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GM and its public sector servants in India

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[Continued from part one.]

The facade of sophisticated science carries with it an appeal to the technocrats within our central government and major ministries, and to those in industry circles, with the apparently boundless production and yield vistas of biotechnology seeming to complement our successes in space applications, in information technology, in nuclear power and complementing the vision of GDP growth.

Framed by such science, the messages delivered by the biotech MNC negotiators and their compradors in local industry appear to be able to help us fulfil the most pressing national agendas: ensure that food production keeps pace with the needs of a growing and more demanding population, provide more crop per drop, deliver substantially higher yield per acre, certified and high-performing seeds will give farmers twice their income, consumers will benefit from standardised produce at low rates, crops will perform even in more arid conditions, the use of inputs will decrease, and the litany of promised marvels goes on.

Yet it is an all-round ignorance that has allowed such messages to take root and allowed their messengers to thrive in a country that has, in its National Gene Bank over 157,000 accessions of cereals (including 95,000 of paddy and 40,000 of wheat), over 56,000 accessions of millets (the true pearls of our semi-arid zones), over 58,000 accessions (an accession is a location-specific variety of a crop species) of pulses, over 57,000 of oilseeds (more than 10,000 of mustard), and over 25,000 of vegetables.

And even so the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources reminds us that while the number of cultivated plant species is “relatively small and seemingly insignificant”, nature in India has evolved an extraordinary genetic diversity in crop plants and their wild relatives which is responsible for every agro-ecological sub-region, and every climatic variation and soil type that may be found in such a sub-region, being well supplied with food.

With such a cornucopia, every single ‘framed by great science’ claim about a GM crop made by the biotech MNCs must fall immediately flat because we possess the crop diversity that can already deliver it. Without the crippling monopolies that underlie the science claim, for these monopolies and licensing traps are what not only drove desi cotton out when Bt cotton was introduced but it did so while destroying farming households.

Without the deadly risk of risk of genetic contamination and genetic pollution of a native crop (such as, GM mustard’s risk to the many varieties of native ‘sarson’). Without the flooding of soil with a poison, glufosinate, that is the herbicide Bayer-Monsanto will force the sale of together with its GM seed (‘Basta’ is Bayer’s herbicide that is analogous to Monsanto’s fatal Glyphosate, which is carcinogenic to humans and destroys other plant life – our farmers routinely intercrop up to three crop species, for example mustard with chana and wheat, as doing so stabilises income).

Whereas the veil of ignorance is slowly lifting, the immediate questions that should be asked by food grower and consumer alike – how safe is it for plants, soil, humans, animals, pollinating insects and birds? what are the intended consequences? what unintended consequences are being studied? – are still uncommon when the subject is crop and food. This is what has formed an ethical and social vacuum around food, which has been cunningly exploited by the biotech MNCs and indeed which India’s retail, processed and packaged foods industry have profited from too.

When in October 2016 our National Academy of Agricultural Sciences shamefully and brazenly assured the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change on the safety of GM mustard, it did so specifically “To allay the general public concerns”. What followed was outright lies, such as “herbicide is used in the process only in hybrid production plot”, “The normal activity of bees is not affected”, “GE Mustard provides yield advantage”, “no adverse effect on environment or human and animal health”. None of these statements was based on study.

India grows food enough to feed its population ten years hence. What affects such security – crop choices made at the level of a tehsil and balancing the demands on land in our 60 agro-ecological sub-zones and 94 river sub-basins – is still influenced by political position, the grip of the agricultural ‘inputs’ industry on farmers, economic pressures at the household level, and the seasonal cycle. In dealing with these influences, ethics, safety and social considerations are rarely if ever in the foreground. Yet India is a signatory to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and its Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, whose Article 17 requires countries to prevent or minimise the risks of unintentional transboundary movements of genetically engineered organisms.

Neither the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), in the case of GM mustard, nor the Department of Biotechnology, the Department of Science and Technology (whose Technology Information, Forecasting and Assessment Council in a 2016 report saw great promise in genetic engineering for India), the Ministries of Environment and Agriculture, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR, with its 64 specialised institutions, 15 national research centres, 13 directorates, six national bureaux and four deemed universities), the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) have mentioned ethics, consumer and environment safety, or social considerations when cheering GM.

This group of agencies and institutions which too often takes its cue from the west, particularly the USA (which has since the 1950s dangled visiting professorships and research partnerships before the dazzled eyes of our scientific community) may find it instructive to note that caution is expressed even by the proponents of genetic engineering technologies in the country that so inspires them. In 2016 a report on ‘Past Experience and Future Prospects’ by the Committee on Genetically Engineered Crops, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine of the USA, recognised that the public is sceptical about GE crops “because of concerns that many experiments and results have been conducted or influenced by the industries that are profiting from these crops” and recommended that “ultimately, however, decisions about how to govern new crops need to be made by societies”.

Practices and regulations need to be informed by accurate scientific information, but recent history makes clear that what is held up as unassailable ‘science’ is unfortunately rarely untainted by interests for whom neither environment nor human health matter.

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

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An India economical with monsoon truths

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Monsoon measures for six weeks. A few more districts reporting the revised normal, but the deficient-2 category still has too many districts, and so does excess-2. And why so many 'no data' (many from the north-east)?

Monsoon measures for six weeks. A few more districts reporting the revised normal, but the deficient-2 category still has too many districts, and so does excess-2. And why so many ‘no data’ (many from the north-east)?

When a politician and a bureaucrat get together to supply punditry on the monsoon, the outcome is directionless confusion. There is no reason for our shared knowledge on monsoon 2014 to be reduced to a few boilerplate paragraphs and a couple of amateurish maps and charts, not with the equipment and scientific personnel the Republic of India has invested in so that we read the rain better. But Jitendra Singh, the Minister of State who is in charge of Science, Technology and Earth Sciences, and Laxman Singh Rathore, the Director General of the India Meteorological Department, have not progressed beyond the era of cyclostyled obfuscation.

The Press Information Bureau reported Singh as saying that there has been “significant increase in the monsoon during the last one week beginning from 13th July, and the seven days between last Sunday and this Sunday have recorded 11 percent increase in the monsoon country-wide”. Following suit, Rathore said: “The monsoon deficit has come down by 12 per cent and the overall deficit stands at around 31 per cent. This will bring in much needed relief to the farmers and solve the water issues.”

Coming from senior administrators, such fuzzy distraction cannot be tolerated. The Ministry of Earth Sciences, the India Meteorology Department and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting must cease (desist, stop, halt – do it now) the use of a ‘national’ rainfall average to describe the progress of monsoon 2014. This is a measure that has no meaning whatsoever for cultivators in any of our agro-ecological zones, and has no meaning for any individual taluka or tehsil in the 36 meteorological sub-divisions. What we need to see urgently adopted is a realistic overview that numerically and graphically explains the situation, at as granular a level as possible.

RG_rainfall_measure_six_weeks_20140723_sectionWhen that does not happen, news media and information sources struggle to make sense of monsoon and climate and their reporting becomes dangerously misleading – consider “Late monsoon starts Indian farmer’s ‘journey to hell’ “; “Why the monsoon numbers hide reality” (this report is an attempt to point out the problem); “Monsoon deficit has come down to 31 per cent, no need to be ‘alarmist’: Met office”; “Satisfactory rainfall may wash away monsoon deficit”.

Using a revised categorisation of rainfall sufficiency levels (my method and the reasoning for it use is available here) we find that for the fifth and sixth weeks of monsoon, there has been a small improvement which does not lower the high likelihood of drought conditions becoming prevalent in districts and scarcity of water for our settlements – Messers Singh and Rathore please note (or visit the Indian Climate Portal Monsoon 2014 page which is an active repository of reportage, views, commentary and original data analysis on our monsoon).

The fifth monsoon week is 03 to 09 July 2014 and the sixth monsoon week is 10 to 16 July 2014. There has been a small addition to the revised normal rainfall category (-5% to +5%), rising from 18 districts recording normal rainfall in the 4th week to 22 in the 5th and 28 in the 6th. There has also been an improvement in the number of districts recording deficit-2 levels of rainfall (-21% and more) with 437 in the 4th week, 411 in the 5th week and 385 in the 6th week. For the remainder of July the likelihood of more rainfall in the districts that have recorded normal or excess-1 (+6% to +20%) is small, according to the available forecasts, and this means that monsoon 2014 will begin August with far fewer districts registering normal rainfall than they should at this stage.

The NOAA map of the land and sea percentiles. Note the warm water south of India and to the east of the Philippines.

The NOAA map of the land and sea percentiles. Note the warm water south of India and to the east of the Philippines.

With many sowing cycles beginning belatedly between now and the end of July, the Ministry of Earth Sciences, the India Meteorology Department, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Water Resources are advised to work together (why aren’t they doing so already – or at least mandating ICAR institutes to supply them with analysis which they must absorb jointly?) to understand the impacts of regional, tropical and global climate trends that affect the Indian summer monsoon.

There is good reason to. According to NOAA, for 2014 June land and ocean surface temperatures jumped 0.72 Celsius above the 20th century average. These new records were pushed upwards by a broad warming of the ocean surface, and not only by an Equatorial Pacific whose waters are approaching the warmth usually seen during an El Nino. NOAA has said there was “extreme warming of almost every major world ocean zone” which warmed local air masses and had a far-reaching impact on global climate, “likely delaying the Indian monsoon”.

Appraising World Food Day 2013

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FAO-world_food_day_2013It must be difficult to be a senior official in the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the UN these days, especially if the official is above 40 years old and has spent the last two decades working “in the field” (which usually means away from some capital city somewhere, in discomfort that is amusingly relative to most of us proletarian toilers). For, I do think that there is still a majority of folk in the FAO who care about their work and the aims of the organisation, muddled though these get when 190-odd member states each bring their own version of reality (and ambition) into the proceedings.

More difficult it is nowadays in an FAO that is being shepherded more closely into the embrace of the OECD, the World Bank-International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organisation embrace, with its murmuring old boys’ clubs all shadowy in their suits, adept at facilitating the trade of political positions for corporate board seats. And more difficult it is nowadays in an FAO that is scrutinised every day by NGOs and civil society groups that have successfully ensured that negotiations called ‘multi-lateral’ must be open before public gaze and can no longer hide behind empty principles when hunger – FAO’s single problem – stalks the planet.

Perhaps that is one reason why the FAO has called this year’s World Food Day ‘Sustainable Food Systems for Food Security and Nutrition’ – and notice the addition of ‘nutirion’, there’s no getting away from the N-word these days, so loaded has it become. The theme, to borrow from the typically bland FAO pronouncement, “gives focus to World Food Day observances and helps increase understanding of problems and solutions in the drive to end hunger”. Well said, for the umpteenth time.

Via_Campesina_food_sovereigntyBut there have been departures from the corporate script lately which are surprising. On 2013 October 04 the Director General of FAO, José Graziano da Silva, formalised a tie with La Via Campesina, recognising it as the most important voice of small food producers worldwide. This is seen by Campesina as “yet another welcome step in a series of ongoing reforms of the FAO, which have created a unique and unprecedented space to collaborate with civil society and democratize the arena of global food policy”. Easier wished for than done, as Campesina well knows, because the financiers and bankers, agri-commodity trading oligopolies and mafioso, the crooked politicians in the European Union and their willing partners in the ‘developing’ world are not going to quietly let this happen.

These reforms are aimed at giving the FAO not just more political legitimacy by becoming more inclusive, but also at reviving it as the cornerstone for international cooperation in the area of food security, starting to take such policy decisions out of the hands of the World Bank (WB) or the World Trade Organization (WTO.) While these developments are welcome, the global peasants’ movement remains realistic about the amount of energy that should be put into the UN, maintaining its greatest strength on the ground mobilizing farmers and building alternatives.

The IFPRI Global Hunger Index 2013 world map, blatantly patronising in its North-South exclusion. The white areas are not even in the map legend. They correspond to the OECD/'industrialised' world, and the IFPRI/CGIAR view is that the chronic mis-nutrition of western societies has no place in a report on global hunger. Nor does this map consider the growing effects of working class poverty in the OECD countries.

The IFPRI Global Hunger Index 2013 world map, blatantly patronising in its North-South exclusion. The white areas are not even in the map legend. They correspond to the OECD/’industrialised’ world, and the IFPRI/CGIAR view is that the chronic mis-nutrition of western societies has no place in a report on global hunger. Nor does this map consider the growing effects of working class poverty in the OECD countries.

In 2012, at the 39th session of FAO’s Committee on Food Security (CFS), the G20 approached the CFS and asked the Committee to agree with what it said on price volatility in agricultural commodities, which since 2007 has dragged tens of millions of households in South and North into hunger and debt. When that happened, and when a compromised CFS agreed, the civil society delegation to the session walked out. The NGOs, social movements, representatives of peasants’ federations and associations who were present had, on the contrary, demanded strong regulation of the commodity futures markets that fuel price volatility and the food insecurity of the poorest. But the G20 (and that means the investors in a global agribusiness industry) won that round.

With the help of the CGIAR, what for the sake of convenience we call the G20 will want to win every time. The CGIAR is the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research which runs 15 centres around the world that are described as “independent, non-profit research organizations, innovating on behalf of poor people in developing countries” and as being “home to almost 10,000 scientists, researchers, technicians, and staff working to create a better future for the world’s poor”. The descriptions about ‘independent’, ‘non-profit’ and ‘for the poor’ are lies, as they have been for every single one of the 40 years of this plague called the CGIAR. But the CGIAR system is large, powerful, almost invisible and little understood except by those in agricultural research systems (such as those in the Indian Council of Agricultural Research) in ‘developing’ countries.

And that is why the release, a few days ago, of the ‘Global Hunger Index’ 2013 needs to be interpreted for what it is, because it is the product of one of the CGIAR centres, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). The annual index offers a ranking of hunger, or food insecurity/security for many countries but not all (see the image of the map and its caption). The IFPRI functions worldwide as a motivated think-tank that commissions carefully scripted research to fulfil pre-determined outputs that serve the interests of those who profit from the industrial agricultural system and retail food system.

That such an obvious fifth column finds residence and a willing ear in India ought to be a matter of shame to us. Here is a small example why. The IFPRI, in the 2013 Global Hunger Index, has distributed its ‘recommendations’ which are from the typical neo-liberal charter of subjugation of the working classes and the denial of choice, all camouflagued by whichever development jargon is found to be currently in vogue.

The cover of the Global Hunger Index 2013 report. Read the recommendations to grasp why this has been released, ignore the data.

The cover of the Global Hunger Index 2013 report. Read the recommendations to grasp why this has been released, ignore the data.

Hence “broader policy coherence for development is also a key requirement for efforts to strengthen resilience. Policies that undermine resilience must be revised. To foster resilience to undernutrition, policies should be designed with the intention of improving nutrition outcomes and realising the right to adequate food” in fact means – do away with policies that still see a role for the state and the public sector, hide this behind trendy concepts like ‘resilience’ and ‘right to food’, but include nutrition (which I mentioned earlier) because that is the route the MNCs have successfully used.

Hence “encourage and facilitate a multisectoral approach to resilience (as the Scaling Up Nutrition movement encourages a multisectoral approach to nutrition, for example), coordinating plans and programs across line ministries” in fact means – phase out your thinking and replace it with ours, which comes with a United Nations endorsement and which places private business at the centre of policy and its implementation.

Hence “adjust policies and strategies that undermine the resilience of poor and vulnerable groups, such as the low import tariffs or the structural neglect of smallholder agriculture in Haiti” in fact means – remove barriers to food imports, stop subsidies and subventions that the poor, marginalised and vulnerable have a right to in your country (consider the ruckus the World Trade Organisation has been making about India’s new National Food Security Act) and spout righteous claptrap about ‘neglect’.

Hence “ensure that policies and programs draw on a wide range of expertise such as collaborative, multiagency, and multisectoral problem analysis. National governments should support the emergence of multistakeholder platforms and make active use of such forums” in fact means – the expertise will be foreign and provided by the CGIAR and its numerous allies in all garbs, these ‘multi’ platforms will be public showcases to conceal an agenda already set.

[The full IFPRI Global Hunger Index 2013 report is here. The ‘issue brief is here’ for those who want a condensed dose of dangerous neo-liberal vitamins. And the obligatory data set used to support the well-set arguments is here.]

There is no comparison between the IFPRI propaganda and the annual report of the Right to Food and Nutrition Watch 2013, the sixth edition of which was released in 2014 October. The Watch identifies a number of policies that generate hunger and malnutrition instead of reducing them. The Watch insists on the need for meaningful participation – at every level – of people and communities in the development of those public policies which affect their lives.

You will find here national case studies and analysis that show (1) policies that foster violence and discrimination against women with regard to equal access to natural resources, inheritances, equal wages and political decision-making, (2) policies that systematically limit and exclude large groups, including peasants, agricultural workers, fisherfolks, pastoralists and indigenous peoples from participating in those decisions that affect their very livelihoods and (3) policies on a global level that facilitate land grabbing, concentrated ownership of natural resources and the commodification of public goods that deprive smallholders and other people of their food resources.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hear, hear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cost of India’s urban land grab

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This is one of two related articles written by me and published by Infochange India.The full article is here.

Transplanting paddy in the rice fields of North Goa, in monsoon 2011

If the Government of India is, during the finalisation of the Twelfth Plan (2012-17) direction for agriculture and food, deciding to favour production over rural livelihood needs, then it must recognise clearly the internal land grab that India’s farm households are experiencing. The protests in western Uttar Pradesh by farmers’ groups typify the scale of the diversion of farmland for real estate development or industrial use. In the last four years the Bahujan Samaj Party of Uttar Pradesh has approved a number of projects like the Yamuna Expressway which has been allotted to a private company, JP Infratech Ltd, which holds a contract that includes the right to construct apart from the right to collect tolls for 36 years.

A village in the tribal regions of Navsari district, Gujarat, off the Mumbai-Ahmedabad highway and its 'ribbon' land development

Along this 165-km eight-lane “super highway” a “hi-tech city” has been planned. This will include industrial parks, residential colonies, shopping malls, professional colleges, schools, hospitals and urban services centres. Currently estimated as a Rs 9,500 crore project this “hi-tech” city will, when complete to plan, occupy 43,000 hectares of land that is currently under cultivation by the residents of 1,191 villages. This very large land grab alone will remove the potential to harvest about 100,000 tonnes of foodgrain a year — an amount that can fulfil the cereal needs of all of urban Haryana for five weeks.

There are 533 urban centres with populations of between 1 million and 50,000 — this is apart from the metropolises. The drive to encourage the faster urbanisation of these 533 towns and cities has already taken an unknown amount of farmland out of cultivation. There is an estimate that in the last decade — to a large degree a consequence of the relentless expansion of the National Capital Region — Uttar Pradesh has lost about 6 million hectares of farmland. The expansion of the NCR and its satellite developments is unparalleled in modern India, but it is the biggest example of the land grab that is taking place in all urban areas in India.

A stack of crop residue in Satara district, Maharashtra. This biomass is increasingly being diverted from traditional uses and towards energy

Estimates based on fieldwork and the use of longitudinal spatial mapping based on satellite imagery show that for every acre of cultivable land that is built upon or used for urban purposes, over five years an additional four cultivable acres turns fallow and is quickly converted to non-agricultural use. How much has India lost in 2010? How much has it lost from 2001 to 2010? There are no best guesses, no reliable estimates, there is not even experimental methodology to apply to the chief crop-growing regions and their expanding settlements. Yet the macroeconomic models being produced for the central government and planning agencies promise ever-increasing yields from a plateau of cultivated land area. One of them is wrong and the evidence on the ground — and from the protests by farmers of Bhatta Parsaul village in Greater Noida — points to the error being in the models.

Will these errors be corrected before March 2012, when the Eleventh Plan ends? Will the social costs of real food inflation be counted, and will actual retail food inflation in India’s tier two and tier three cities be recognised and its underlying causes made public? At this point, all the answers are likely to be negative. The Government of India, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Food Processing, the Ministry of Commerce and Industry (Department of Commerce), the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and central and state planning agencies now speak the same language — the message is that most of the growth in agriculture in future will come not from foodgrains, but from sectors such as horticulture, dairying and fisheries, where the produce is perishable, and where even greater attention needs to be paid to the logistics of transporting produce from the farm to the consumer, with minimum spoilage. Urban and urbanising markets and the structural change in nutrition being demanded by a section of the country’s population form the focus.

[This is one of two related articles written by me and published by Infochange India.The full article is here.]

Why India’s ‘growth’ focus is ignoring the food access question

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This is one of two related articles written by me and published by Infochange India. The full article is here.

Waiting for the bus in Satara district, Maharashtra

How much food will India need to grow to feed our population in 2011-12? How much in 2013-14? Will we need to import wheat and rice or will we be self-sufficient? Do we know the environmental cost of this self-sufficiency? Are we willing to bear it? These are the questions that the Government of India, its ministries and its planning agencies must find answers to before the start of the Twelfth Five Year Plan period, which is 2012-17.

The foodgrains view from mid-2011 is one of relative comfort — 235 million tonnes is the estimate (including 94 mt rice and 84 mt wheat).

From this position, the Government of India has a set of six broad-brush objectives. These it wants its ministries and departments, connected directly and as adjunct to food and its provision, to internalise. It wants state governments to shape policy to support these objectives, which are:
* Target at least 4% growth for agriculture. Cereals are on target for 1.5% to 2% growth. India should concentrate more on other foods, and on animal husbandry and fisheries where feasible.
* Land and water are the critical constraints. Technology must focus on land productivity and water use efficiency.

On what was formerly farm land in Thane district, Maharashtra, residential condominiums are being quickly built

* Farmers need better functioning markets for both outputs and inputs. Also, better rural infrastructure, including storage and food processing.
* States must act to modify the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) Act/Rules (exclude horticulture), modernise land records and enable properly recorded land lease markets.
* The Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana (RKVY) has helped convergence and innovation and gives state governments flexibility. This must be expanded in the Twelfth Plan.
* The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) should be redesigned to increase contribution to land productivity and rain-fed agriculture. Similarly, the Forest Rights Act (FRA) has potential to improve forest economies and tribal societies. But convergence with the National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM) is required for strengthening rural livelihoods.

Are these objectives reasonable? Are they equitable and will they encourage an agriculture that is ecologically sustainable in India? From a resources use perspective, the government is right to point out certain constraints (land and water) and administrative improvements (land records, using NREGA labour for farm needs). The direction to provide better infrastructure in India’s rural districts, the better to link farmers to markets with, has been stated in every single Five Year Plan for the last five plan periods, and has been repeated in every single plan review and even more often in the Economic Surveys which accompany the annual budgets. (Under the Bharat Nirman programme, this need has to an extent been met, but the beneficiaries are as likely industry and land developers as they are cultivators.)

A 'basti' in Satara district, Maharashtra, whose residents provide both agricultural and construction site labour

Protecting livelihoods in agriculture, cultivation and from use of forest produce is not, however, a central aim for food and agriculture in the Twelfth Plan. This omission, surprising from the social equity point of view, is taking place because the central government has before it three points it is trying to make sense of, and to decide the best way to tackle. In brief, these three points are: there is a “structural change” taking place in nutrition (more consumption of dairy and meat); there are world factors influencing foodgrain production, consumption and use in India; there are indications that agriculture’s share of GDP is today edging higher than it was five years ago, and that per capita agricultural income is increasing faster than overall per capita income.

It is the last trend, as seen by the central government although not by smallholder farmers and marginal cultivators, which is being taken as proof that new approaches to agriculture are delivering income benefits. The new approaches revolve heavily around the provision of infrastructure that aids modern terminal markets, agri-logistics, cold supply chains, integrated farm to retail companies, agricultural commodity traders, private warehousing service providers, export-oriented food processing units, contract farming operations which are linked to branded processed food, and exporters of cereals, fruits and vegetables. It is here that the growth in agricultural GDP is taking place and it is here that the rise in per capita agricultural income is being recorded. The central government will fight shy of a real cost-real price district analysis of agricultural investment and income because it will reveal the huge structural imbalances that are forming — that is why a national outlook artificially disaggregated into states becomes far more comfortable to defend.

[This is one of two related articles written by me and published by Infochange India. The full article is here.]

A bumper year for India’s food production?

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The third advance estimates of production of foodgrain in India has been released by the Ministry of Agriculture.

A comparison of final production of the years 1997-98 to 2010-11 (a 14-year period) with the third advance estimates shows that 2010-11 is expected to produce a record 235.88 million tons of foodgrain. This amount is higher than the 233.88 million tons of 2008-09 and the 230.78 million tons of 2007-08.

The year 2010-11 is expected to yield the third highest production of rice in the 14-year period, with 94.11 million tons, the highest production of wheat with 84.27 million tons, and the second highest production of coarse cereals with 40.21 million tons. Total cereals are to be the second highest ever in the 14-year period with production estimated at 218.59 million tons. Total pulses are expected to be 17.29 million tons, the highest in the 14-year period.

The third advance estimates will be seen by the Ministry of Agriculture and by India’s national agricultural research system (headed by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research; ICAR) as proof that the flagship programmes are delivering. These are the National Food Security Mission and the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana.

[The data file with the updated Third Advance Estimates is now ready. Get it here. The 14-year-comparison tables for foodgrain crops is available here.]

The third advance estimates for 2010-11 was released on 2011 April 06 by the Department of Agriculture & Cooperation / Directorate of Economics & Statistics / Agricultural Statistics Division.

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”.

Industrial farming versus the peasantry

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Vegetable vendor, district bazaar, Maharashtra

The October-November 2010 issue of Himal Southasian is out and includes a contribution from me. The issue is themed on agriculture and ruralscapes in Southasia (that’s how Himal spells it, one word). Here’s an extract from my article:

India’s government and its agricultural research establishment are forging new compacts with the private sector food industry. Their reasons for doing so are the breakdown of agricultural extension and the need for food infrastructure. Yet low-input organic farming yields sufficient produce in tune with local conditions, and is well suited to smallholder rural farming households. This benefit is opposite to the ‘agritech’ demands of food industry powers in India, and at risk is the farm livelihood of the country’s massive majority of farmers.

In July, India’s agriculture minister, Sharad Pawar, talked about the role of the private sector in agricultural research and human-resource development in the country’s food industry. His audience was made up of participants of an ‘industry meet’ put up by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), assembled to discuss four issues: seed and planting material; diagnostics, vaccines and biotechnological products; farm implements and machinery; and post-harvest engineering and ‘value addition’.

Vegetable vendor, district bazaar, Maharashtra

Pawar explained the conventional approach of public-sector agricultural research and development, which has been to take responsibility for setting priorities, mobilising resources, research, development and dissemination. He then explained that agricultural extension – the education of farmers in new techniques and technologies, which has been neglected for several years – is ‘no longer appropriate’. Instead, he urged the adoption of 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 [the farmers] otherwise lack’.

The so-called area, production and yield (APY) model of measuring agriculture in India has long been the dominant one, focusing on growth in irrigated area, crop production in tons and yield per hectare. In following this model, central and state planners, leveraging the reach and influence of the national agricultural research system, have automatically tended towards technology as an enabling factor and the economics of the organised food industry. This strong bias exists as a legacy of the successful years of the Green Revolution, when the massive laboratory-led creation of high-yield varieties proceeded in step with massive irrigation programmes and farm mechanisations schemes. In the process, they have turned the needs of small and marginal cultivating households into programmes and schemes, so that these small-scale farmers become ‘consumers of technology’ rather than being recognised as holders of traditional agricultural knowledge.

How the price of tomatoes is determined

These sustainable agricultural systems contribute to the delivery and maintenance of a range of public goods such as clean water, carbon sequestration, flood protection, groundwater recharge and soil conservation. But since they cannot help to achieve short-term profit-oriented goals, both the commercial effort of the National Agriculture Research System and the private sector ignore them. Finally, the cost-benefit of conservation of resources can be determined by the scarcity value of those resources. For instance, will urban food consumers be willing to pay for watershed protection in a district from which they import food?

The only way to get a positive answer from this question is by investing in public education, and by building it into public policy at an institutional level – where it immediately runs into political and business interests. The development of community-supported organic agriculture in India can provide an alternative, which will depend more on the ability of associations of organic farmers to organise, rather than on state support.

India’s organic farming systems. These grow a variety of cereals, tubers, leafy vegetables, fruits and tree crops without chemical fertiliser and pesticide and largely depend on saved seed. There are well-established biological and energy benefits of organic and agro-ecological farming that, under the growing shadow of climate change and energy scarcity, become even more compelling for farming communities.

There’s more in the full article which can be found here.