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Making local sense of food, urban growth, population and energy

Posts Tagged ‘food security

Food, climate, culture, crops and government

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The weekly standardised precipitation index of the India Meteorological Department (IMD) which is a running four-week average. This series shows the advancing dryness of districts in south India.

The weekly standardised precipitation index of the India Meteorological Department (IMD) which is a running four-week average. This series shows the advancing dryness of districts in south India.

In November 2015, the Departmentally Related Standing Committee on Agriculture of the Lok Sabha, Parliament of India, invited suggestions and submissions on the subject “Comprehensive Agriculture Research based on Geographical Condition and Impact of Climatic Changes to ensure Food Security in the Country”.

The Committee called for inputs on issues such as the need to evolve new varieties of crops which can withstand climatic fluctuation; requirement to evolve improved methods of irrigation; the need to popularise consumption of crops/fruits which can provide better nutrition; the need to develop indigenous varieties of cattle that can withstand extreme climatic stress; the need to develop a system for precision horticulture and protected cultivation; diversification of species of fish to enhance production from the fisheries sector; the need to strengthen the agriculture extension system; and means to focus on agriculture education.

I prepared a submission as my outline response, titled “Aspects of cultivation, provision of food, and use of land in Bharat today and a generation hence”. The outline I provided includes several issues of current urgency and connects them to scenarios that are very likely to emerge within a generation. My intention is to signal the kinds of pathways to preparation that government (central and state) may consider. It is also meant to flag important cultural and social considerations that lie before us, and to emphasise that economic and quantitative measurements alone are not equipped to provide us holistic guidance.

The outline comprises three sections.
(A) The economic framework of the agriculture and food sector and its imperatives.
(B) The social, ecological, and resource nature of crop cultivation, considering factors that influence it.
(C) Methods, pathways and alternatives possible to adopt with a view to being inter-generationally responsible.

In view of the current climatic conditions – heat waves in the central and eastern regions of the country, stored water in our major reservoirs which are at or near ten-year lows – I reproduce here the section on the economic framework of the agriculture and food sector and its imperatives. The full submission can be found here [pdf, 125kb].

This framework considers the agriculture and food sector, including primary agricultural production recorded, the inputs and products of industry based on agricultural raw material (primary crop whether foodgrain, horticulture, spices, plantation, ruminants and marine, oilseeds, fibres), agribusiness (processing in all its forms), supply chains connecting farmers and farmer producer organisations to primary crop aggregators, buyers, merchants, stockists, traders, consumers, as well as associated service providers. This approach is based on the connection between agricultural production and demand from buyers, processers and consumers along what is called the supply chain.

 

Water storage quantities in the 91 major reservoirs in the first week of April 2016. Blue bars are each reservoir's full storage capacity (in billion cubic metres, bcm) and orange bars are the current storage at the time. Data from the Central Water Commission, Government of India.

Water storage quantities in the 91 major reservoirs in the first week of April 2016. Blue bars are each reservoir’s full storage capacity (in billion cubic metres, bcm) and orange bars are the current storage at the time. Data from the Central Water Commission, Government of India.

If this framework is considered as existing in Bharat to a significant degree which influences crop cultivation choices, the income of cultivating household, the employment generation potential of associated service providers, then several sets of questions require answers:

* Concerning economic well-being and poverty reduction: what role does agricultural development need to play in promoting economic stability in rural (and peri-urban) regions thereby contributing to poverty reduction and how can the agrifood sector best contribute to jobs and higher incomes for the rural poor?

* Concerning food security: what role can agricultural and agro-industry development play in ensuring rural and urban communities have reliable access to sufficient, culturally appropriate and safe food?

* Concerning the sustainability of food producing systems: how should agriculture and agro-industry be regulated in a participatory manner so as to ensure that methods of production do not overshoot or endanger in any way (ecological or social) conservative carrying capacity thresholds especially in the contexts of climate change and resource scarcity?

When viewed according to the administrative and policy view that has prevailed in Bharat over the last two generations, there is a correlation between agricultural productivity growth and poverty reduction and this is the relationship the macro- economic and policy calculations have been based upon. Our central annual agricultural (and allied services) annual and five-year plan budget and state annual and five-year plan budgets have employed such calculations since the 1950s, when central planning began.

However the choices that remain open to us are considerably fewer now than was the case two generations (and more) ago when the conventional economic framework of the agriculture and food sector took shape.

Why India must rely on local food stocks

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RG_Goa_ploughman_201507

The below average June to September monsoon season will lead to lower foodgrains production. What is the likely impact and how can society cope?

Context – For the last four years the numbers that describe India’s essential food security have become a common code: 105 million tons (mt) of rice, 95 mt of wheat, 41 to 43 mt of coarse cereals, 19 to 20 mt of pulses, 165 to 170 mt of vegetables and 80 to 90 mt of fruit.

With these quantities assured, our households feed themselves, army and factory canteens are supplied, the public distribution system is kept stocked and the processed and retail food industry secures its raw material.

Only provided there is such assurance, and that the allowance for plus or minus is as small as possible. Monsoon 2015 has removed that assurance for the agricultural year 2015-16. Our 36 states and union territories – and the 63 cities whose populations are more than a million – must begin to deal with the possible scenarios immediately.

Stock scenarios – In September 2015 the Department of Agriculture, Cooperation and Farmers Welfare, of the Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India, released the first of its usual four ‘advance estimates’ for the 2015-16 agricultural year. Each estimate sets the targets for the year for the foodgrain (and also commercial) crops, and provides with every estimate how likely it is that the annual target will be met.

This first advance estimate has issued a direct warning: rice production is estimated at 90.6 mt against a target of 106.1 mt. The wheat target is just under 95 mt but there is no estimate provided as yet. The target for coarse cereals is 43.2 mt whereas the advance estimate is just under 28 mt. The target for pulses is 20mt and the first estimate is 5.5mt.

What are the implications? The responsibility of the Department is to provide a provisional reading of the conditions that affect the production of our staple crops, and to inform and prepare state and central governments of the likelihood of shortfalls in foodgrain. The signal it has given for rice, estimated at 85% of the target, must be taken as a flashing red beacon which demands that our food stocks return to the foreground of the national agenda.

It is likely that the second and third advance estimates will see quantities revised upwards, but our planning must be based on this first estimate so that even the most adverse of natural contingencies can be met with suitable measures.

Using the first advance estimate as the basis, here are the likely annual production quantities, at 90% of the target and at 95% of the target: rice, between 95 and 101 mt; wheat, between 85 and 91 mt; coarse cereals, between 39 and 42 mt; pulses, between 16 and 17 mt; total foodgrains, between 236 and 250 mt of which cereals are between 220 and 232 mt.

RG_foodstocks_table_201509Household demand – Will these quantities suffice, as for the last four years total foodgrain targets and production have been in the region of 260-273 mt?

To help answer this question, two sets of deductions must be accounted for. To begin with, for each main category of foodgrain, there are production quantities, imports, stock variations and exports. When these are added or subtracted, a gross domestic supply quantity remains.

It is worth also noting that this gross quantity is still no more than a best assessment that is synthesised from the information provided by state governments. The first set of deductions is by way of feed, seed and waste (foodgrain that is used in animal feed, is harvested to use as seed for sowing, and which is damaged after harvest or rendered unusable because of pests and infection). Allowing for the lowest likely level of deductions, the combined deduction is about 7% for rice, 10.5% for wheat, 17% for coarse cereals, 15% for pulses, 5% for vegetables and 10% for fruits.

The available quantities are now revised further. Under a 95% of target scenario, we will have 93.5 mt of rice, 81 mt of wheat, 34.5 mt of coarse cereals and 14.5 mt of pulses. In the same way, a 95% of target scenario for vegetables is 153.5 mt and for fruits it is 72.5 mt. On the consumption side we have the households – in 2016 we will have 175 million rural and 83 million urban households.

These households will require a baseline minimum of 181 mt of cereals, 136 mt of vegetables, 45 mt of fruits and 41 mt of pulses. Under a 95% of production target scenario therefore, there will be enough cereals, enough vegetables and enough fruits. We have been falling short in pulses for several years.

But this apparent comfort is still without the second set of deductions. And these are: (1) buffer stocks of rice and wheat to be maintained, with 5-8 mt of rice during the year and 10-18 mt of wheat during the year (to fulfil the demands on the public distribution system and to fulfil the allocations for the food-based welfare programmes), and in addition the strategic reserve of 2 mt of rice and 3 mt of wheat to be maintained; (2) the use of foodgrains by the food processing and retail food industry; (3) exports of primary crops (such as rice and in particular basmati) and processed crops (vegetables and fruits); (4) the industrial use of foodgrain (including for biodiesel); (5) the diversion of cereals to alcohol distilleries.

Some amongst the second set of deductions are known – such as the withdrawals for buffer stocks and the food reserves, and the export quantities – but the others are either hidden, concealed or misreported. In a food production scenario that is less than 95% of targets (in the way that rice has already been estimated for 2015-16), the deductions from gross crop production will decrease available foodgrains, vegetables and fruits to levels that will compromise household food security, especially those households in the lower income brackets.

Recommendations – The climate variations that have led the Department of Agriculture to raise a red flag warning are no longer uncommon. The 2015 monsoon was affected by El Nino conditions, which are expected to continue into the first quarter of 2016. These changes in the pattern of the Indian summer monsoon are amplified by land use change in our districts, by deforestation, by rapid urbanisation, by inequitous water use, and by consumption behaviour. Some of these can be addressed through policy, education and incentives over the long term. What is needed immediately however are:

a) A review of the drivers of crop cultivation choice in our watersheds and agro-ecological zones so that, as far as possible, these settlements units begin the transition towards local food security in sustainable ways. This means that the income-led arguments which favour the cultivation of commercial crops for farming households must be critically re-examined – in a situation of primary crop scarcity an income buffer alone will not help these households.

b) The demands placed by export arrangements (including the export of meat, which represents fodder and feed) and by the food processing and retail food industry must be quantified and made public. Especially at the level of district administrations, the need to rationally incentivise land use towards the cultivation of food crop staples that suit agro-ecological conditions has become an urgent one. The decentralisation of planning that can make such an approach possible can take place only when hitherto hidden and concealed foodgrains use becomes public.

c) To reach self-reliance at the level of panchayat or block (tahsil, taluka), cooperative farming must be vigorously encouraged, villages must become self-reliant in the provisioning of their food staples (a consideration that must balance that of the ‘national market’), the bio-physical limits of the major food producing districts (the top 250 by quantity) have already been reached and this necessarily limits the demand urban India can exert upon rural districts, in terms not only of food quantities but also in terms of the population that must be fully engaged in foodgrains cultivation.

India, WTO and public food stocks

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Parliament_RS_sm

Minister of State (Independent Charge) in the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Nirmala Sitharaman, clarified on 6 May 2015 to the Rajya Sabha on India’s stand at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) on food security.

Here are the main points contained in Sitharaman’s reply to the Rajya Sabha:

1) A decision was adopted by the WTO General Council in November 2014 which makes it clear that a mechanism will remain in place in perpetuity until a permanent solution regarding this issue has been agreed and adopted.

2) The decision also means WTO members (countries) will not challenge the public stock-holding programmes of developing country members for food security purposes, in relation to obligations under the WTO Agreement on Agriculture.

3) The safeguard available for continuing the Minimum Support Price policy is thus strengthened and will ensure that India’s food security operations are not constrained due to WTO rules.

4) The WTO General Council Decision includes a firm commitment to engage in negotiations for a permanent solution.

Together with other developing countries, India has proposed an amendment to the rules of the WTO relating to public stock-holding for food security purposes. Sitharaman told the Rajya Sabha that “concerned at the lack of progress in implementing the Ministerial Decision on public stock-holding for food security purposes, India decided not to join the consensus in the WTO on next step for the implementation of the Trade Facilitation Agreement till its concerns were addressed”.

What the WTO-FAO alliance on food portends

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Campaign material by GRAIN and Via Campesina to stop seed laws that criminalise farmers and to defend local seeds.

Campaign material by GRAIN and Via Campesina to stop seed laws that criminalise farmers and to defend local seeds.

A convergence that the agri-business multinationals have long looked for is now beginning. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation – whose constitution includes “bettering the condition of rural populations” as one of its four main purposes – has joined forces with the World Trade Organisation, whose concern for rural populations is precisely zero.

Both organisations call it a collaboration, but that term is a smokescreen. The FAO is technically being run under the supervision of its eighth director-general (since 1948; their tenures are far too long and Asian and South American members especially ought to have corrected this error long ago). José Graziano da Silva, the number eight, has since 2013 increased the pace at which the FAO also collaborates with the private sector – which means the international grain traders, the agricultural commodity cartels, the food and beverage multi-nationals, and last but not least the exceedingly powerful agricultural biotechnology corporations.

The WTO has described the new alliance as a “step up” on the issue of “trade and food security, as well as other issues”. The first item of collaboration by the trade body with the FAO will be to participate in the annual State of Agricultural Commodity Markets report, which this year will focus on trade and food security, and which the WTO has mischievously described as “the FAO’s flagship publication”. It isn’t, for the FAO’s State of Food and Agriculture is the flagship report, but that misappellation is a sign of the changes to come.

Grain_defend-local-seeds_201503_2What is being sought, from the WTO point of view, is “evidence and greater clarity on a range of issues related to trade and food security”. This is ingenuous, for the WTO’s ‘greater clarity’ has only meant more trade, justified with make-believe macro-economical models that pretend trade is good for low income consumers and smallholder farm producers alike, and to ignore ground truth. For the FAO on the other hand, ‘greater clarity’ on the question of food and trade has long been available in-house in the form of the food balance sheets maintained for every country in FAOstat, which is the voluminous FAO database.

But the tone is being set by the WTO, which has said: “Considering the important role of open and strengthened food markets in supporting food security objectives, the two directors-general discussed how trade and the multilateral trading system could help in creating a more favourable global environment for food security and sustainable agriculture.” It obviously doesn’t occur to WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo and his secretariat that ‘the multilateral trading system’ and ‘sustainable agriculture’ are fundamentally incompatible.

The FAO’s description of its new alliance is couched in milder terms. The organisation has said the collaboration offers “mutual assistance on critical themes such as the functioning of international grain markets” but also invokes “evidence and greater clarity” on “the governance of trade flows and the pursuit of broader food security”. FAO has resorted to using the non sequitur that food security is closely linked to trade and therefore this alliance is important. As with the WTO, internal contradictions don’t matter – if FAO is discussing smallholder family farms, then food security doesn’t include trade; if FAO is discussing organic cultivation, then food security doesn’t include trade. But under an alliance with WTO, unquestionably it does.

Grain_defend-local-seeds_201503_1FAO Director-general José Graziano da Silva has insisted that “food security and trade can together play a very important role to help fulfil FAO’s mandate”. What part of the mandate could be ‘helped’ by this alliance? The FAO member states are committed under its constitution to (1) raising levels of nutrition and standards of living of the peoples under their respective jurisdictions; (2) securing improvements in the efficiency of the production and distribution of all food and agricultural products; (3) bettering the condition of rural populations; and (4) contributing towards an expanding world economy and ensuring humanity’s freedom from hunger.

If called upon to do so by FAO member states – and I wish the G77 would summon up the critical voice to do so – the new alliance will probably be explained by the WTO and FAO as helping to fulfil the second and fourth objectives. Thus ‘improving the distribution’ of food and contributing to ‘expanding the world economy’ is what the alliance will use to show that the FAO’s mandated objectives (problematic as hey are already) are being followed.

What could the immediate implications be of the WTO now having a hand in setting the FAO’s ‘development’ agenda concerning the production of food staples and their use? Here is a short list:

1. The FAO overtly supporting the push, through the WTO, by the USA and other major grain exporting countries, for developing countries to increase their ‘trade facilitation’ measures – which means their physical and policy readiness to receive grain and manufactured food, no matter what the cost is locally.

2. This push will become stronger and energetic very quickly. So far, the Bali decision on public stockholding for food security purposes is to remain in place until a permanent solution is agreed and adopted. The WTO, the USA and the European Union want negotiations (which in their parlance means that all other countries accept their proposal) to be agreed to and adopted by 31 December 2015.

3. The new WTO-FAO alliance will immediately start exerting pressure on India, countries of the South and the G77 on Bali decisions concerning agriculture: tariff-rate quota administration, export competition and phasing out of cotton subsidies.

4. The FAO using trade-related arguments to defend the unacceptable biases in the existing WTO Agreement on Agriculture, and to beat down the developing countries stand (taken at the Bali ministerial meeting of the WTO in 2013) on the issue of public food reserves for food security.

5. The WTO using the FAO’s long experience in the field to sharpen its attack on the public food reserves systems of developing countries – which the US Trade Representative and its allies in the OECD calls ‘trade distorting’ – so that the socio-ecological institution of the smallholder farmer, and family farms, are done away with.

Of seeds and swadeshi

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RG_Asian_Age_GM_20140810India has reached food security without GM crops. Portrayed by GM advocates as an ‘attack on science’, the movement to keep this technology out is firmly grounded in the national interest. In this article published in full by The Asian Age, I have refuted three common arguments that are advanced to the citizens of India as justifying the need for genetically modified crops.

None of these owe their intellectual genesis to the present NDA government (which is employing them nonetheless), and can be found as theses in both UPA2 and UPA1. They are: that genetically engineered seed and crop are necessary in order that India find lasting food security; that good science and particularly good crop science in India can only be fostered – in the public interest – by our immediate adoption of agricultural biotechnology; that India’s agricultural exports (and their contribution to GDP growth and farmers’ livelihoods) require the adoption of such technology.

The article has attracted a number of comments, including one which is pro-GM (and which in turn has been attacked). Here is a file of the support and exchanges till now.

Examining these uncovers a skein of untruths and imputations which have been seized upon by the advocates and proponents of GM technology and broadcast through media and industry channels. First, the food security meme, which has assumed an oracular gravity but which has not been supported by serious enquiry. On this aspect, the facts are as follows. Our country grows about 241 million tons of cereals (rice, wheat and coarse cereals), just under 20 million tons of pulses and between 160 and 170 million tons of vegetables (leafy and others together). This has been the trend of the last triennium.

Concerning current and future need, based on the recommendations of the Indian Council of Medical Research and the National Institute of Nutrition, an adult’s annual consumption of these staples ought to be 15 kg of pulses, 37 kg of vegetables and 168 kg of cereals. Using Census 2011 population data and the projections based on current population growth rates, we find that the current 2014 level of production of cereals will supply our population in 2028, that the current level of production of vegetables will be more than three times the basic demand in 2030, and that the current level of production of pulses will fall short of the basic demand in 2020.

In short, India has been comfortably supplied with food staples for the last decade (witness the embarrassingly large buffer stocks) and will continue to be so for the next 15 years at least. Why then are the GM advocates and proponents (including unfortunately the Minister of Environment, Prakash Javadekar) in a cyclonic hurry to bring the technology and its manifold risks to India by citing food security as a reason? Read the rest of this article on The Asian Age website, or find a pdf of the original full text here.

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 blog has carried a number of posts about GM and agri-biotech in India. Consult these links for more on the subject:

It’s time to confront the BJP on GM
Lured by dirty GM, Europe’s politicians betray public
Of Elsevier, Monsanto and the surge for Seralini
Scientists’ statement deflates the bogus idea of ‘safe’ GM
India marches against Monsanto, hauls it back into court
Monsanto drops GM crop plans in Europe
The year the GM machine can be derailed
Of GM food crops, Bt cotton and an honest committee in India

The fitful pulse of an Indian food staple

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RG_pulses_prices_201405

The history of consumer price indices for pulses in India’s ordinary shops and bazaars since 2006 January is one of five periods. The first, from 2006 January to 2008 June, is of a rise in some pulse foods, a decline in a few, and little movement in others. The second period is one of a rise in concert from 2008 June to 2010 January, some pulse foods rising very steeply and not others – whole moong did but not whole urad, masur dal did but peas did not, horse gram did but not rajmah.

The third period, from 2010 February to 2011 August, is an overall lowering of the price indices for almost all pulse foods. This happened when the general food price index rose quickly and stayed high – but pulses remained relatively unaffected. That insulation, the fourth period, didn’t last long, from 2011 September till around 2012 May (even shorter for some pulse foods).

The fifth period began around 2011 July for some pulses, and two months later for others, and is continuing. This is a period of volatility in the price indices of the pulses group to an extent not seen in the previous seven years – peas rises but not gram, horse gram and rajmah shot up but raungi and white gram dipped, whole masur and whole moong soared while besan fell and papad remained flat.

The data I have taken from the monthly itemised retail consumer price indices, weighed to be all-India, for industrial workers with their base of 100 being in 2001, and compiled by the Labour Bureau, Ministry of Labour and Employment, Government of India.

At the end of the second quarter of 2014, the spread of price index values for the pulses group of our staple foods is wider than at any time in the last eight years. It is this food group that provides the nutritional balance and is a culturally rich source of protein in everyday meals and popular home-made snacks. The overall price rise these charts graphically illustrate, and the uncertainty about their availability (which is what the recent volatility of the individual index lines show) are evidence of the threat to the nutritional security of many millions of rural and urban households in India.

Written by makanaka

May 23, 2014 at 20:39

Why agricultural investment ‘principles’ must be buried

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FAO_IYFF_1This year the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) will through its Committee on World Food Security, advocate principles concerning what are called ‘responsible agricultural investments’. The adoption of principles such as these are expected to promote investments in agriculture that contribute to food security and nutrition, and which support the realisation of the right to food, particularly within national contexts of how food security is defined.

While the principles are intended to provide practical guidance to governments, private and public investors, intergovernmental and regional organisations, civil society groups, research units and universities, donors and philanthropic foundations, they will be voluntary and will not be binding upon their signatories.

FAO_IYFF_2The problem with such a conceptualisation of international or globally applicable principles is that the negative consequences that accompany investment are left undefined and therefore weak as a countervailing argument. Investment made to acquire land, to pursue industrial agricultural techniques (in contrast to policies and programmes that support smallholder cultivation), and which – experiences of the last three decades have shown – have deepened income inequalities while making those vulnerable to food scarcity and food price volatility even more so.

These investments are determined by a dominant political economy found in a country, or a sub-national region – important variations that cannot be recognised or dealt with in any meaningful way by a set of voluntary principles (nor even with the aid of a ‘knowledge platform’ on the subject set up by the World Bank, FAO, UNCTAD and IFAD.

In this article published by Pambazuka News – the pan-African community of some 2,600 citizens and organisations that make it one of the largest and most innovative and influential web forums for social justice in Africa – I have examined the rationale and background to the principles pertaining to ‘responsible agricultural investment’ (which is now referred to commonly by the ‘RAI’ short form); and also concepts about agricultural investment (or public and private spending on agricultural activities) especially what are assumed and what are implied; and a conclusion criticises the RAI and the effort to promote a multi-lateral common ground for problems that are essentially local.

FAO_IYFF_3“The adoption of RAI will aid, in any host country, the tailoring of all policies and strategies to fit investors (foreign and domestic, for the technological advantages are now common, as much as the conduits of capital flow for food and agriculture investment are many) so that they can be ‘competitive’ in the market. Instead of prioritising a model of agricultural production where women, farmers/peasants, pastoralists and all small-scale food producers are at its core, in which agro-ecological forms of farming and raising livestock are supported, and through which local markets and economies are strengthened, the draft RAI principles will if accepted legitimise policies that put the government and country at the service of such investors (both foreign and domestic, it must be noted).”

Moreover, from the point of view of human rights terms this is discriminatory; and will turn a parlous situation into a destabilising one – already countries are falling short of their obligations related to realising the right to adequate food (a foretaste of which was seen most recently during the World Trade Organisation ninth ministerial conference in 2013 December which brought to the fore disagreements about governments’ own procurement of food for public programmes as distorting world trade).

[Read the full article on Pambazuka News.]

Why Bharat must tell the WTO to go to hell

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Update: So far, India’s Minister for Commerce and Industry has said what our farmers’ need him to say at the WTO ministerial meeting.

Activists protest against the World Trade Organisation (WTO) conference in Bali, Indonesia, on 2013 December 04. Image: AFP

Activists protest against the World Trade Organisation (WTO) conference in Bali, Indonesia, on 2013 December 04. Image: AFP

This is good news for our millions of cultivator households, and is also good news for cultivating families and communities in the countries of the South. This bloc must oppose without reservation and compromise of any kind the USA- and EU-led puppeteering of the WTO rules of agriculture to help their food-seed corporations.

The reaction in the corporatised media has been typical, with headlines like ‘Bleak outlook for WTO deal as rifts widen over food subsidies’. Reuters has reported that there are “deep divisions with only one day left to the end of talks” but that “India gains supporters for its stance on food subsidies” and also that “a Bali deal could benefit world economy by as much as $1 trillion”. We have no idea where these absurd numbers have appeared from concerning the alleged ‘benefits’ of the WTO, but foreign and Indian media have also reported the spiky warnings from the Trade Representative of the United States of America, Michael Froman.

He is reported to have said: “Let us not sugar-coat reality: leaving Bali this week without an agreement would deal a debilitating blow to the WTO as a forum for multilateral negotiations.” Froman and his government don’t (or won’t) understand that such an outcome is exactly what we want – no more WTO, for good and forever. He is also reported to have that if the WTO is finished “the unfortunate truth is that the loss will be felt most heavily by those members who can least afford it”. Froman is lying, for it is with WTO that farmers and cultivators in their millions have suffered grievously for a generation.

The Hindu reported that developing nations including India want a ‘peace clause’ (see a few paragraphs below for why we should have no such ‘peace clause’) “till a permanent solution is found on the matter for smooth implementation of the food security programme”. The Hindu report has quoted Sharma as having said that India was not isolated on the food security matter in WTO and majority of countries where over 75% people live are supporting New Delhi’s stand. “I would like to make this absolutely clear that we have not come here as petitioners to beg for a peace clause,” he was quoted as having said.

The section of foreign media that has long spoken for the USA-EU axis of agreement on WTO and its perverse agriculture rules has complained about what it calls India’s opposition. One such newspaper is the Wall Street Journal, which has reported that India “is angry over WTO rules that don’t allow it to move ahead with a massive food subsidy programme”, that negotiators have been trying to win over India by “allowing it to break those rules for four years before reducing the scope of its subsidies”. It needs to be said here (see more below) that an outside agency’s ‘rules’ are immaterial to what Bharat’s people need, and that there is no question of any agency, country, group of countries or foreign entity of any sort ‘allowing’ India to decide the manner of its service to its people.

WTO-bullock-cartEarlier: Our kisans and our farmers have no use for a WTO ‘peace clause’. Our households and families that squeeze their weekly budgets to buy their food staples have no place in their lives for definitions of ‘market distorting subsidies’. Our retailers and wholesalers and fair price shops which supply these households and pay our kisans for the food they grow are much too busy to bother with what ‘amber box’ and ‘green box’ mean, or with the Ninth Ministerial Conference of the WTO.

The question is one not of food sovereignty or the right to food alone, it is also one of our country’s sovereignty and of democratic principles to be respected. For the so-called ‘developed’ countries who are also WTO members, the government of India paying farmers a minimum support price to buy crops that can be stocked (as needed) or released into the Public Distribution System is a ‘market distortion’ and they have invoked all sorts of WTO regulations to show why it is. This is dangerous and must be firmly and finally treated as a threat to the integrity of the Republic of India and its citizens. Whether those who have been sent to the WTO Ministerial Conference (in Indonesia, 2013 December 03-06) to argue India’s case will do so in a manner that protects our kisans and our households is yet to be seen.

Food security, prices that balance the income of farmers and the needs of food-purchasing households, and the quantities involved are matters that lie between the people of Bharat and the government (central and state) that exists to serve us. It is not the business in any way, in any year and under any pretext, of any of the other 192 member countries of the United Nations or of any grouping from amongst them. It is not the business of any UN agency nor any multilateral and/or inter-governmental body or agency regardless of whether India is a member or signatory to any such group or entity. That is the meaning of the sovereignty that exists as the contract between citizens and the state, and that means between us and the government of the Republic of India.

What business does the WTO imagine it has in this matter? Consider its chief operating statement: “The World Trade Organization deals with the global rules of trade between nations. Its main function is to ensure that trade flows as smoothly, predictably and freely as possible.” Arrogant and entirely mercantile, the WTO is incompetent in the matter just described – food security in Bharat. Via Campesina, the worldwide small farmers’ and peasants’ movement, has said: “”After several collapses and stalemates in the negotiations, the WTO has found a way to revive not only itself but also to deepen the free trade liberalisation agenda and expand into areas not previously covered by trade.”

An agricultural road ahead minus a WTO is what India must strive for now.

An agricultural road ahead minus a WTO is what India must strive for now.

Are India’s named representatives at the Ninth Ministerial of the WTO saying so clearly and loudly so that the entire UN system and the WTO can hear? Here is an extract from the statement made by the Union Minister of Commerce and Industry, Anand Sharma, on 2013 December 02: “We cannot continue to have rhetoric of development agenda without even a reasonable attempt to address the issues which are of primary concern to developing economies. For decades, handful of farm lobbies of some countries have shaped the discourse and determined the destiny of millions of subsistence farmers of the developing countries. The massive subsidisation of the farm sector in the developed countries is not even a subject matter of discussion, leave aside serious negotiations.” This position may be useful, but we have to wait and see how it is developed between now and the end of this Ninth Ministerial.

That it may not be developed is already hinted at, for the same minister has also said: “It is therefore difficult for us to accept an interim solution as it has been currently designed. As a responsible nation, we are committed to a constructive engagement for finding a lasting solution. But till such time that we reach there, an interim solution which protects us from all forms of challenge must remain intact.” The ‘interim solution’ is what has popularly been called a ‘peace clause’, by which is mean that the use of measures to procure foodgrains by developing countries to promote food security would continue to be deemed illegal but WTO members would not go into the process of dispute settlement for a certain period.

Moreover, this ‘interim solution’ will be effective for only four years (that is, less than a single of our Plan periods) and Sharma’s saying that “we are committed to a constructive engagement for finding a lasting solution” is no indicator that our representatives to the WTO will tell the WTO that our farmers, our crops and food and our prices is none of its business. As the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy has mentioned, a country might seek to use both purchases and sales of stocks to support a level of equilibrium in market prices that supports long-term development objectives.

The bloc of so-called ‘developed’ countries – the USA and some of its habitual crony countries, and the European Union, all of them having subsidised their agriculture heavily and steadily for 50 years – are holding up WTO ‘rules’ to say that if the price paid by our government is higher than the ‘external reference price’, the difference is considered a ‘trade-distorting subsidy’. And what is this reference price? The average international price of 1986-88! As anyone who has even a passing interest in food knows, true food inflation (which households experience) in most of the world has for the last six years been 10% and above. Fuel price inflation has been as much if not more. Fertiliser price inflation: ditto. It is the USA and (some) countries of the EU that have annually supported the cost of cultivation and held retail food prices low to the extent of half their agricultural GDP – which they today say is permitted under WTO rules, but that India’s crop procurement prices is a ‘market distorting subsidy’ that gets in the way of a ‘free market price’!

The concept of a ‘free market price’ is a mythical entity, Prabhat Patnaik has pointed out. “There are so many things that go into the price formation of any commodity, that to single out only a few of them as constituting ‘distortions’ and the rest as ‘non-distorting’ is totally arbitrary,” he has said. “This distinction which has been foisted upon the WTO by the advanced capitalist countries to serve their own interests, and imposed through it upon the entire world, is invidious for several reasons.”

End_WTO_BaliBut the WTO Director-General, Roberto Azevêdo, is considered to have as his priority the success of this Ninth Ministerial Conference in Indonesia (he warned WTO members in his inaugural speech this year that the “world will not wait for the WTO indefinitely” – what he thinks such a waiting world is was not clear, but our kisans want no WTO in their lives). [The International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development has more.]

Several farmers’ organisations, trade unions and peoples’ campaigns in India have resolved to support the Indian government’s position to not trade away national food security. The group welcomed the decision of the Indian Cabinet on 2013 November 28 November to reject any “peace clause” that does not guarantee a permanent solution. The peace clause has been widely opposed by the Chairs of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Commerce and Agriculture, the Left parties, and mass organisations, which include Bhartiya Kisan Union, Bharatiya Krishak Samaj, Bharatiya Majdoor Sangh, Focus on the Global South India, Right to Food Campaign, Shram Seva Nyas, South Indian Coordination Committee of Farmers’ Movements, Swadeshi Jagran Manch and Third World Network India.

Nonetheless, the danger we in Bharat have to guard against is both outside and inside. This year, India is an active and vocal member of the group of 33 countries (G-33) whose position is that the present WTO rules which constrain the ability of developing countries’ governments to purchase food from small farmers and stock them must be clarified or changed. But India is also a BRIC country whose ministers are doing all they can to allow foreign ownership of everything from banking to airports to defence to food. Hence this stance is hypocritical (as is India’s stance at the useless and totally compromised climate change COP meetings). Thus, the danger outside is how the USA (plus crony countries) and the EU employ Indian ministers to push through the WTO rules. The danger inside is that Parliament and state legislatures – which technically represent directly affected parties – are being by-passed while the interests of the corporate-financial elite (global, regional, national) are being protected.

It is this danger that has been referenced in the representation by 15 of the major farmer unions of India, including the Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) and the Karnataka Rajya Ryota Sangha (KRRS). The representation to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said: “Forth-seven years after the green revolution was launched, India is being directed at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to dismantle its food procurement system built so assiduously over the past four decades. This ill-advised move is aimed not only at destroying the country’s hard-earned food security but also the livelihood security of over 600 million farmers, 80% of them being small and marginal.”

And that is why it is time for us to give our government the ultimatum – the world is not about trade but about people and the planet. Ours is not an agriculture in the service of the WTO’s murderous rules and our kisans will not abide being beggared. The crops grown to feed our households rural and urban and the prices set in the mandis and found in the kirana shops are a matter for Bharat. That is why it is time for us to face down the sly brokers in the WTO – and their masters – once and for all.

Indexing food prices the FAO way

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The FAO food price index for 2013 October which includes the calculation and measurement changes. Spot the differences? I can't.

The FAO food price index for 2013 October which includes the calculation and measurement changes. Spot the differences? I can’t.

Why has the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) changed the way it calculates the monthly FAO Food Price Index? But hold on, let us scrutinise first what the FAO Food Price Index is for 2013 October.

The FAO has said: “The FAO Food Price Index rose slightly in October, averaging 205.8 points. This was 2.7 points, or 1.3% above September, but still 11 points, or 5.3% below its October 2012 value. The slight increase was largely driven by a surge in sugar prices, although prices of the other commodity groups were also up.”

The usual blue pair.

The usual blue pair.

In substance, this sort of commentary for the FAO monthly food price index barely differs from the standard tedious template, in tone and tenor, that FAO has applied throughout 2013. The tone has been, as we begin to close 2013, that food prices have not moved very much through the year, and the tenor has been that food price volatility is being reined in.

Based on the evidence provided by real prices I experience in India – real markets (or bazaars or mandis) in which real vendors sell actual produce to real household buyers – I have no idea what the FAO Food Price Index is talking about. Nor do tens of millions of urban and rural households all over the world when they try and correlate the numbers of the FAO index to what they must confront every time they make a food purchase.

This is because of what the FAO Food Price Index measures which, I wearily point out, is a criticism levelled time and again. Why call it a food price index when it is in fact a food exporters’ and importers’ price indication?

Impressive equations, but where's the connection with the local markets you and me buy our veggies from?

Impressive equations, but where’s the connection with the local markets you and me buy our veggies from?

Now, with a change in its calculations, the FAO index includes the following 23 commodities: wheat (10 price quotations monitored and reported by the International Grains Council), maize (1 quotation) and rice (16 quotations) for cereals; butter, whole milk powder, skimmed milk powder (2 quotations for each) and cheese (1 quotation) for the dairy group; poultry (13 quotations), pig (6 quotations), bovine (7 quotations) and ovine (1 quotation) for the meat dairy group; sugar (1 quotation); the oils group consists of one oil price quotation for soybean, sunflower, rapeseed, groundnut, cotton seed, copra, palm kernel, palm, linseed and castor. This construction, thus, includes the use of 73 price series.

The FAO has said: “The Index, which is a measure of the monthly change in international prices of five major food commodity groups (including 73 price quotations), has undergone some changes in the way it is calculated, although the new approach did not significantly alter the values in the series.” (See the Food Outlook released in 2013 November.)

Perhaps. We will not know for another few months. If a change was needed that made sense to consuming households, then FAO should have ensured the index reflected what households pay for the food the buy in the markets near their homes. If the FAO must serve multiple audiences, then it must devise food price indexes for these audiences separately (but the IGC already serves the food traders, and FAO’s own Agricultural Market Information System already serves the policymakers and the major international blocs).

Counting the Indian land mosaic

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India continues to be fed by its marginal and small farmers. Their holdings (those below two hectares) taken together account for 84.97% of total holdings in 2010-11 compared with 83.29% in 2005-06; the combined area under these myriad farmed plots is 44.31% of the country's total farmed area (it was 41.14% in the 2005-06 census).

India continues to be fed by its marginal and small farmers. Their holdings (those below two hectares) taken together account for 84.97% of total holdings in 2010-11 compared with 83.29% in 2005-06; the combined area under these myriad farmed plots is 44.31% of the country’s total farmed area (it was 41.14% in the 2005-06 census).

India’s Agriculture Census is the largest statistical survey done by the Ministry of Agriculture, which collects data on what the ministry calls “the structural profile of Indian agriculture”. Starting with the first in 1970-71 there have been eight such censuses and the ninth is under way.

The chart illustrates one aspect – a vitally important one – of the first phase of the census (which collects a list of all the agricultural holdings and includes area, gender, social group of the holder, its location code). The classifications of the size of farmed land-holdings are: marginal is up to one hectare, small is one to two hectares, semi-medium is two to four hectares, medium is four to ten hectares, large is ten hectares and more.

The Agriculture Census 2010-11 (Phase-I), All-India report on number and area of operational holdings(provisional) by the Agriculture Census Division, Department Of Agriculture and Co-operation, Ministry Of Agriculture, Government Of India (that’s the full, official and imposing title of the gigantic exercise) has told us, so far, that the numbers of marginal and small holdings continues to rise with every agricultural census (every five years, but the periodicity is less regular).

Some of the most salient findings so far from the 2010-11 census: the total number of farmed plots in India has increased from 129 million in 2005-06 to 138 million 2010-11; there is a small increase in the farmed land area from 158.32 million hectares in 2005-06 to 159.18 million hectares in 2010-11; the average size of a farmed land-holding has declined to 1.16 hectares in 2010-11 compared with 1.23 hectares in 2005-06.