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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.

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Written by makanaka

September 5, 2017 at 19:25

Valuing the food we lose and throw away

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Worldwide, about one-third of all food produced, worth around US$1 trillion, gets lost or wasted in food production and consumption systems, according to data released by FAO. Food loss occurs mostly at the production stages – harvesting, processing and distribution – while food waste typically takes place at the retailer and consumer end of the food-supply chain. Graphic: from FAO images

Worldwide, about one-third of all food produced, worth around US$1 trillion, gets lost or wasted in food production and consumption systems, according to data released by FAO. Food loss occurs mostly at the production stages – harvesting, processing and distribution – while food waste typically takes place at the retailer and consumer end of the food-supply chain. Graphic: from FAO images

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) together with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has begun a campaign to encourage simple actions by consumers and food retailers to cut the 1.3 billion tonnes of food lost or wasted every year.

“In industrialised regions, almost half of the total food squandered, around 300 million tonnes annually, occurs because producers, retailers and consumers discard food that is still fit for consumption,” the Director-General of FAO, José Graziano da Silva, said. “This is more than the total net food production of Sub-Saharan Africa, and would be sufficient to feed the estimated 870 million people hungry in the world.”

Indeed this is the point. The industrialised agriculture and the attendant food retail and sales system is responsible – directly – for encouraging such consumer behaviour. If the FAO and UNEP are determined to follow the logic of their campaign, they must stop encouraging less industrialised countries to adopt the same systems of food production and sale.

They must also stop encouraging the genetically-modified crop industry from claiming that it is only GM seed that can feed growing populations. The answers to current hunger lie not in the ver greater use of technology and industry but in being far more responsible with growing food organically, eating it locally, using the small wastes in local nutrient cycles such as composting, and educating food consumers about how to do their bit.

The FAO head, da Silva, had added that the campaign can “help food producers to reduce losses through better harvesting, processing, storage, transport and marketing methods…” which is rather retrograde. It is the ‘betterness’ of harvesting, processing, storage, transport and marketing that has contributed greatly to this situation that the FAO and UNEP find intolerable.

The campaign itself has a wide variety of facts and advice and is well worth following.

Written by makanaka

January 22, 2013 at 20:48

How the crop cultivation and food habits of 1.21 billion are being hijacked

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A woman sells small seasonal fruit from her basket on a bust main road in Mumbai (Bombay).

In both 2009 and well as this year, 2012, there were droughts. The impact of one drought on rural cultivating households is considerable, and we have known of the severity of these impacts ever since the chronicling of the famines of 1943-44. What happens when over a five-year period, there are two droughts? Before the end of 2012, we shall begin to know, and this will be a grim learning – drawing from the conclusions of several surveys conducted on drought and its impacts between 1970 and 2002, rural cultivating households suffer annual income losses of at times more than 60% in drought years. Can they recover enough in three years to withstand such drastic income erosion a second time in quick succession? We will learn soon enough, but the circumstances in which we learn is already being influences by major changes afoot.

Let us consider the global concern about drought and the need expressed for support to cultivating (and rural food consuming) populations experiencing drought (and food price inflation) stress. “We cannot allow these historic price hikes to turn into a lifetime of perils as families take their children out of school and eat less nutritious food to compensate for the high prices,” said World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim in a recent statement concerning high food prices. “Countries must strengthen their targeted programmes to ease the pressure on the most vulnerable population, and implement the right policies.” The World Bank, together with other multi-lateral lending organisations and many governments worried about agrarian distress and chronic food price inflation, has spoken often about “measures and policy to protect the most vulnerable against future shocks”.

The immense sprawl of Mumbai, with over 20 million inhabitants, a food magnet that drains food producing districts up to 500 kilometres inland.

What sort of measures have been and are being discussed and implemented? They include agriculture-related investment, policy advice, fast-track financing, support for safety nets, the multi-donor food security programmes, and risk management products. The Government of India has also talked about cash transfers and increased investment in agriculture, in the same breath that it has talked about technological ‘solutions’ (the introduction of drought-resistant crop varieties, they like to call it) to surmount the yield per hectare limits currently experienced in food crop staples. How sensible or opportunistic are these measures? How true are they towards being ‘inclusive’ and ‘participatory’ (terms our government and major line ministries, including the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Rural Development, like to use)? How much are they driven by the demands of industry rather than the needs of the food insecure and price vulnerable?

Before I indicate some of the answers, it is useful to look at the conditions in the same sector in our neighbour, the People’s Republic of China.

Inside China, the country is fast approaching the limit of its own available farmland resources – the so-called ‘red line’ for food security of 120 million hectares of arable land, set by the government. China’s typical solution has been to import cheaper agriculture commodities like soybean and maize while saving its farmland for higher-value exports like fish and vegetables. But there is another force driving the rise in soybean and maize imports: the rise in meat consumption in China (a reduced example of which we are seeing in the cities and towns of India, in which the middle class diet includes a growing meat component, usually poultry). In China, meat is increasingly coming from large-scale commercial farms – not small-scale or household farmers – and is therefore dependent on animal feed rather than food waste (which has and continues to be an important portion of animal feed – think goats and chicken – for India’s small agricultural households).

From a growers’ collective in India’s Western Ghats region, a visual aid to help urban consumers identify vegetables that can be grown organically in cities.

Looking back at the pronouncements of India’s planners – whether in the Ministry of Agriculture, in the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilisers, the directorates in states for major crops and horticulture – and its lobbyists (mostly in the chambers of commerce and trade associations) one comparison made frequently with China is seen: that our per hectare use of fertiliser is low. What they conceal is the tremendous ecological damage that has taken place in China as a result of unregulated growth in the use of synthetic and inorganic fertilisers, which has rendered toxic and sterile vast farming tracts in China. To even consider such an approach in India ought to be anathema to our farmers – but they are being pressured and coerced by a business-centric lobbying front which is alas being supported by the central government and by the governments of major states.

“Smallholder farmers are capable of producing the food necessary to feed their country, but face increasingly difficult barriers,” concluded a recent report from the international NGO Grain, which campaigns for farmers’ rights worldwide. The report by Grain added that government decisions to rely on agricultural commodity imports serve the interests of agribusiness and its need for cheap sources of feed “but threaten the land, livelihoods and local food systems of communities”. It is this linkage that lurks behind the recent ‘reform’ (a distorted and dangerous term) that now has permitted foreign direct investment (FDI) in India’s (and Bharat’s) agriculture and food retail sector.

Such changes come against a legacy of corruption concerning access to and misuse of foodgrains that deeply affect our public distribution system and with it, equitable and affordable access for our population to nutritious food. A recent report in Bloomberg, the international news agency, exposed one such fraud, which found that Rs 2,700 crore worth of foodgrain “was looted by corrupt politicians and their criminal syndicates over the past decade” in Uttar Pradesh alone. The report quoted Naresh Saxena, a commissioner to the Supreme Court who monitors hunger-based programmes across India, as having said: “This is the most mean-spirited, ruthlessly executed corruption because it hits the poorest and most vulnerable in society. What I find even more shocking is the lack of willingness in trying to stop it.” How can they begin to stop it when, in a country whose agricultural production in absolute numbers has reached ecological limits, the food retail and processed food industry continues to demand more? And will pay more for new supplies and will gratify the looters more?

A one-kilo packet of ‘ragi’ (finger millet) from an organic farm in Andhra Pradesh state, central India, packaged and labelled in a manner that provides an alternative to the premium rice brands (mostly basmati) sold in urban centres.

Imagine the psychological effect of this sort of fraud on those who work in and for our agriculture markets. The number of regulated (secondary) agricultural markets (‘mandis’) stood at 7,157 as of March 2010 (compared to just 286 in 1950). There are also reckoned to be about 22,200 rural periodical markets, about 15% of which function under the ambit of APMC (Agricultural Produce Market Committees) regulations (there are at least 27 such acts in different states). It is against this density of local collection and distribution that the impact of agri-business on inflation (both direct and indirect) may be viewed. The direct impact of agribusiness is visible in the form of food price inflation, as the Reserve Bank of India has also observed. There is demand arising from increasing population and (especially in urban and urbanising centres – see this report in a business daily, which ignores entirely the food demand footprint of urbanising India) prosperity has outstripped the growth of agricultural output, hence food inflation in India will certainly to persist and deepen (in rural areas as a result of the agri-business-led escalation of marketing channels and investment in infrastructure to move crop and food – the current government and its industry partners are doing all they can to convince middle-class urban India this is good for ‘growth’).

There is a dictatorial emphasis on food processing, on trading (consider the number of commodity exchanges today compared with ten years ago, and the much enlarged scope of their futures trading business, all of which requires access to stored raw crop that serves as the basis of such trade) and on marketing. The growing demand for protein-rich and what are called “high-value foods” (fruit, vegetables, edible oil and meat) is simultaneously raising the demand for what the food industry (processed food manufacturers, food retailers, crop terminal markets promoters, exporters) calls “high quality, safe and convenient (frozen, pre-cut, pre-cooked and ready-to-eat) foods”. Hence the view now shared by the central government, planning agencies and business and industry associations is that meeting these demands will facilitate growth (of national GDP and of the agriculture sector; see the National Summary Data Page for growth rates, however meaningless these are to the cultivating households of rural Bharat) and moderate inflation (in complete disregard of evidence from countries all over the world in which the growth of modern food retail has contributed to inflation in the prices of food staples).

The strength of the ‘growth’ totem does not diminish, and nor does the artificially inflated appeal of the ‘growth is good, more growth is better’ fiction. This is wholly and utterly misguided and mischievous and is responsible for deepening the agrarian distress in Bharat. How entrenched this fiction is can be seen in allegedly authoritative pronouncements that can be found even by the RBI, which recently said: “There is, however, near unanimity, amongst all that agriculture and agri-business growth is a necessary prerequisite for moderation of inflation, particularly food inflation, as well as for acceleration and sustenance of inclusive growth.” Growth as defined by the resource-intensive and ecologically destructive direction of the central government, Indian business and an urban middle class divorced from rural realities has directly caused this same inflation the RBI (and others) is complaining about. Yet in the policy space the contradiction is ignored – true reform that benefits Bharat rather than India is not considered.

A neighbourhood vegetable market in Bengaluru (Bangalore). How these small markets cope with the dictatorship of the food retail and food processing industry will depend on local consumers and their support.

Our central problem in the near future will continue to be the divide between Bharat and India, between food growers and the food consuming populations they support (usually unseen and unheard, often unrepresented). The English-language media that represents the interests of the well-off urban elite have become uniformly uncritical of the different aspects of agri-business and the ‘supply chain’ (another loaded term that spells danger for rural Bharat) which are being transformed (to be fair, major regional language media can be equally uncritical). Reports such as these, one from an Indian business and finance daily, Mint (which holds up GM food as the panacea for India’s food insecurity, and the other from the Wall Street Journal, which is read and quoted in business circles (which said the new ‘reforms’ are not comprehensive enough), reflect the aspirations and tendencies of urban upper middle class India and the disproportionate influence this minority enjoys over national policy, especially policy concerning agriculture and food.

These media views celebrate “rural prosperity” which is “thanks to government job schemes” (no mention of the labour distorting effect of MGNREGA (the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) that is now widespread and which has pushed up farm labour costs to benefit the manufacturers of agricultural machinery – see this report for one of the implications of this cost rise, and see this compilation [pdf] by the Indian Social Institute on NREGA-related wages news), the drive for more “domestic demand from rural areas” (to benefit the consumer goods companies and their financiers primarily), the need for “better private-sector jobs in manufacturing and services”, the obsession with how to “boost purchasing power” and the tiresome illogic of “a virtuous cycle of growth”.

Food Prices, Health and Nutrition: Red-flag indicators for India’s 12th Plan

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Macroscan, the website is maintained by Economic Research Foundation, professional economists seeking to provide an alternative to conservative and mainstream positions, has posted an article I have written on ‘Food Prices, Health and Nutrition: Red-flag indicators for the 12th Plan’. Here is the opening section.

India rice price trends

The long-term impacts of food inflation on the rural and urban poor are yielding worrying indicators in the nutrition and health sectors. The debate over the provision of the National Food Security Bill and over the reform of procurement for the public distribution system has helped a great deal to bring to the foreground persistent inequities in food access and quality. What remains are the health and nutrition dimensions that are also determined by access to food, the prices at which food items are available and the extent to which food inflation determines nutritional choices for citizens in low income categories. Some of these linkages are brought out by reading together new data from the National Sample Survey Organisation’s 66th Round, and recent trends in retail food prices.

Retail prices of the separate elements of a common food basket are recorded by the Ministry of Food and Consumer Affairs (FCA), Department of Consumer Affairs, for 49 cities. This is a new series of 22 items, compared to the 16 items the FCA had maintained until early 2011. For rice and wheat there is a curious pattern to the price rise. The price band for the 49 cities moves up over time, but it also expands over that time. This can be seen in Chart 1.

With Bharat Nirman-centric infrastructure programmes deepening the connectivity between food supplying districts and consuming regions and with growing investment in agri-logistics and in food retail chains, in fact the reverse ought to happen. That is, food basket staples should be displaying greater homogeneity in retail prices. However, there are a variety of other factors influencing the price band (for the FCA’s 49 cities as much as for district kirana shops) and some of these are external factors such as energy costs, new demand centres arising in fast-urbanising towns which skew distribution costs and corner investment, and the offtake by the food processing industry which is growing at an annual rate of 14%-15%.

India rice and wholesale price index

While a number of factors are at work behind the divergences over time between states and between rural and urban consumption centres, these are not reflected by the movement of the Wholesale Price Index. However, it can convincingly show the variance between types of measurements. The Office of the Economic Adviser maintains the Wholesale Price Index (WPI). After indexing the upward movement in WPI (new series 2004-05) for rice from January 2006 and also indexing the minimum and maximum prices per kilo of the 49 cities’ price trendline, Chart 2 is the result.

As pointed out in a number of articles and commentaries on MacroScan by Jayati Ghosh and C P Chandrasekhar, there is a gap between the rate of increase of CPI for food items and the WPI for those items. This we can see in Chart 2. What we also see is that from October 2008 to January 2010 the rise in WPI accompanied, more or less, the rise in the lower limit of the rice price trendline. From January 2010 onwards, the difference in the growth rates of the WPI for rice and of the rice trendline is significant. This is the ‘fair average quality’ of rice. Yet the gap between the lower price trendline and the WPI is now greater than it has been at any time during 2007-08, when the global food price shocks took place.

How have these price trends hurt households in the lower deciles of consumption in both rural and urban areas? One of the early results of the 66th Round of the NSSO, ‘Key Indicators of Household Consumer Expenditure in India, 2009-10’, provides an answer. The state- and decile-grouped summary data tables show that for 16 major states, the rate of increase in monthly per capita expenditure (MPCE) on food has been faster than the rate of increase of the total MPCE. What has been the impact in the states? For example, with both food and total MPCEs indexed to the levels found in each state by the NSSO in 2003,  the food MPCE rose by 87% in 2009-10 in rural Maharashtra whereas the total MPCE rose by 65%. In 2005-06, food MPCE in rural Maharashtra had risen 14% and the total MPCE had risen 19%.

[Macroscan, the alternative economics website, has the full article.] [pdf only is here.]

The food industry in India and its logic

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Tractor on a road to the city, Kanpur district, Uttar Pradesh

Tractor on a road to the city, Kanpur district, Uttar Pradesh

The Economic & Political Weekly (EPW) 09 October 2010 issue carries a commentary I wrote as a backgrounder to the price rise of food staples. Here is part of the commentary:

On multiple fronts, the union government is proceeding to forge new compacts with the private sector food industry, whether global, regional or national. There is a new set of investors whose claims in the emerging food industry are being staked, and which are being encouraged by state governments eager to display their foreign direct investment (FDI)-friendliness. These are investors, promoters, asset management professionals who have learnt the patterns of the 2007-08 commodities (food included) boom and who are now well equipped to take positions, both financial and real, in the emerging food industry.

An indication of the size and scale of the national market for food (production, collection, processing, distribution, retail) being envisaged can be gauged from a “discussion paper” circulated by the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP) in July 2010. The paper, “Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Multi-brand Retail Trading”, has been circulated to “generate informed discussion on the subject” which will “enable the Government to take an appropriate policy decision at the appropriate time”. As this article shows, these decisions have already been taken and investment in the direction revealed by the paper has been rolling out for months.

Supported by the Ministry of Agriculture, the top echelons of India’s national agricultural research system and dedicated agricultural trade and investment bodies, the union government has tackled the arguments against FDI in retail by describing the “limitations” of current conditions in the Indian retail sector. That there has been a lack of investment in the logistics of the retail chain, leading to “an inefficient market mechanism”. The point is made that India is the second largest producer of fruit and vegetables in the world (about 180 million tonnes or mt) but has “very limited integrated cold-chain infrastructure” with only 5,386 stand-alone cold storages which together have a capacity of 23.6 mt. It points out that post-harvest losses of farm produce – especially fruits, vegetables and other perishables – have been estimated to be over Rs 1,00,000 crore per annum, 57% of which is due to “avoidable wastage and the rest due to avoidable costs of storage and commissions”.

A couple working in their paddy field, North Goa

A couple working in their paddy field, North Goa

From 2009, the Ministry of Agriculture’s approach to its subject has shifted perceptibly – from its stated protection of the interests of the farming household and the rural and urban consumer – towards the food industry. Employing the reasons listed above, all of which contain some reflection of actual conditions, the massive apparatus of the ministry and its appurtenant research system is now ushering in private participation and control of areas that were hitherto in the public domain. When read with the rapid movement of finance between the money markets and the commodity markets, with the extension of infrastructure and property conglomerates into the processed food “value chain” domain, and with new alliances between agricultural research institutes and market entrepreneurs, the outlook for India’s small and marginal farming households is bleak.

The concentration of funds, food handling and transport systems and growing corporate control from farm to fork can clearly be seen in an address by the Union Agriculture Minister, Sharad Pawar, at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) – Industry Meet on 28-29 July 2010. The meet focused on four theme areas: seed and planting material; diagnostics, vaccines and biotechnological products; farm implements and machinery; and post-harvest engineering and value addition.

Pawar said that the ministry recognises the role of the private sector in critical areas of agricultural research and human resource development. The conventional approach of public sector agricultural R&D has been to take responsibility for priority setting, resource mobilisation, research, development and dissemination. He then explained that agricultural extension, which has been neglected for several years now, is “no longer appropriate”. It is here that the impact of the Indo-US Agricultural Knowledge Initiative, now in its fifth year, can be recognised. The alternative, Pawar advised, is public-private partnerships through which public sector institutes (such as those in the ICAR network) can “leverage valuable private resources, expertise, or marketing networks that they otherwise lack”.

Coconut trees along a bund between field and stream, North Goa

Coconut trees along a bund between field and stream, North Goa

This is the undisguised merchant reasoning behind the creation of “Business Planning and Development units” in five ICAR institutes (Indian Agricultural Research Institute, Indian Veterinary Research Institute, Central Institute for Research on Cotton Technology, National Institute of Research on Jute and Allied Fibre Technology, Central Institute of Fisheries Technology). These units will tackle intellectual property management, commercialisation of research, find investors and begin businesses. India’s national agricultural research system, therefore, has decided to now become a broker of its own output (publicly funded) and a speculator seeking profits from the country’s agricultural and food price crises.

If the Ministry of Agriculture has its way, rural India will be a patchwork not of villages and hamlets but of “intelligent agrologistic networks combining consolidation centres, agroparks (agroproduction and processing park) and rural transformation centres”, which is how the MTMs and their typical built-up footprints have been described by one enthusiastic bank. The techno-industrial idiom cannot conceal the union government’s intention to encourage a dangerous new dimension to urbanisation, by provisioning infrastructure to support an internal trade in agricultural products, and doing so by allocating a greater share of scarce funds to support favoured business and trading constituents rather than to the rural constituents who need it most, the smallholder farmer and local agro-ecosystems.

Supported by the vast and powerful machinery of the Ministry of Agriculture, emboldened by the global trading successes of commodity cartels which learned their tactics in the Multi Commodity Exchange of India (Mumbai), the National Commodity and Derivatives Exchange (Mumbai), and the National Multi Commodity Exchange of India (Ahmedabad), the new entrepreneurs in India’s agribusiness sector are promoting MTMs as potentially attracting “leading foreign retail chains to anchor and plan their supply chain at and through the agrofood parks” and exploiting the MTMs’ “township model approach to attract Indian MNCs and foreign food processing companies”.

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?