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Desperate food gambits and the danger to India

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India’s Republic Day in 2015 will also see the visit of the president of the USA, Barack Obama, accompanied by the usual large delegation of business persons, lobbyists and functionaries of the American government. They will use this visit to demand many things, and amongst the demands will be that the NDA-BJP government ‘reform’ all that is hindering the agriculture and food transformation in Bharat.

A couple tending their stack of rice stalks residue in the Konkan.

A couple tending their stack of rice stalks residue in the Konkan.

We must resist this with strength and perseverance. So far, the NDA-BJP government has not shown that it recognises or understands the threats and dangers, which are very very serious indeed. The American delegation will push this government to clear the way for genetically modified seed and crop (including in food staples such as cereals), for the further industrialisation and mechanisation of crop production (which will mean the removal of smallholder ‘kisans’ from their plots, all in the name of market efficiency), and the deepening of the food processing and food retail industries’ grip on what we eat.

The Prime Minister’s Office, the Union Cabinet and the seniormost bureaucrats of the major ministries involved must wake up to this threat and be firm against it. The signals from elsewhere are many and they are clear about what lies in store for Bharat if the NDA-BJP government at the centre and if state governments do not discharge their duty – which is, safeguard the sovereignty of Bharat.

Already in Europe, the German Environment Ministry is insisting on a complete ban on green genetic engineering in Germany. Under a new European Parliament directive, member states of the European Union will now be able to restrict or completely ban GMO cultivation within their borders. One of the leading proponents of such a legal ban in Germany is its Ministry of Agriculture, which also supports a national ban on cultivation.

soilatlas2015_main_1Moreover, in a position paper from the Federal Ministry of the Environment, Minister Barbara Hendricks said she does not want to leave any back doors open for genetic engineering. The GMO law must be changed, so that controversial green genetic engineering cannot be used under any pretext in Germany, she stated in the document. “Green genetic engineering has turned out to be the wrong track,” Hendricks said. “It is risky for nature and the environment and is not desired by consumers.”

Worldwide, the project to fully industrialise global food production is far from complete, yet already it is responsible for most deforestation, most marine pollution, most coral reef destruction, much of greenhouse gas emissions, most habitat loss, most of the degradation of streams and rivers, most food insecurity, most immigration, most water depletion, and massive human health problems.

Relationships between soil, urbanisation, fertiliser use, farming, ecology and health. Images from the Soil Atlas, 2015, Heinrich Böll Stiftung.

Relationships between soil, urbanisation, fertiliser use, farming, ecology and health. Images from the Soil Atlas, 2015, Heinrich Böll Stiftung.

Under GM- and tech-centric industrial agriculture and food systems – which is what the Americans will demand from us – countries are becoming literally uninhabitable as a result of the social and ecological consequences.

Wherever industrial and genetically engineered agriculture is found, landscapes are left progressively emptier of life. Eventually, the soil turns either into mud that washes into the rivers or into dust that blows away on the wind. Industrial agriculture has no long term future and is ecological suicide. But those who profit from it cannot allow all this to become broadly understood – and unfortunately that has included our NDA-BJP government. That is why they have continued to peddle the lie of food scarcity in India, which the previous Congress government employed so recklessly.

The agriculture and food problem – which will become a more extreme problem for us if the Obama group is given its way – is closely interlinked with growing demand for land. Land is a lucrative investment and has fuelled the real estate boom in India for the last decade. But for our smallholder kisans it is the source of livelihood, as it is for our shepherd groups and tribal communities. Rising demand for land also harms the ecosystem – as is seen in each and every one of the 63 cities whose populations this year are at least one million. The more intensive the farming, the more damage it does to the environment. This is the main reason for the decline in biological diversity, above and below the ground.

The American push will be for agri-food systems in accordance with the new international trade agreements. These are nothing but colonial ways of thinking – that food should be produced for international export as a tool of foreign policy and to control populations (especially through GM) and as a byproduct financially benefit powerful corporations that act as agents of such colonial ways of thinking. Thus it is a direct assault on people’s sovereignty over their natural resources, farming systems and food access as well as their human right to dignified living standards free of exploitation and dependence.

Such treaties (such as the TTP which is facing opposition even amongst those the USA calls allies) are dangerous because they are negotiated in secret. But what has emerged (thanks to leaks) is appalling. Some of the texts in these treaties wants the outright patenting of plants and animals, many draft agreements come with severe punishments for farmers who break intellectual property laws, they deliberately undermine local agriculture (as seen with NAFTA), commons lands are proposed for privatisation, labelling of GM foods will be prohibited, and the governments of countries that try to undo the damage will be liable to be sued by the multi-national corporations. This is the extent of the danger facing Bharat, which will become more clear come Republic Day 2015.


India’s 681 million hungry rural citizens

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RG_NSSO_68_MPCE_pic1What do and what can rural residents spend on food and the essentials of living in India? This chart gives us an indication. It is based on new data contained in the latest revelation (my word, not theirs) from the National Sample Survey Office and is titled ‘Key Indicators of Household Consumer Expenditure in India’ (the 68th Round of sampling, for those who follow the extraordinary programme of this sterling statistical organisation).

There is data enough in the volume to inform us, clearly and starkly, that the cumulative impact of several years of food price inflation is hurting households more with every passing quarter. Consider what this new data release tells us:

RG_NSSO_68_MPCE_pic3* That the average rural monthly expenditure per person was lowest in the states of Odisha and Jharkhand (around Rs 1,000) and also in Chhattisgarh (Rs 1,027).
* In Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, the rural monthly expenditure per person was about Rs 1,125 to Rs 1,160.
* In urban India (not shown in this chart, but I will add to this posting with an expanded update) Bihar had the lowest monthly expenditure per person (called monthly per capita expenditure by the NSSO and abbreviated to MPCE) of Rs 1,507.
* In Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, urban MPCE was between Rs 1,865 and Rs 2,060. These six were the six major states with the lowest MPCEs for both rural and urban citizens.

But those are averages, and in this data release, the NSSO has divided its usual ten deciles even further for the lowest and highest deciles. (The decile is the surveyed population divided into tenths, with these being classified by expenditure level.) Doing so gives us a better view of the elastic expense trends in the top ten per cent of the population, the class which is so pampered by the central government. For rural India then, the 5th percentile of the MPCE distribution was estimated as Rs 616 and the 10th percentile as Rs 710 – and these are all-India averages.

[The spreadsheet with the table and chart is here. You can find the highlights of the NSSO study here.]

RG_NSSO_68_MPCE_pic4About half the total rural population is thus estimated to have a MPCE below Rs 1,198. Only about 10% of the rural population reported household MPCE above Rs 2,296 and only 5% reported MPCE above Rs 2,886 (this is using what is called the ‘modified mixed reference period’ or MMRP, in which the person interviewed is asked to recall purchases made over two different lengths of time, for different sorts of goods). The bottom-line is that food accounted for about 53% of the value of the average rural Indian’s household consumption during 2011-12.

This included 11% for cereals and cereal substitutes, 8% for milk and milk products, another 8% on beverages and processed food, and 6.5% on vegetables. Among non-food item categories, fuel for cooking and lighting accounted for about 8%, clothing and footwear for 7%, medical expenses for about 6.5%, education for 3.5%, conveyance for 4%, other consumer services for 4%, and consumer durables for 4.5%.

This ought to be a ringing alarm about access to food for the country’s planners, who are otherwise obsessed with GDP growth and whether India is cosmetically dolled up enough to attract global finance capital. It hasn’t sounded even a muted gong, and even if it had, one stunning inference from this table has been ignored – that this is an indicator of food and multi-dimensional poverty and that millions of rural residents are unable to afford food and basic services.

How so? Look at the chart again. Imagine, at just above the line marking 2,000 rupees, a dotted red line at a level of around 2,070 rupees. That is the equivalent (before the recent fall in the rupee’s value against the US dollar) of USD 1.25 a day, which has (ill-advisedly) been cemented in development wisdom as a poverty line that can be applied in countries like India. Let’s accept that in order to focus on what the new NSSO data tells us.

RG_NSSO_68_MPCE_pic5At the Rs 2,070 level we see that for a relatively prosperous state like Haryana (a former Green Revolution state) about 50% of the rural population cannot spend, per person per month, this amount. The percentage of the rural population below and above this line is similar, more or less, for Punjab (also a former Green Revolution state) and for Kerala (which is not, but has income from economic migrants abroad).

But the entire rural populations of Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha cannot spend this amount, because they do not earn it. How many is that? Using the 2001-2011 population growth rates (for rural populations of states) this means 98.96 million in rural Bihar, 20.65 million in rural Chhattisgarh, 26.52 million in rural Jharkhand and 36.19 million in rural Odisha are below this line. What of other states with large rural populations?

In Assam, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, 90% of the rural population is below this line and that means 25.23 million in Assam, 49.90 million in Madhya Pradesh, 147.25 million in Uttar Pradesh, and 57.26 million in West Bengal. In Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Rajasthan, 80% of the rural population is below this line and that means 28.52 million in Gujarat, 30.66 million in Karnataka, 50.77 million in Maharashtra and 43.55 million in Rajasthan. In Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, 70% of the rural population is below this line and that means 39.64 million in Andhra Pradesh and 26.56 million in Tamil Nadu.

Taken together those rural populations are 681.72 million (more than twice the population of the USA). They are 78% of India’s 2013 rural population, almost eight out of ten rural citizens.

Four points higher, the FAO Food Price Index for 2012 January

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In the first major indication of the way food prices will move in 2012, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has announced that its Food Price Index rose by nearly 2% or four points from December 2011 to January 2012. This is the Index’s its first increase since July 2011. A close look at the FAO Food Price Index shows that prices of all the commodity groups in the index have risen (oils increasing the most). At its new level of 214 points, the index is about 7% lower than what it was in January 2011 (when it reached 231).

In 2010 July, the Food Price Index has begun a steep upward climb it maintained for 7 months until 2011 February, from 172 to 237. Now, this 4 point jump in a month is the sharpest since the rise from 231 in 2011 January to 2011 February. “There is no single narrative behind the food price rebound – different factors are at play in each of the commodity groups,” said FAO’s Senior Grains Economist Abdolreza Abbassian. “But the increase, despite an expected record harvest and an improved stocks situation, and after six months of falling or stable prices, highlights the unpredictability prevailing in global food markets,” he added. “I can’t see that the usual suspects – the value of the dollar and oil prices – were  much involved in January. But one reason is poor weather currently affecting key growing regions like South America and Europe. It has played a role and remains a cause for concern,” he concluded.

What FAO is seeing and saying is routinely misunderstood or deliberately miscast by the mainstream business and financial press. An example of this can be seen in a recent opinion found on Forbes, the business magazine, which links “a slowing UN FAO food price index” and “falling commodity prices” to the global economic slowdown. This, the magazine has said, is “putting further downward pressure on food inflation”. Of course this is completely untrue, as wage labour, informal sector workers and middle class residents in many cities and towns of the South know.

Thus the ‘market’ view is that global demand for agricultural products appears to be slowing. This view exists because this sort of media represents the interests of its owners – the 1% targeted by the Occupy movement. Ever since 2011 July, when the FAO Food Price Index ceased its steady upward march, organs and media representing the interests of the global money markets and the interests of the speculators have attempted to leaven their crooked discussion of the matter by saying that the global dynamic in food and commodity markets took a structural turn. Their insistence on linking “quantitative easing in the USA” and what they call “emerging market demand” (meaning mainly China and India) for food staples has been a consistent feature of this disinformation.

What we are seeing is that the FAO Cereal Price Index averaged 223 points in January, up 2.3% (5 points) from December. International prices of all major cereals with the exception of rice rose, with maize gaining most, 6%. Wheat prices also gained, though less significantly. Prices mostly reflected worries about weather conditions affecting 2012 crops in several major producing regions. Fears of decline in export supplies in the Commonwealth of Independent States also played a part.

[The FAO Food Price Index data sheet is available here (xls).] [The FAO Deflated Prices data sheet is available here (xls).]

According to FAO’s latest forecast world cereal production in 2011 is expected to be more than sufficient to cover anticipated utilization in 2011-12. Production is expected to reach 2,327 million tonnes – up 4.6 million tonnes from the last estimate in December. That would be 3.6% more than in 2010 and a new record. FAO lowered slightly from December 2011 its cereal utilization forecast for 2011-12, to nearly 2,309 million tonnes, still 1.8% higher than in 2010-11. That would put cereal ending stocks by the close of seasons in 2012 at 516 million tones, 5 million tonnes above FAO’s last forecast.

A sober note has been sounded in the Jakarta Globe. The Indonesian newspaper reported the Asian Development Bank warning that Indonesia and other nations in Southeast Asia should be prepared for a possible rise in food prices, which might stoke inflation. Changyong Rhee, chief economist at ADB, is reported by the newspaper as having said the global financial turmoil, marked by the euro zone debt crisis and a possible slowdown in the US economy, might increase the volatility of prices for food and other commodities. According to the ADB, research funding [in agriculture] is being depleted amid climate change, making it difficult for food production to keep up with growing demand. “Food price increases have become more persistent than in the past,” he said in Jakarta. “It has a major impact on food security for millions [of people].” The Jakarta Globe reported that the FAO Food Price Index has risen by 50% in the last four years, compared with a 16% increase from 1991 to 2006.

Eat it? Then grow it, IRRI tells young Singaporeans

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Via the very active, carefully eclectic and tastefully humorous Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog comes this curiosity on IRRI, the International Rice Research Institute, which says that Singapore students will soon have the chance to learn one of the most fundamental and important aspects of living in Asia – how to grow rice.

This activity is being organized by the Science Centre Singapore (SCS) and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). The aim is to teach young Singaporeans about rice and how it is grown, especially the environmental cost of producing a bowl of rice.

“Rice is the single most important, best known, and most loved food staple in Singapore and across Asia,” says Duncan Macintosh, executive director of the IRRI Fund Singapore. “Even though we eat it every day, most Singapore students know little about rice and the challenge of growing it. We hope to change that by letting them grow their own rice. In the process, we also want them to learn – and get excited about – the biological sciences.”

The IRRI Fund Singapore is working with SCS to prepare and distribute 10,000 small packets of rice seed to students, with more being provided in subsequent years. They will then be taught how to sow, germinate, and take care of the rice in pots, while avoiding the use of standing water, either at school or at home. Each 5-gram packet will contain about 150 seeds, with an average germination rate of about 80 percent, easily guaranteeing at least one plant per packet, and likely many more.

Written by makanaka

October 23, 2010 at 00:18