. Across West Africa locust bean is a major item of commerce, as is its major processed form, dawadawa, a nutrient-dense, cheese-like food. These together constitute an important economic activity for women. Production of the pungent paste is a traditional family craft and although most is produced for home use, some ends up being sold in local markets. ((From 'Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables', The National Academies Press. Photo: L.J.G. van der Maesen)

Rain May Disappear from South American Breadbasket – South America still has vast extensions of land available for growing crops to help meet the global demand for food and biofuels. But the areas of greatest potential agricultural production – central-southern Brazil, northern Argentina, and Paraguay – could be left without the necessary rains. Every deforested hectare in the Amazon – a jungle biome extending across the northern half of South America – weakens the system that has been protecting the region. “We don’t know where the point of no return is,” when forest degradation will become irreversible, and lands that benefited from the rains generated in the Amazon turn to desert, said the scientist Antonio Nobre, of the Brazil’s national space research institute, INPE.

The Amazon forest and the barrier created by the Andes Mountains, which run north-to-south through South America, channel the humid winds, now known as “flying rivers.” Those winds ensure rainfall for a region that is the continental leader in meat, grain and fruit exports, and a world leader in sugar, soybeans and orange juice. The flying-river phenomenon, as established by climate researchers, led Nobre and other scientists around the globe to a new theory, the “biotic pump,” which explains climate phenomena, equilibrium and disequilibrium in the Earth’s natural systems and in which forest biomes play an essential role. A large tree in the Amazon can evaporate up to 300 litres of water in a day. One measure suggests that the Amazon generates 20 billion tonnes of water vapour daily. The Amazon River, in comparison, churns out 17 billion tonnes of water into the ocean.

The food-agritech-aid stakes, a return to the 1950s

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Undernourished population (image: Nature)At the end of July 2010, the United States government together with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation made an announcement that has far and wide implications for the agriculture and development sectors. The announcement was the launch of the ‘Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP)’. The US Under Secretary for International Affairs (Lael Brainard) and the president of the Global Development Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (Sylvia Mathews Burwell) met ambassadors and embassy officials from more than a dozen African countries to discuss how they could use the new fund.

Described as “a new fund to tackle global hunger and poverty”, the GAFSP was created following the meeting of the G20 in Pittsburgh, USA, in 2009. Launched in April 2010 with US$880 million in commitments from the United States of America, Canada, South Korea, Spain, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the GAFSP “represents a global effort to aid vulnerable populations afflicted by hunger and poverty”.

Calorie availability (image: Nature)Moreover, it is being positioned as a key element of the Obama Administration’s initiative to, in its own words, enhance food security in poor countries, raise rural incomes and reduce poverty. Laudable aims, but food and food aid and agricultural technology has for most of the 20th century been a tool of foreign policy. South Asia knows that well with the role of the American philanthropic foundations and their role in ushering in the Green Revolution.

The fund’s first round of grants (total US$224 million) were awarded in June 2010 to Bangladesh, Haiti, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Togo. In October 2010, approximately US$120 million will be available for allocation to countries “eligible” for the GAFSP. More than 25 countries are expected to apply for assistance, but there are conditions. Funding “will be prioritised” for those countries that demonstrate the highest levels of need, the strongest policy environments and the greatest level of country readiness. What does readiness mean? The country will need to draft and frame an agricultural development strategy and country investment plan.

Agriculture research (image: Nature)Rural realities and living conditions are usually very different from the sketches contained in funding documents. Poverty is the main source of hunger now, not a lack of food. Efficiency has become a central theme, which means getting higher yields on small plots with fewer inputs of water and chemical/synthetic fertiliser. It hasn’t helped that government investment in basic research and development on agriculture, in the countries of the South, is very little.

1. In 2009, more than 1 billion people went undernourished — their food intake regularly providing less than minimum energy requirements — not because there isn’t enough food, but because people are too poor to buy it. At least 30% of food goes to waste. Although the highest rates of hunger are in sub-Saharan Africa — correlated with poverty — most of the world’s undernourished people are in Asia and particularly South Asia.

Global undernourishment (image: Nature)2. The percentage of hungry people in the developing world had been dropping for decades even though the number of hungry worldwide barely dipped. But the food price crisis in 2008 reversed these decades of gains.

3. Scientists long feared a great population boom that would stress food production, but population growth is slowing and should plateau by 2050 as family size in almost all poorer countries falls to roughly 2.2 children per family. Even as population has risen, the overall availability of calories per person has increased, not decreased. Producing enough food in the future is possible, but doing so without drastically sapping other resources, particularly water, will be difficult.

4. An outlook published in 2009 by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) says that current cropland could be more than doubled by adding 1.6 billion hectares — mostly from Latin America and Africa — without impinging on land needed for forests, protected areas or urbanisation. But Britain’s Royal Society has advised against substantially increasing cultivated land, arguing that this would damage ecosystems and biodiversity. Instead, it backs “sustainable intensification,” which has become the priority of many agricultural research agencies.

Floating candy, micro loans and Chinese tomatoes

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One week of food for the Casales family in Mexico (Menzel and D'Aluisio, 2005)

One week of food for the Casales family in Mexico (Menzel and D'Aluisio, 2005)

This eclectic selection of reports does have one common theme. And that is a measure of desperation. The global triple crisis – that of finance and credit, of climate change, and of food and hunger – has pushed the poor to desperation, but it has also pushed companies and institutions to desperation. Desperate measures is what links the stories of a floating supermarket in Brazil, normally safe microloans going bad, fertiliser overuse in north India and Chinese tomatoes in Italy.

1. Nestlé’s ‘floating supermarket’ makes its voyages under Amazon skies. The ‘Terra Grande’ vessel is an investment by the Swiss food group designed to reach isolated riverside communities in the Amazon region. The vessel is designed to enhance Nestle’s reach among the lower income consumers that make up a core part of its market. The company has been in Brazil for 89 years and products like its powdered milk are staples among Brazil’s poorer consumers. As the economy continues to grow quickly, Nestlé is hoping that rising incomes among the poor will bring its higher priced goods within their reach, too.

2. Microfinance markets in Nicaragua, Morocco and Pakistan have seen default levels climb to more than 10 percent, the threshold that marks a “serious repayment crisis,” according to a February report from Washington, D.C.-based policy and research firm Consultative Group to Assist the Poor. Delinquencies in Bosnia and Herzegovina stayed below that level only because of “aggressive loan write-offs,” the report said. While there has been no evidence of a “widespread repayment crisis” in India, “a number of industry analysts have highlighted industry vulnerabilities,” the report said.

Here is a slice of Bloomberg’s reportage on the problem in India: “Savita Ramesh Rathore stood at the door to her dimly lit workshop in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum, filled floor-to-ceiling with bundles of old clothes, and tallied up the cost of her son’s wedding last year. ‘Jewels, clothes, food, the town hall,’ said Rathore, 50, who makes towels from discarded clothes. She borrowed 30,000 rupees ($645) from moneylenders charging 60 percent interest and took additional loans from friends to pay for the wedding. Three months ago, she got a 10,000 rupee loan from urban lender Hindusthan Microfinance Pvt. to repay some of that debt.”

One week of food for the Ayme family in Ecuador (Menzel and D'Aluisio, 2005)

One week of food for the Ayme family in Ecuador (Menzel and D'Aluisio, 2005)

3. A new study by Greenpeace Research Laboratories shows that agriculture in Punjab is on the brink of an ecological catastrophe, the result of the overuse of highly-subsidised synthetic nitrogen fertilisers by farmers striving to step up their output. Dr Reyes Tirado, a scientist from the University of Exeter, sampled wells in 50 villages in the areas of Muktsar, Bhatinda and Ludhiana, and found that 20 per cent had nitrate levels above the World Health Organisation recommended safety limit of 50 mg per litre.

Farmers are aggressively using the nitrate fertilisers with the aim of boosting their annual yield. But scientists warn that this overuse is gradually exhausting the soil, which will eventually leave it unfit for food production. PepsiCo, the cola company which also makes potato chips, sources potatoes from farms in Ludhiana, and lost no time in claiming fatuously that it encourages its agricultural suppliers to use less nitrogen-based fertilisers.

4. Italy’s agriculture minister declared “We will defend the Italian tomato” in response to reports by Coldiretti, an agricultural association, that Italian imports of Chinese tomatoes had soared by over 170 per cent in the past year and now made up 10 per cent of the country’s processed tomato market. Chinese tomatoes are being imported into Italy for processing into paste and then re-exported with an Italian label to countries like Ghana which buys about 28,000 tonnes from Italy each year. Chinese exports of food and drink to the EU have doubled over the past decade, reaching 3.2bn euros in 2009.

India’s fertiliser addiction fiddle

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The Economic Survey 2009-10 has attempted to conceal the true impact of chemical fertiliser abuse in India. Chapter 2 of the Survey deals with agriculture, and the Survey states: “The per hectare consumption of fertilisers in nutrients terms increased from 105.5 kg in 2005-06 to 128.6 kg in 2008-09.” This is false. Here is why.

India per hectare chemical fertiliser use, 1950 to 2009

India per hectare chemical fertiliser use, 1950 to 2009

In 1950-51 the average fertiliser use in India was only 0.58 kg per hectare. The net sown area was 118.75 million hectares upon which 69,000 tons of fertiliser were used. Of course this is a notional average use only, as 60 years ago fertiliser was an agricultural input in only a few districts which were being primed for what was to become the Green Revolution. Still, that was the ‘national average’. It took 16 years before that average crossed 10 kg of fertiliser per hectare, and that happened in 1967-68 when the net sown area was 139.88 million hectares and the total fertiliser use was 1.53 million tons.

Thereafter it took only 5 years to reach 20kg/ha. The period 1971-72 to 1975-76 saw little change – the only such period in the last 60 years – in intensity of fertiliser use. Those were the years of the global oil crisis, the so-called first oil shock of the seventies. For that time, the ‘national average’ remained between 18 and 20 kg/ha while the total net sown area varied but little from 140 million hectares and total fertiliser use stayed between 2.65 and 2.89 million tons.

Per hectare application of fertiliser continued its upward trend from 1975-76 and it took less than 8 years to cross 50kg/ha and another 6 years to cross 80kg/ha – in 1989-90 India’s total fertiliser use was 11.56 million tons. In the decade of the 1990s, total fertiliser use in India rose by 44% (from 12.54 mt to 18.06mt) and per hectare application went up by 46% as the available agricultural land plateaued at around 140 million hectares.

India annual chemical fertiliser use, 1950 to 2009

India annual chemical fertiliser use, 1950 to 2009

Both total use and per hectare application remained at those levels until 2004-05. In the last four years there has been an astonishingly steep increase in the total consumption and per hectare use. For 2008-09 the total fertiliser use at 24.9 mt is more than 6.5 mt more than the figure for 2004-05, and per hectare use has shot up to over 174 kg/ha from 130 kg/ha in 2004-05, a jump of 33% in just four years.

The Economic Survey 2009-10 states: “Chemical fertilisers have played a significant role in the development of the agricultural sector. The per hectare consumption of fertilisers in nutrients terms increased from 105.5 kg in 2005-06 to 128.6 kg in 2008-09. However, improving the marginal productivity of soil still remains a challenge. This requires increased NPK application and application of proper nutrients, based on soil analysis.”

The Survey is wrong. The per hectare use crossed 105 kg in 1997 – nine years before the Survey says it did – and crossed 130 kg in 2004-05. In 2008-09 the rude equation is: 143 million hectares of net sown area; 24.9 mt of total fertiliser consumption. The Survey has concealed true per hectare consumption of fertiliser by swapping net sown area with gross sown area. Net sown area is the land surface on which crops are grown. To assess output and productivity, when cultivated land is used to grow more than one crop per year, that area on which the second crop is grown is counted again, which gives us gross sown area.

Counting cultivated land more than once raises the sown area from 143 million hectares (net) to 190 million hectares (gross). And that is how the per hectare consumption of fertiliser is portrayed as much lower than it truly is. Chemical fertiliser however affects the parcel of land, and is not divisible by the number of crops the land is employed for. The resulting difference is enormous: 45.4 kg/hectare!

The data I have used comes from the Reserve Bank of India Handbook of Statistics on Indian Economy 2008-09. For 2007-08 and 2008-09 I used the total NPK consumption figures from the Economic Survey 2009-10.