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Secrets of the record vegetables harvest

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The Ministry of Agriculture’s third advance estimates for the production of horticultural crops in India during 2016-17 has record figures for vegetables and fruit, 176.17 million tons and 93.7 million tons respectively.

The horticultural division counts 22 vegetable classes and a 23rd which includes all others. Likewise 26 classes of fruit and a 27th which includes all other fruit. Unfortunately, the horticultural division does not name these ‘other’ vegetables – which I surmise will include a number of leafy greens, tubers and beans – and which are estimated by the division to have amounted for the year to 23.62 million tons (mt).

In this chart for vegetables the ‘other’ unnamed vegetables are clubbed together with those vegetables whose harvests are individually sizeable (0.2 to 0.7 mt) but under 1 mt: elephant foot yam, mushroom, capsicum and parwal.

What stands out in this record harvest of vegetables is how the total tonnage is distributed. Potato, tomato, onion and brinjal together account for 101.82 mt which is 57% of the total vegetables tonnage. This is an extraordinary concentration. Worse, potato alone is 48.24 mt which is just over 23% of the vegetables total.

This is a hopelessly skewed distribution by weight which I think describes how very far the writ of the snack food manufacturers runs, by governing crop cultivation choices made in the field. Most snacks available today are industrially produced mixtures of vegetable ingredients, with flavours, colourings and food scents chemically added.

So-called contract farming in India began with PepsiCo’s foods division directing the cultivation of potato for its chips. Onions and tomato followed – for the last five years some 2 to 2.5 mt of onions are exported, and tomato makes its way into numerous ketchups and sauces. Both are ‘popular’ snack flavours by themselves. Hence the top three vegetable classes account for nearly 90 million tons together. Compare this quantity with India’s wheat harvest for 2016-17 of 98.38 mt!

To put the total annual quantities of onions (21.72 mt) and tomatoes (19.54) in perspective, 22.95 mt of pulses were grown during 2016-17 and this being not enough to provide our households, a further 6.6 mt was imported during 2016-17 (at a cost of Rs 28,523 crore). This is what irrational crop cultivation choices results in: kisans’ plots are dedicated to the cultivation of a few vegetable staples that serve as raw material for a snack foods industry whose products are nutritionally harmful, whereas those plots could grow pulses and save the country money, besides contributing to balanced diets.

Yet the count of vegetables by the horticulture division of the Ministry of Agriculture does not enumerate even the better-known vegetables that arrive at the mandis, and whose mandi prices are listed by the same ministry.

Their market names are: Alsandikai, Amaranthus, Ashgourd, Balekai, Banana Green, Beetroot, Chapparad Avare, Cluster beans, Colacasia, Coriander, Cowpea, Drumstick, Field Pea, French Beans, Galgal, Ginger, Gram Raw/Chholia, Green Avare, Groundnut pods, Guar, Indian Beans/Seam, Kartali/Kantola, Knool Khol, Little gourd/Kundru, Long Melon/Kakri, Lotus Sticks, Mango Raw, Methi, Mint/Pudina, Ridgeguard/Tori, Round gourd, Season Leaves, Seemebadnekai, Snakegourd, Spinach, Sponge gourd, Squash/Kaddoo, Surat Beans/Papadi, Suvarna Gadde, Thondekai, Tinda, Turnip, and White Pumpkin.

These 43 classes (there are likely more based on seasons and agro-ecological regions) of commonly consumed vegetables, grown all over India, amount to about 22 mt, using the numbers from the third advance estimates for 2016-17. But it is upon the diversity of these lesser, ‘other’ classes of vegetables that the dietary balance of millions of households depends. Yes, the annual vegetables balance sheet for 2016-17 boasts an impressive bottom-line, but the numbers therein don’t add up.

Written by makanaka

September 5, 2017 at 19:25

Sauce, ketchup and Indian tomato prices

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RG_tomato_ketchup_capers_201311

They say the prices are cyclical, like they are for all vegetables. They say India grows enough vegetables to provide for our growing population and we have enough surplus to export. Well, if that’s so, then why does a kilo of tomatoes today cost fifty rupees? A few phone calls and visits to local grocery shops (not the supermarkets) confirmed that today, in Bangalore, Mumbai and New Delhi, tomatoes sold for Rs 45 to Rs 55 a kilo.

Sauce and ketchup every which way you look in sizes from 90 grams to 1 kg - that's where India's tomatoes are going.

Sauce and ketchup every which way you look in sizes from 90 grams to 1 kg – that’s where India’s tomatoes are going.

Why are our staple vegetables experiencing such price spikes so frequently (the big onion panic is not two months old)? Here’s what the official numbers look like, from the Ministry of Agriculture, Directorate of Economics and Statistics, Retail Price Monitoring System. This collects prices of food staples every week from 87 urban centres in all 35 states and union territories, and I have used this quite comprehensive data series to examine the ups and downs of the price of the tomato.

The chart above illustrates the price of a kilo of tomatoes in India’s urban centres between the first week of July 2010 and the third week of October 2013 – tomato prices have been recorded for 59 urban centres over 173 weeks. To simplify what is otherwise a maniacal tangle of individual threads (see chart below) I have taken a median price, and urban price at the 80th and 20th percentiles, which together describe the overall movement and variation well enough. The cycles are indeed visible – they are roughly 40 weeks long.

Tomato prices recorded for 59 urban centres over 173 weeks.

Tomato prices recorded for 59 urban centres over 173 weeks.

But the cycle changed from the first week of April 2013, when the prices of a kilo of tomato rose more steeply than before. And from the first week of August 2013, tomato prices have settled at a new plateau significantly higher than at any time in the last three years.

Why has this happened? The growth of the processed foods industry is the main cause – this industry sector has for the last three years grown (in value) at around 15% per year, which is greater than the GDP ‘growth’ and greater than the growth in value recorded for agriculture in general. For tomatoes, this means that every quarter, more tomatoes exit the stream of tomatoes that would otherwise go to home kitchens and instead enter factories, there to be turned into sauce, ketchup, purée and powder (which you find as flavouring even in those awful noodle ‘tastemaker’ sachets and cup noodle containers). These thousands of tons will become available as packaged and processed goods (the better to accompany the acres of super-fattening industrial pizza being baked every day) and this means less, per capita or per household, is available as primary produce that can be used in kitchens at home.

The planetary case for a meat-free society

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There is no case at all for humans to continue eating the amount of meat they do. In what are commonly called ‘industrialised’ countries (a category that includes most of the OECD countries) the share of meat in total food consumption is around 48% and has been so for several decades (has in fact been so once the overhang of the food shortages of the Second World War wore off, and particularly after the emergence of Europe’s common agricultural policy, which ushered in a change in that part of the world which was as far-reaching in its consequences as was the Green Revolution in South Asia).

Per capita consumption of major food items in developing countries, 1961-2005. Source: FAO

Now we see more clearly that as per capita food consumption has increased it has been accompanied by (those ‘market forces’ at work, the industrialisation of agriculture and the disinheritance from local choices for the average consumer, both by connected design) a change in dietary patterns that can only be described as catastrophic. Those who look at this change from an economic standpoint call it ‘structural’, for we have seen the diets of people in ‘developing’ (forgive the use of this term, so misleading it is, especially when the ‘developed’ world’s ravenous greed for resources turns these very concepts grotesquely on their heads) being altered.

In the South, for these peoples (some of them newly urbanised and whose activities contribute to the growing inequality of incomes – one has only to look at oddly swelling Gini curves to see this), there has been a rapid increases of livestock products (meat, milk, eggs), vegetable oils and, to a smaller extent, sugar, as sources of food energy. These three food groups together now provide 29% of total food consumption (also often called “dietary energy supply”) and this proportion has risen from 20% only three decades ago. Mind, these are not small increases over more than a generation – as a first look at this change will seem to imply. A single percentage point increase over a generation for a country’s population places a very large burden on land, water, crop growing patterns and of course health.

It is the prognosis that I find chilling. The FAO has rather unemotionally remarked that this share is projected to rise further to 35% in 2030 and to 37% in 2050. Can civilisation (let’s assume we can call this human imprint on the planet a single civilisation of a homogenous species although we all know it isn’t, not by any stretch of the fertile imaginations of our tens of thousands of indigenous peoples) tolerate such a shift in how people feed themselves. No, certainly not, the impact is catastrophic already.

Per capita GDP and meat consumption by country, 2005. Source: FAO

There are libraries of evidence to show that demand for livestock products has considerably increased since the early 1960s in the ‘developing’ countries. India, for example, so staunchly vegetarian through its struggle for freedom and through the leisurely years till economic ‘liberalisation’ strengthened its grip on minds and alimentary canals alike, is home to a very large and rapidly growing poultry industry (how quickly the vocabulary turns upon the rational, when did harmonious domestication and the organic circling of the nutrient cycle turn into an ‘industry’, banishing animals from their roles in our ecosystems?) and a fisheries ‘industry’ that has depleted the Arabian Sea (it is the Mer d’Oman from the other side) and the Bay of Bengal of their creatures both demersal and pelagic.

Thus we are confronted by the spectres of consumption of food which is attached, like a motor-car engine is to its crankshaft, to growth-by-magnitude. In the ‘developing’ South, the consumption of milk per capita has almost doubled (recall Operation Flood in India), meat consumption more than tripled and egg consumption increased by a factor of five (recall the National Egg Coordination Committee and its catchy jingle: “Meri jaan, meri jaan, murgi ke ande khana“). And yet, it is not yet South Asia – for the most substantial growth in per capita consumption of livestock products has occurred in East and Southeast Asia. China, in particular, has seen per capita consumption of meat quadruple, consumption of milk increase tenfold, and egg consumption increase eightfold between 1980 and 2005. And yet again, among the developing-country regions, only sub-Saharan Africa has seen a modest decline in per capita consumption of both meat and milk (according to FAO).

Where will this lead to? Into what zone of rolling disaster will the pursuit of the animal protein take our land-water-crop-habitat balance, already so precarious and already on a knife’s edge? The estimates (all bland, all unemotional, as if unable or unwilling to emote the reality to come) are that such demand is set to increase significantly towards 2050 because of population growth and continuing change of dietary patterns. The forecasts ought to be seen as terrifying: according to FAO’s estimates, an increase in the consumption of livestock products will cause a 553 million tons increase in the demand for feed, which represents half of the total demand increase for coarse grain between 2000 and 2050.

The FAO’s regiments of agro-economists and trend watchers have said that income growth in low-income countries and emerging economies will drive demand even higher (the Foresight 2011 report has said so too). They concur that there will be a shift to “high-status and non-seasonal foods, including more meat consumption, particularly in countries with rising income” (ah yes, the rising income, the fata morgana of a tide that lifts all boats, as the development banks have long wanted us to believe). No, comrades, it is not so – Nature does not recognise your balance-sheet.

Industrialising India’s Food Flows: An analysis of the food waste argument

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The alternative economics webcentre MacroScan has published my article on food waste/loss, food flows and food processing in India.

Here is the introductory text: “From the mid-term appraisal of the Eleventh Five Year plan onwards, central government ministries have been telling us that post-harvest losses in India are high, particularly for fruits and vegetables. The amount of waste often quoted is up to 40% for vegetables and fruits, and has been held up as the most compelling reason to permit a flood of investment in the new sector of agricultural logistics, to allow the creation of huge food processing zones, and to link all these to retail food structures in urban markets. The urban orientation of such an approach ignores the integrated and organic farming approach, as it does the evidence that sophistication in food processing has not in the West prevented food loss or waste.”

Written by makanaka

May 23, 2011 at 11:17

Throwing it away – food losses, food waste and retail responsibility

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Good job by FAO on this topic, an extremely important one. ‘Global food losses and food waste’ is the title of a new report by FAO and it is an eye opener indeed. FAO has said that food waste is “more a problem in industrialised countries, most often caused by both retailers and consumers throwing perfectly edible foodstuffs into the trash”. This is true, but only partly.

It is in fact a problem of societies that have industrialised their food handling, processing and retailing systems to the average level that is seen in the OECD economies, and that this problem is therefore as much visible in the urban food consumer markets of say Sao Paulo and Mumbai and Jakarta as it is in North American or west European cities and towns.

The study has shown that per capita waste by consumers is between 95-115 kg a year in Europe and North America, while consumers in sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia each throw away only 6-11 kg a year. The ‘only’ is relative of course. If these averages are mapped to populations and their food wasting habits, then for Bangladesh in 2011 we have a total wastage of 1.275 million tons! What was the total harvest of vegetables in Bangladesh in 2008? It was 1.1 million tons (FAOstat)!

Per capita food waste

Total per capita food production for human consumption is about 900 kg a year in rich countries, almost twice the 460 kg a year produced in the poorest regions. In developing countries 40% of losses occur at post-harvest and processing levels while in industrialised countries more than 40% of losses happen at retail and consumer levels. Food losses during harvest and in storage translate into lost income for small farmers and into higher prices for poor consumers, said the report. Reducing losses could therefore have an “immediate and significant” impact on their livelihoods and food security.

There are wider connections between food loss + waste and natural resources and energy. Food loss and waste also amount to a major squandering of resources, including water, land, energy, labour and capital and needlessly produce greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to global warming and climate change.

Components of food waste/loss

What can be done? For a start, selling farm produce closer to consumers, without having to conform to the quality standards of retail markets, is a good suggestion. “This could be achieved through farmers’ markets and farm shops” said the report, which is in fact one of the strengths of the Transition movement in the West.

The real problem lies in the retail labyrinth in urban areas, particularly in fast-industrialising Asia. Here, in rather myopic copycat fashion without any learning having taken place, food is wasted due to quality standards that over-emphasise appearance. My guess is that this report will not have reliability of the kind it ought to for India and China, simply because in Asian cities and towns, a large network of scrap vendors (for food too) exists which will place food rejected by the retail markets into channels used by the urban poor, by small roadside eateries and by micro-businesses in the informal food processing industry.

What the study is cler about is that “consumers in rich countries are generally encouraged to buy more food than they need”. The ‘Buy three, pay for two’ promotions are one example, while the oversized ready-to-eat meals produced by the food industry are another. Restaurants frequently offer fixed-price buffets that spur customers to heap their plates. Generally speaking, consumers fail to plan their food purchases properly, the report found. That means they often throw food away when “best-before” dates expired.

There are some useful numbers in here. The study has shown that the per capita food loss in Europe and North-America is 280-300 kg per year. In Sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia it is 120-170 kg per year. The total per capita production of edible parts of food for human consumption is, in Europe and North-America, about 900 kg per year and, in sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia, 460 kg per year. Per capita food wasted by consumers in Europe and North-America is 95-115 kg per year, while this figure in sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia is 6-11 kg per year. Food waste at consumer level in industrialised countries (222 million tons) is almost as high as the total net food production in sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tons).

Hot potatoes from Farmer Obama

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Pair of bullock carts on the Allahabad-Delhi highway

Pair of bullock carts on the Allahabad-Delhi highway

The government of the USA has planned for India to become an important consumer of US agricultural exports and of US crop science. India is also planned as a host country for an agricultural research agenda directed by American crop-seed-biotech corporations. This is to be achieved through a variety of programmes in India, some of which began their preparation two years ago.

This agenda, labelled US-India cooperation by India’s current UPA-2 government and by the USA’s current Barack Obama administration, has the support of the American farm sector as its aim, not the support of India’s farmers and cultivators. The clear and blunt objective is to increase US agricultural exports and to widen as quickly as possible the trade surplus of the US agricultural sector.

This agenda has become clear following the three business and industry meetings held during the visit of US President Barack Obama — the ‘US-India Business and Entrepreneurship Summit’ in Mumbai on November 6, the ‘India-US: An Agenda for Co-Creation’ with the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) in New Delhi on  November 8, and the ‘US-India Conclave: Partnership for Innovation, Imperative for Growth and Employment in both Economies’ with the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) in New Delhi on November 9.

The US agri-business view has been projected in India by the US-India Business Council, a business advocacy group representing American companies investing in India together with Indian companies, with the shared aim of deepening trade and strengthening commercial ties.

A vendor of sweet lime juice and his cart, Mumbai

A vendor of sweet lime juice and his cart, Mumbai

In a document titled ‘Partners in Prosperity, Business Leading the Way, Advancing the US-India commercial agenda as the foundation for strategic partnership’ (November 2010) the business council stated: “India requires an ‘Ever-Green Revolution’ — a new programme which would engage the country’s rural sector, providing water utilisation and crop management ‘best practices’ to promote greater food security — this time based on technology to increase efficiency and productivity. The effort to vitalise India’s agriculture sector should be driven by business, and the first step is improving India’s farm-to-market global supply chain.”

This business-driven trade in agricultural goods and services was given formal shape two months ago during the inaugural meeting of what is called the India-US Agriculture Dialogue, on September 13-14, 2010 in New Delhi. India’s Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao and USA’s Under Secretary (Energy, Economic and Agricultural Affairs) in the US State Department, Robert Hormats, co-chaired the ‘Dialogue’. Under this agreement India and the USA have set up three working groups for: ‘strategic cooperation in agriculture and food security’, ‘food processing, agriculture extension, farm-to-market linkages’, and ‘weather and crop forecasting’.

A hamlet off the Grand Trunk Road, Uttar Pradesh

A hamlet off the Grand Trunk Road, Uttar Pradesh

The ‘Agriculture Dialogue’ is designed to be the implementing process for the India-US Memorandum of Understanding for Cooperation in Agriculture and Food Security, signed almost a year ago by Obama and Singh. On November 24, 2009 they had agreed on a Memorandum of Understanding on Agricultural Cooperation and Food Security that will, according to the US State department, “set a pathway to robust cooperation between the governments in crop forecasting, management and market information; regional and global food security; science, technology, and education; nutrition; and expanding private sector investment in agriculture”.

‘Agriculture Dialogue’ is the new name given to a US-India plan for trade and investment in agriculture which saw its genesis on July 18, 2005, when Singh and then US President George W Bush announced the ‘US–India Knowledge Initiative on Agricultural Education, Teaching, Research, Service, and Commercial Linkages (AKI)’. At the time, apart from officials from government on both sides representing agriculture and crop bureaucracies, Indian and American universities and the private sector were on the AKI board.

The Indian agri universities were the Govind Ballabh Pant University of Agriculture and Technology (Pantnagar, Uttaranchal), the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu) and the Indian Veterinary Research Institute (Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh). India’s private sector was represented by Venkateshwara Hatcheries Ltd, Masani Farms (its owner was a National Horticultural Board director), ITC Ltd’s Agribusiness chief executive and Wal-Mart India. The American private sector was represented by Archer Daniels Midland Company and Monsanto.

Infochange India, which provides news and analysis on development news and social justice in India, has carried the rest of my article on the Obama visit to India here.

India’s 2008 food flows mystery

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CPI for Agricultural Labour data from 2007-10 March and FAO food index data over the same period

CPI for Agricultural Labour data from 2007-10 March and FAO food index data over the same period

My working experience with a central agriculture ministry programme (the NAIP – National Agricultural Innovation Project) has left me with some impressions of the perspective of the central institutional approach to agriculture, and these aren’t encouraging. My finding is (although I have little access to academic output on agriculture which is not crop science):

1. We in India lack an independent food retail price gathering and monitoring network. The data gathered by the Ministry of Agriculture (through its Directorate of Economics and Statistics) and by the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution use different formats and schedules. Validating these is a huge task, and that is the reason why the unit level (place, food item, time) extraction becomes so very cumbersome.

2. We have even less knowledge (outside the commercial circuit) of the flows of agricultural produce: (a) From mandis to urban centres. Large transfers of foodgrains are logged by Indian Railways, but at district level, we have very little reliable data of the flows of cereals, pulses, vegetables and fruit, within district centres and outside; (b) From mandis (and contract farms, now strengthened by a draft national agriculture produce marketing committee act, APMC) to the food processing industry, and to commercial storage depots for use by either food processing sector and by the agri commodities exchanges.

3. Agriculture continues to be seen by central and state governments mainly as an APY (area, production, yield) activity, only rarely as a livelihood activity for a rural household (institutes such as Crida buck this trend, but we need more of them). That is why our organised state-level assessments are also still APY-centric (with a few scattered instances of enlightenment in the form of recognition of conservation agriculture). This is frustrating at a systemic level, because for example the Planning Commission has at hand any number of NGO and commissioned studies and assessments that place cultivation as a socio-cultural livelihood activity.

I’d say there that are technology answers to points 1 and 2 (see how commercial ventures like Nokia Lifetools, Reuters Market Light, Hariyali Kisan Bazar have used tech) but point 3 needs a lot of work.

This chart that I’ve made shows why. It uses the consumer price index (CPI) for Agricultural Labour data from 2007-10 March and FAO food index data over the same period. The eight states I’ve chosen (Haryana, Karnataka, Punjab, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh) recorded the highest increases among large states of CPI-AL over the period.

The FAO indices climb steeply till around Feb 2008. By December 2008 the FAO cereal index is back to the level it was at in August 2007. For that time the CPI-AL 8-state rise is relatively gradual and disconnected from the FAO trend. Between around Jan 2009 and July 2009 both FAO indices show some volatility in the 100-125% band. The 8 states’ CPI-AL however continue their rising trend. Only in December 2009 is there evidence of some congruence between the FAO set and the 8 states CPI-AL set, although the FAO pair are 105-120% up from March 2007 and the all-India CPI-AL is more than 135% up.

The big question for us is: what happened with food movements in India between 2007 July and 2008 November, when India and FAO data diverged so dramatically, and then from 2009 May onward, when the movements showed some similarity, although at different levels of the comparative index? Do the agricultural commodities markets hold the answer?

Shrinking cereals, growing food parks

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Local grain in Mapusa market, North Goa

Local grain in Mapusa market, North Goa

This short comment has been written for India’s alternative economics group, Macroscan, and you’ll find it here.

The first release of summary data from the 64th round of the National Sample Survey Organisation, ‘Household Consumer Expenditure in India 2007-08‘ (NSSO report 530), captures the early impact of the rising trend in food prices for rural and urban India. This period is significant in the recent history of food price rise in India, for it signals the strengthening of the factors that led to the retail food price highs of 2008 which began to be recorded around two years earlier. Several of the most important factors have to do with the rapid pace of urbanisation (most visible in the non-metro tier 1 cities) and the steady growth in the food processing and food logistics industries, which has taken place alongside the deepening of the agricultural commodity markets.

“To judge from survey data of food intakes, the situation has been getting worse rather than improving, at least in terms of per capita calories consumed, and this phenomenon is fairly widespread affecting all classes, rural and urban and those below and above the poverty threshold,” the FAO report, ‘World agriculture: towards 2030/2050‘ had stated in 2006 in its comment on India’s growth-malnutrition paradox. The report’s authors had at the time commented that matters in India “are getting worse in the rural areas as people have to pay more than before for things like fuel and other basic necessities of life” and that rural incomes have not improved at anything near the rates implied by the high overall economic growth rates.

To illustrate the continuing impact of rising cereal prices on rural households in Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa, district per capita incomes for 2004-05 to 2009-10 are estimated for five representative districts from these states. These are districts that record a median per capita income based on data for the 2004-05 year (the last NSSO household consumption survey year) available with the Planning Commission’s district domestic product tables: Bhabua in Bihar, Dhamtari in Chhattisgarh, Deoghar in Jharkhand, Khandwa in Madhya Pradesh and Jajpur in Orissa. The per capita income increases in these districts are recorded upto 2006-07, and taking the national GDP growth rate for the years following (9.7%, 9.2%, 6.7% and 7.2%) the overall finding is that statistical per capita income increases are between 36% (for Khandwa) and 47% (for Dhamtari) for the period 2005-06 to 2009-10.

Expenditure on food and non-food needs, Indian states

Expenditure on food and non-food needs, Indian states

In these five states, the cereals basket occupies a dominant share of monthly per capita expenditure (MPCE) on food, accounting for 42% of MPCE on food and 25% of total MPCE in Bihar, 41% and 21% in Chhattisgarh, 42% and 25% in Jharkhand, 33% and 17% in Madhya Pradesh, and 42% and 24% in Orissa. The impact of a steady upward trend in the prices of cereals in these states – whose rural households spend roughly the same on food as they do on non-food needs (see Chart 1) – can be gauged from retail price data on essential food items collected by the Department of Economics and Statistics, Ministry of Agriculture. This data, although the most reliable weekly series recorded in a number of centres in the country, is weakened by deficiencies (gaps in series, numerical mismatches and so on). Even so, the patterns they provide are valuable.

From 2005 January to 2010 January, the prices of atta in Sehore and Bhopal (MP), of desi wheat in Bhopal and of maize in Patna have risen by 200%. The prices of ‘kalyan’ wheat (a widespread HYV cultivar) in Bhopal, Sehore and Patna (Bihar) have risen by 173% to 177%; the prices of maize in Ranchi (Jharkhand) and common quality rice in Bhubaneshwar (Orissa) have risen by 171%; the prices of ‘desi’ wheat in Patna and atta in Ranchi have risen 170%; and the prices of common rice in Cuttack and in Dhanbad (Jharkhand) have risen by 169% and 164%. Over this period, the price of the available basket of cereals has risen 157% in Cuttack, 162% in Bhubaneshwar, 159% in Sehore, 174% in Bhopal, 176% in Patna, 166% in Ranchi and 152% in Dhanbad.

Erratic data posting (and possibly validation difficulties) have meant that a better understanding of the food baskets of North-East India is yet to be achieved. Even so, NSSO 530 shows the heavy reliance by the households of the North-Eastern states on cereals (rice) with the regional average consumption greater than that of the states of eastern and central India in which rice also play a major dietary role: West Bengal, Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Jharkhand. What Chart 2 illustrates is that for those regional populations dependent on rice, the cost of this dependency is high.

Cereal consumption and prices, Indian states

Cereal consumption and prices, Indian states

This is not so for wheat in Punjab and Haryana, whose average per capita consumption quantity of the cereal is both relatively low (as a percentage of the cereal component of the food basket) and less expensive. For Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka – all three states affected by rapid urbanisation and absorbed by the race to build urban and transport infrastructure – their rural households are far less dependent on a single cereal than their counterparts in North-East, Eastern or North India. Wheat is the preferred cereal in Gujarat but accounts for no more than 40% of the total cereals purchase; rice is the preferred cereal in Karnataka but accounts for no more than 53% of the total cereals purchase; wheat is the preferred cereal in Maharashtra but accounts for no more than 36% of the total cereals purchase.

Food inflation is now a concern for the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) which has begun to make direct causal links between per capita availability of foodgrains and high retail prices. Deepak Mohanty, executive director of RBI, in an address on ‘Inflation Dynamics in India: Issues and Concerns’ (March 2010) has also drawn a connection between food prices the minimum support price (MSP) announced by the Government of India for procurement of various commodities. “The high increase in MSP since 2007-08 has given an upward bias to agricultural prices. Reduced availability of foodgrains also tends to keep food prices high. As per the Economic Survey 2009-10, per capita net availability per day of cereals and pulses has been lower than that observed in the previous four decades. The per capita daily availability of foodgrains was 447 grams in the 1960s and 1970s, which successively increased to 459 grams in the 1980s and 478 grams in the 1990s but came down to 446 grams during 2000-08 and stood still lower at 436 grams in 2008.”

At the same time, the Government of India has approved proposals for joint ventures and foreign collaboration (including 100% FDI) in processed food businesses (including 100% export oriented units), and “mega food parks”. According to Indian Credit Rating Agency (ICRA), the processed food market accounts for 32% of the total food market with the “most promising” sub-sectors listed as soft-drink bottling, confectionery manufacture, fishing, aquaculture, grain-milling and grain-based products, meat and poultry processing, alcoholic beverages, milk processing, tomato paste, fast-food, ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, food processing, food additives and flavours. From the point of view of the major national industry associations (CII, FICCI, Assocham) the approximately 7,500 regulated mandis lack critical infrastructure, the provision of which will cost at least Rs 12,000 at 2009 prices. The potential of the public-private partnership model in the foods business is seen by industry as being embodied in ventures such as Safal market in Karnataka (considered an example of wholesale market modernisation), ITC’s e-Chaupal, Hariyali Kisan Bazaar, Mahindra Shubh Labh, Cargill Farmgate Business and Tata Kisan Sansar.

Removed from such a view are the recurrent protests since late 2009 in a number of urban centres over food inflation, urgent signals that the increasing corporatisation of food production, procurement, movement and distribution is contributing to household food insecurity, particularly amongst the rural and urban poor. The ‘Report on the State of Food Insecurity in Rural India‘ (M S Swaminathan Research Foundation) explicitly stated that “over the longer period of 1993-94 to 2004-05, the states of Karnataka, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh show significant increase in the percentage of population suffering acute calorie deprivation. On the whole, it is clear that, by our measure of food insecurity, the period of economic reforms and high GDP growth has not seen an improvement in food security but deterioration for the majority of Indian states.”

Urban food pistoleros

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A boy plays with mud pistols in Mathare slum of Nairobi, Kenya ©Manoocher Deghati/IRIN

A boy plays with mud pistols in Mathare slum of Nairobi, Kenya ©Manoocher Deghati/IRIN

Alexander Müller, Assistant Director General, Natural Resources Management and Environment Department (FAO) and Paul Munro-Faure, Chairperson, Food for the Cities Multidisciplinary Initiative (FAO) have put out a call for “ideas, contributions and inputs that could be used for a conclusive statement related to food, agriculture and cities to be finalised during the World Urban Forum V“. This will take place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from 22 to 26 March and the theme is: ‘The Right to the City, Bridging the Urban Divide’. As the call went out on the Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition (FSN Forum), I sent in my response, as below:

Dear Alexander, Paul,

My contribution to your call on FSN for a statement on food, agriculture and cities follows. I work in India, with a Ministry of Agriculture programme called National Agricultural Innovation Project. One of its sub-projects is a knowledge-sharing effort that links crop science and farm practice through ICT. Within that framework I study rural livelihoods and the urban demand on a rural space that faces greater constraints with every passing year.

We are told frequently by central governments that growth is good (i.e. rising GDP) and that increasing per capita income is a national mission. This assertion has much to do with the boom-and-bust cycles we have witnessed in the last decade: in any number of stock markets, in the banking and finance system, in savings and pensions systems, in commodities, in credit and derivatives, and of course in basic food grains. That these cycles have occurred more frequently has as much to do with growing urbanisation in the South, and the mechanics of globalised capital and market risk.

The result is that cities in the South are, to put it crudely, laboratories for risk-taking experiments. The Gini coefficients of cities in Asia show why this is so. (Generally, cities and countries with a Gini coefficient of between 0.2 and 0.39 have relatively equitable distribution of resources. A Gini coefficient of 0.4 denotes moderately unequal distributions of income or consumption. This is the threshold at which cities and countries should tackle inequality urgently.)

Here are the composite urban Gini coefficients (from ‘State of the World’s Cities 2008/2009: Harmonious Cities’; United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT), 2008). Over a given period (separate for each country), the urban Gini rose most for Nepal (0.26 to 0.43 from 1985 to 1996), China (0.23 to 0.32 from 1988 to 2002), Viet Nam (0.35 to 0.41 from 1993 to 2002), Bangladesh (0.31 to 0.37 from 1991 to 2000), Sri Lanka (0.37 to 0.42 from 1990 to 2002) and Pakistan (0.32 to 0.34 from 2000 to 2004) and it dropped marginally for India (0.35 to 0.34 from 1994 to 2000) and Cambodia (0.47 to 0.41 from 1994 to 2004). Note that the UN-Habitat calculations are only until 2004 for the latest city, and that the impacts of the triple crisis of climate change, financial volatility and food system distortions became widespread only thereafter. It’s very likely then that in cities in Asia, Africa and South America, the Gini coefficient has risen faster in the last five years than in the decade until 2004.

Gini coefficients for populations in Asian cities

Gini coefficients for populations in Asian cities

There’s another aspect that the urban Gini indicates, which several country studies have dealt with in the last few years, and that is the rural-urban divide, in terms of income inequality, consumption inequality, inequality in access to basic services and inequality of representation. Yet those at the deprived end of this quotient are also those who grow the food, absorb the agricultural risks, manage the natural resources and steward the crop biodiversity for a country. If we subscribe to the view of a dominant policy theocracy that ‘economic efficiency’ is good, then for such gross inequalities to be allowed to continue is not good, yet they do. For one thing, education and healthcare outcomes are directly impacted by such inequalities, let alone industrially-oriented ratios such as cost of redistribution, investment allocation and ‘growth’. Yet these continue, and are seen in every single country of the South quite conspicuously in the higher bands of food inflation in rural areas as compared with urban areas.

If inequality seems inescapable at outcome level however, the rural and urban ‘poor’ are certainly not sitting around waiting to be pushed even further into penury. They are using their stores of traditional knowledge (which have travelled with them just as they have migrated to the world’s peri-urbs) to innovate, adapt and survive. If we look at waste recycling in developing countries, most of it (as tonnage and as material value) relies largely on the informal recovery of waste of every description by scavengers or waste pickers. A raft of studies done on this sector in the Asia-Pacific region provide estimates of at least 2% and as much as 4% of the urban population is occupied in waste recovery (its reprocessing and re-use occupies another set of the population).

Is there a similar ‘waste picker’ model of urban agriculture that is being followed, almost invisibly, in Asian cities and towns? Likely yes. It flies under the radar of statistics because it is, per household unit, so small and well integrated with astonishingly tough living conditions. It is seen on tiny patches of marginal lands that are unsettled, usually only because of a city municipality’s hostility to rural migrants. These tiny linear patches run alongside railway tracks, drainage canals, water pipelines, expressways, marshes and swamps, residual watercourses, and between industrial zones. These vestigial connections to the immeasurably healthier lives led in their rural origins by migrants are the only in situ ‘urban farms’ in most Asian cities and towns. Existing municipal planning and zoning in Asia of the South either ignores them or subtracts them from its calculations.

A street in the slums of Dhaka, Bangladesh ©Manoocher Deghati/IRIN

A street in the slums of Dhaka, Bangladesh ©Manoocher Deghati/IRIN

Yet such spaces will be vital for our urban settlements. They are currently farmed in squalid conditions, often cheek-by-jowl with small-scale industries and their toxic effluents, and have no option but to use dangerously polluted water sources. Were they to be encouraged, planned for, incentivised and built into ward or neighbourhood food markets, they would lessen the massive burden the city places upon rural food cultivators. In ‘developing’ Asian cities that today are exemplars of more-GDP-is-good economics, there is often an utter disconnection between purchase of food and a recognition of its sources. The size, power and reach of the food processing industry plays a dominant role in enforcing this disconnection, for what it calls its economies of scale would not exist without it.

Where lie the answers? Linking rural food production – not with urban consumers but with urban wards and neighbourhoods – can help bridge the Gini gaps between urban and rural, between urban salaried and urban marginal. Just as in the ‘transition towns’ movement, in which agriculture is being increasingly promoted in urban areas, so too rural non-agricultural livelihoods development is starting to be promoted. Work-in-progress examples include the strategy adopted for the promotion of Town and Village Enterprises (TVEs) in China. These expanded rapidly in China in the post-reform period and as a result of their promotion between 1978 and 2000, the number of workers in China’s rural non-farm and farm labour sector grew, which stemmed the tide toward the hungry cities.