Resources Research

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

Posts Tagged ‘nutrition

Brazen FAO flies its double helix colours

with 3 comments

The matter that faces us now concerning the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is: how should we consider what its activities represent? Like other UN agencies, the FAO works according to a mandate, which is agreed upon by its member states. Where the FAO is concerned, that mandate has to do with agriculture, not in the form of crops produced per hectare or acre, but in terms of who the cultivators and growers are, what their living and working conditions are, and the manner in which the crop and food they produce reaches the hands of those who need it.

RG_FAO_biotech_201602Looked at in this way, an organisation such as the FAO has as one of its responsibilities the provision of support, in as many ways as possible, of the majority of those who grow food and the majority of those who buy food. In recent years however, the UN FAO has set aside this responsibility, deliberately and according to a plan. This dereliction of duty – in fact it is a duty agreed upon by FAO member states, of which there are 197 – can only be explained in one way: the FAO of today no longer represents the smallholder cultivator and farmer and peasant, and no longer represents the rural communities for whom agriculture is a dominant part of their biocultural life.

If the FAO now functions as an industry association (that is, representing the interests of a range of industries and technologies within the agriculture and food sector) then that is the choice of the organisation, presumably with the consent of the member states. However, such a deviation from its role hitherto then calls into question the funding it receives from said members, for that funding has for the 70 years of the organisation’s existence been predicated upon the FAO fulfilling its responsibility towards smallholder and peasant farmers, wherever in the world they may be. If the FAO is today an industry organisation – which its recent actions proclaim it to be – then the 197 member states must stop giving the organisation an annual contribution.

Via_Campesina_COP21Will such a cessation of financial support make a difference to the FAO of 2016? Let us examine how the organisation is funded. The total FAO Budget planned for 2016-17 is US$ 2.6 billion. Of this amount, 39% comes from contributions paid by member countries, whereas 61% is to come from what are called “voluntary contributions from members and other partners”. Some countries pay more than others, some very much more, some not at all. The USA maintains an outstanding towards the FAO that is ludicrous – it is US$ 96.97 million in arrears.

But what is of concern to us is the alteration in the balance of the members’ contributions and the so-called voluntary contributions, in the rough ration of 40 to 60. This means that 6 out of 10 dollars that the FAO receives is used for what the organisation calls “support technical and emergency (including rehabilitation) assistance to governments for clearly defined purposes linked to the results framework” and which is different from the activities provided for under the “regular budget”.

Under the circumstances that I have just described therefore, the FAO-hosted international symposium, titled ‘The Role of Agricultural Biotechnologies in Sustainable Food Systems and Nutrition’, which is under way 15-17 February 2016, is what any trade organisation would call an interest group gathering with an intent to change policy and practice in a manner that profits and benefits the members of that interest group.

It is opaque to us for now, based on the information provided by the FAO on this symposium, whether the money spent on transporting to Rome “over 400 scientists, representatives of government, civil society, the private sector, academia, farmers’ associations and cooperatives” for a conference to “explore how agricultural bio-technologies can benefit family farmers, particularly those in developing countries, who need to improve nutrition and food systems while facing the challenges of poverty, climate change, and population growth” – whether the money spent to do so comes out of the regular budget or out of a voluntary contribution. An answer either way must only lead to further very critical questions asked of the FAO senior management.

FAO_biotech_msg_1These questions must be asked of FAO at all levels – particularly in FAO member states whose contributions to the organisation’s regular budget may be minuscule, but whose food and agriculture line ministries and departments, whose institutions and laboratories are induced or coerced into accepting an “inter-governmentally mandated package of best practices” that does everything to help the international agriculture biotechnology and industrial crop cultivation corporations and traders, and nothing whatsoever for those member countries’ peasant and smallholder farmers.

What the FAO is doing with this bio-technology symposium is worse than unconscionable and worse than being wilfully unmindful about the evidence of the harm – to animal populations, ecosystems and humans – caused by biotechnologies and especially those employed for agricultural purposes. The serious harm to health and the ecological and agronomical impacts of glyphosate and glyphosate tolerant crops for example are the most thoroughly researched. The same kind of evidence has now emerged for Bt crops and Bt toxins. Evidence that genetic modification per se is harmful is as broad and unimpeachable, with the uncontrollable processes of genetic modification having led to the phenomena of antibiotic resistance (reported from all over the world), the creation of new pathogens, the incidence of cancers, and the hijacking of the human body’s natural nucleic acids to do harm.

FAO_biotech_msg_2It is deliberately misleading and deeply cynical for the FAO to claim, with a banal insouciance, that this symposium “focuses mainly on the broad range of biotechnologies that could result in yield increases, better nutritional qualities, and improved productivities of crops, livestock, fish and trees benefitting family farmers and their food systems, nutrition and livelihoods”. This is the sort of cartoonish PR piffle that the UN sustainable development goals (the SDGs) have been wrapped in to appeal to the social media tendencies of the world’s teenagers.

For the last two years out of the four that José Graziano da Silva has been at the head of the organisation, the tilt towards industrial agriculture and biotechnology has become very much more pronounced compared with the already sorry condition the organisation was during the second term of Jacques Diouf (the Senegalese diplomat who was director-general from January 1994 to 31 December 2011). Under da Silva the “agriculture for nutrition” campaign line has become very much more prevalent, and has been supported – voluntary contributions facilitated by the FAO’s Partnerships and Advocacy Branch (an office by itself, and a very industrious one) – by a host of private sector networks and consortia whose interests encompass biofortification, pharmaceuticals, and agricultural biotechnologies.

The symposium has been condemned fiercely and jointly by 42 international and regional organisations with 131 national and local organisations (173 in all) led by La Via Campesina, Grain and ETC Group. “It is clear that, through the FAO, industry wants to re-launch their false message that genetically engineered crops can feed the world and cool the planet, while the reality is that nothing has changed on the biotech front,” is Via Campesina’s statement which adds that GMO use “throws farmers off the land” while “the industrial food system that it promotes is one of the main drivers of climate change”.

el_salto_magazine_'Transgenicos', El Salto magazine, by jcharlie http://jcharlie.deviantart.com/

‘Transgenicos’, El Salto magazine, by jcharlie http://jcharlie.deviantart.com/

The same corporations (feted by FAO as valuable private sector partners) are going beyond conventional GMO plant varieties toward ‘extreme biotech’ strategies such as synthetic biology to create new genetic constructs, Via Campesina has warned. “Not only do they ignore the rights of farmers, they are using biotechnologies to patent plant genes that are already in peasants’ fields and that we have selected ourselves. They want to forbid us to produce our own seeds and oblige us to buy their patented GMOs every year as well as their toxic pesticides, indispensable to grow those GMOs. In animal husbandry and fisheries where transgenic salmon and pigs already exist, we see the same scenario, the strengthening of industrial production and the increase in the use of antibiotics.”

Grain, which works to support small farmers and social movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems, has in its comments said that two of the FAO keynote speakers at the symposium are known proponents of GMOs, and the agenda and side events over the three days include speakers from the Biotechnology Industry Organization (a biotech trade group in the USA), Crop Life International (the global agro-chemicals trade association), DuPont (one of the world’s largest biotech seed companies) and CEVA (a major veterinary medicine corporation), among others.

“FAO has only invited one speaker or panellist openly critical of GMOs,” Grain has said (that one is from Via Campesina). “One of the two speakers at the opening session is a former assistant director general of FAO who has pushed for so-called Terminator seeds (GMO seeds programmed to die at harvest time forcing farmers to purchase new seeds every growing season), in opposition to FAO’s own public statements.”

Just when the biotech companies that make transgenic seeds are merging, the ETC Group has stated (with Syngenta having agreed to sell itself and its technologies to the government-owned China National Chemical Corporation, or ChemChina, only a fortnight ago), “the corporate vision of biotechnology is showing up at FAO” with the symposium being “another attempt by multinational agribusiness to redirect the policies of the UN agency toward support for GMOs”. ETC Group has demanded that FAO put an end to biopiracy and to its support for genetically modified crops, but as I have outlined earlier, the biotechnology purveyors in the FAO will have none of it because the structures of funding and control have been altered perhaps beyond the reach of the organisation’s member states.

What is left to do? Proscribe the UN FAO for its anti-small farmer and anti-peasant activities, encourage members states to demand that FAO mend its ways or step out of the organisation, and meanwhile demand that governments central and local ban all environmental releases of GMOs and synthetic biology. As the 173 signatories to the statement on the symposium show through their work, action can be taken locally in communities, villages, towns, municipalities, regions, as well as nationally and globally. As for the benighted symposium, here is a news article by FAO on the conference, this is the page for the event, the brochure, summaries of presentations (which provide one more confirmation of the fundamentally destructive intentions of the biotech industry), and a ‘key messages’ sheet from FAO whose manner and attitudes betray the extent to which an industrial mind now runs this particular UN agency.

The uses of a Nobel prize in economics

leave a comment »

The 2015 Nobel prize for economics has been awarded to Angus Deaton, who is based in the Princeton University, in USA. Deaton’s work has been on poverty and his contemporaries in the field are Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze; all three have focused on poverty, malnutrition, consumption by households and how to measure these.

Herewith my view which I set out in a series of 37 tweets:

1 – like every single Nobel award category, the one for economics is calculated recognition of the use of Western ideas.
2 – There is no Nobel in economics for, say, Pacific islander economics or nomadic/pastoral economics. The boundary is clear.
3 – There is the additional problem, and it is a weighty one, of what is being recognised: a science or a thought experiment?
4 – Western economics can only ever and at best pretend to be a science (ignore the silly equations). There’s more.
5 – It has to do with food and food consumption choices. Do remember that. For the last 5-6 years the food MNCs and their..
6 – collaborators in Bharat have moved from hunger to nutrition. Remember that we grow enough food for all our households..
7 – and there are in 2016 about 175 million rural and 83 million urban households. So, food is there but choice is not yet..
8 – as clear as the marketeers and retailers pretend. No one truly knows, but economists claim to, and this one does.
9 – What then follows is the academic deification of the thought experiment, done carefully over a decade. The defenders..
10 – of the postulations of Deaton, Dreze, Sen et al turn this into a handmaiden of poverty study. And India is poor..
11 – (but Bharat is not). So we now have consumer choice, poverty, malnutrition and a unified theory to bridge the mess..
12 – for such a third world mess can only find salvation through the scientific ministrations of Western economics. The stage
13 – was thus set some years ago, when the Congress/UPA strove abundantly to craft a halo for this thought experiment..
14 – and in the process, all other explanations concerning food and the manner of its many uses were banished from both..
15 – policy and the academic trend of the day. But Deaton’s experiment is only as good as his references, which aren’t..
16 – for the references, as any kirana shop owner and any mandi bania knows, are more unreliable than reliable. What our..
17 – primary crop quantities are have only ever been a best estimate subject to abundant caution and local interpretation..
18 – for a thought experiment which seeks to unify food, malnutrition, poverty and ‘development’ this one has clay feet..
19 – which nevertheless is good enough for the lords of food crop and seed of the world, for it takes only the shimmer of..
20 – academic respectability such as that accumulated by Deaton, Dreze and Sen to turn postulate into programme. What we..
21 – will now see is what has been seen in medicine (and therefore public health) and in ‘peace’ (hence geopolitics) because..
22 – of the benediction the Nobel aura confers. This work will be press-ganged into the service of the new nutritionists..
23 – whose numbers are growing more rapidly than, a generation ago, did the numbers of the poverty experts. It is no longer..
24 – food and hunger and malnutrition but consumer choice, nutrition and the illusions of welfare. This is the masala mix..
25 – seized upon by those who direct the Nobel committee as they seek to control our 105 million tons of rice, 95 of wheat..
26 – our 43 million tons of coarse cereals, 20 of pulses, 170 of vegetables and 85 of fruit and turn this primary wealth..
27 – of our Bharat into a finance-capital manifesto outfitted with Nobel armoury that is intended to strip choice (not to..
28 – support it) from our kisans who labour on the 138 million farm holdings of our country (85% of them small and marginal)..
29 – and from our 258 million households (as they will be next year) towards whose thalis is destined the biofortified and..
30 – genetically modified menace of hyper-processed primary crop that is digitally retailed and cunningly marketed. This..
31 – is the deft and cunning manoeuvring that has picked on the microeconomist of post-poverty food study aka nutrition..
32 – as being deserving of Nobel recognition (when five years ago the Nobel family dissociated itself from this category).
33 – And so the coast has been duly cleared. The troublesome detritus of poverty macro-economics has been replaced by the..
34 – big data-friendliness of a rickety thought experiment which lends itself admirably to a high-fashion ‘development’..
35 – industry that basks in ‘sustainable’ hues and reflects the technology-finance tendencies of the SDGs. Food is no longer..
36 – in vogue but the atomisation of community crop and diet choice most certainly is. The pirate pennant of Western macro-
37 – economics is all aflutter again, thanks to the Nobel wind of 2015, but I will not allow it to fly over my Bharat. Never.

What the WTO-FAO alliance on food portends

with 2 comments

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.

The FAO mask slips further

leave a comment »

Family farming is a descriptive phrase that rings well with environmentalists, with anthropologists and ethnologists who have had anything to do with food and its cultivation, with naturalists and especially with the many groups promoting agro-ecological farming all over the world. What could be wrong with recognising and valorising family farming?

The FAO's view of smallholder farming, agri-business and markets, rendered in textbook business school fashion.

The FAO’s view of smallholder farming, agri-business and markets, rendered in textbook business school fashion.

Quite a lot, when it comes through the machinery of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s propaganda mill. The most cited of the FAO’s ‘flagship’ publications, the State of Food and Agriculture in 2014 has as its theme family farming, but this theme carries a passenger, which the FAO has described as ‘Innovation in family farming’. And that is how the mask has slipped further.

[The State of Food and Agriculture, FAO’s major annual flagship publication has as its 2014 theme ‘Innovation in family farming’ (the full report here and a summary here).]

The publication needs to be read not for the assertions of how important smallholder farming is, but for the conceptual machinery that has been assembled so that a technical take-over of small farms can be achieved with limited opposition. This is the scheme of the FAO of 2014, which is sadly a very different agency from what it was even a decade ago.

SOFA 2014 in its prose swings rather schizophrenically between sugary pronouncements about how family farms are “the custodians of about 75 percent of all agricultural resources in the world”, and therefore why they should be the new focus for an innovation that is techno-centric. The publication has made liberal use of terms such as “improved ecological and resource sustainability” and where the word ‘sustainable’ is used ‘vulnerable’ is surely not far behind. It isn’t, and SOFA 2014 goes to some lengths to convince its readers that most family farms are vulnerable in one or many ways.

The spin doctors employed by the FAO have come up with what the publication has called a triple challenge for family farming (challenges are most intimidating when they come in threes). This is: “yield growth to meet the world’s need for food security and better nutrition; environmental sustainability to protect the planet and to secure their own productive capacity; and productivity growth and livelihood diversification to lift themselves out of poverty and hunger”. The answer, according to the machine men of international crop science, is that they must innovate (or, better still, nominally hold the title to the factors of crop production while the innovation is administered by outside agents).

FAO_SOFA_2014_coverThis very brief canning of the publication’s main objective helps to place in context the main messages of this year’s State of Food and Agriculture, which include:

“Family farms are part of the solution for achieving food security and sustainable rural development; the world’s food security and environmental sustainability depend on the more than 500 million family farms that form the backbone of agriculture in most countries.”

Here the device of a very large number, 500 million, is used to reassure the critics that the forces that would control the world’s crop staples are unlikely to homogenise such a number. But indeed it is their number and variety that are being studied carefully in order to find approaches that – to use the acidic terms of the multi-lateral banks – boost investor confidence. Hence the considered advice from FAO: “Family farms are an extremely diverse group, and innovation systems must take this diversity into account.”

There is more on complexity and diversity with specific regard to the institutions for crop science (and for food retail and sales, the porcine twin of formal modern agriculture research). The SOFA has said: “The challenges facing agriculture and the institutional environment for agricultural innovation are far more complex than ever before; the world must create an innovation system that embraces this complexity.” What the FAO means by “more complex than ever before” is the growing opposition to industrial agriculture, agricultural biotechnology and the use of genetic modification techniques. So, the embracing that is called for is one that should sound acceptable, non-threatening, inclusive, participatory and all the other terms that the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal-setters so volubly use.

FAO_SOFA_2014_cover_bwInstitutions cost money, which will come from where exactly? The FAO has a ready answer. “Public investment in agricultural R&D and extension and advisory services should be increased and refocused to emphasise sustainable intensification and closing yield and labour productivity gaps.” That is to say, leave the innovation bit to the private sector, turn your research centres (built and run with public monies) over to us, dismantle your nationalist agricultural extension service but give us the network, and look how we close yield and productivity gaps. That’s the pitch, in a nutshell, ignoring the several blunt cautions raised by other UN agencies (including the previous Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food) that we have quite enough food but far too little equity and fairness concerning how it reaches those who need it.

This publication, the State of Food and Agriculture, is the latest that has been outfitted to serve FAO’s new interest, camouflaged though it is. The usual empowering wordiness that has become so tiresomely characteristic of the UN system is on view here too: family farmers need an enabling environment, good governance, stable macroeconomic conditions, transparent legal and regulatory regimes, secure property rights, risk management tools, market infrastructure, capacity development through investment in education and training, participatory agricultural research, emphasise sustainable intensification, closing the yield and productivity gaps.

Until the next major report, this one will be turned into a mini-curriculum to be referenced by client governments so that a technologically obsessed industrial agriculture and seed industry annexes larger shares of old markets (India and South-East Asia) and totally subordinates small new ones (African countries). ‘Fiat panis’ (let there be bread) is the FAO motto and after a reading of SOFA 2014 one could be excused for considering that this motto be switched with ‘fiat food oligarchs’, for that is the direction the FAO, under Jose Graziano da Silva, is firmly pursuing.

The fitful pulse of an Indian food staple

leave a comment »

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

Let them eat biscuits

with 3 comments

A cereal substitute habit for five rupees, in every flavour, colour and with fatty and sugary toppings.

A cereal substitute habit for five rupees, in every flavour, colour and with fatty and sugary toppings.

Five rupees and fifty grammes. That is the most popular price-quantity combination that biscuits in India are made available in. At 100-112 rupees per kilo, the budget biscuits are designed to be the cereal-based substitute for a fresh meal or food that quickly becomes a habit.

To examine what the 5, 10 and more expensive packets of biscuits deliver after quelling your hunger, I bought 27 different biscuit packets that are commonly available in retail shops that you find in metros and towns alike. Parle, Sunfeast and Britannia have several brands each in this price-to-weight category of biscuits.

Weight in grammes, the red marker, on the left scale. Price in rupees, the blue marker, on the right scale. For the 27 common biscuit brands examined.

Weight in grammes, the red marker, on the left scale. Price in rupees, the blue marker, on the right scale. For the 27 common biscuit brands examined.

Here are quick findings:

The most kilocalories per rupee: Parle Monaco Classic Regular (101), Parle Krackjack Original (100.4), Parle 20-20 Cashew Butter Cookies (98.8), Sunfeast Butter Cookies (98.8), Parle 20-20 Butter Cookies (98).

The most sugar in 50 grammes of biscuits: Parle Happy Happy Chocolate Sandwich (21.5 gm), Sunfeast Special Tasty Pineapple Cream (19.75), Sunfeast Special Tasty Orange Cream (19.5), Cadbury Oreo Strawberry (19.35), Cadbury Oreo Original (19.2).

The most fat in 50 grammes of biscuits: Britannia 50-50 Maska Chaska (13 gm), Parle Monaco Classic Regular (11.65), Parle Krackjack Original (11.35), Sunfeast Butter Cookies (10.55), Parle 20-20 Cashew Butter Cookies (10.5).

A packet of biscuits has for the better part of thirty years been a quick and cheap replacement ‘meal’ for many working people in urban India. This is now just as common a practice, if not more so, in rural India (instant noodles is the other alternative). The nutritional impacts of this habit are bound to be considerable – 30 grammes each per day of sugar and fats is the intake for an adult male as suggested by our Indian Council of Medical Research. Many of these brands will in a single packet deliver a third of that daily allowance.

[The biscuits examined: Boost NRG Chocolate Biscuits, Britannia 50-50 Maska Chaska, Britannia Marie Gold, Britannia Nice Time, Britannia Nutri Choice Hi Fibre, Britannia Tiger Krunch, Cadbury Oreo Original, Cadbury Oreo Strawberry, Horlicks Biscuits, Parle 20-20 Butter Cookies, Parle 20-20 Cashew Butter Cookies, Parle G Glucose, Parle Happy Happy Chocolate Chip, Parle Happy Happy Chocolate Sandwich, Parle Krackjack Original, Parle Magix Cashew, Parle Magix Choco, Parle Marie Wheat Benefit, Parle Monaco Classic Regular, Sunfeast Butter Cookies, Sunfeast Marie Light, Sunfeast Special Choco Cream, Sunfeast Special Tasty Elaichi, Sunfeast Special Tasty Orange Cream, Sunfeast Special Tasty Pineapple Cream, Unibic Anzac Oatmeal Cookies, Unibic Multigrain Breakfast Cookies.]

Written by makanaka

February 12, 2014 at 07:11

Appraising World Food Day 2013

leave a comment »

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.

Counting the Indian land mosaic

with one comment

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.

A tiring tale from the FAO that again ignores the global food industry

with 2 comments

Cheap processed food advertised in Chengdu, P R China.

Cheap processed food advertised in Chengdu, P R China.

Why has the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) not stated what has become painfully obvious to households the world over – that the macro-economics which determines everything from what farmers grow and what city workers pay for food is utterly out of control?

This silence is why FAO’s ‘State of Food Insecurity in the World 2013’ – with its updated estimates of undernourishment and its diplomatic paragraphs about progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) and World Food Summit (WFS) hunger targets – remains conceptually crippled.

The roles of the food industry, its financiers, its commodities satraps, the marketers and their fixers in government, the networks that link legislators and food business investors in countries with growing processed foods businesses, all these shape food security at the community and household level. Yet none of these are considered critically by an FAO report that ought to be thoroughly non-partisan on the matter.

The FAO ‘State of Food Insecurity in the World 2013’ (condensed to SOFI 2013) has said that “further progress has been made towards the 2015 MDG target, which remains within reach for the developing regions as a whole, although marked differences across regions persist and considerable and immediate additional efforts will be needed”.

How many more food insecurity indicators are needed to tell governments what their working class households already know? The table of SOFI 2013 indicators.

How many more food insecurity indicators are needed to tell governments what their working class households already know? The table of SOFI 2013 indicators.

In the first place, let’s consider the 2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDG) target concerning hunger. This is to halve the proportion of hungry people in the total population. There is also the World Food Summit (WFS) target, which is to halve the number of hungry people. Both have 2015 as the target year. However, any hunger has no place in a world that today produces more than enough food to adequately feed every elder, child, woman and man.

But there is another aspect, and this is: who does the FAO think is paying attention to ‘global’ targets and placing these targets above any local needs or ambitions? Just as the MDGs are scarcely known and recognised outside the enormous development industry which perpetuates a growing mountain of studies and reports on the MDGs, nor are ‘global’ hunger reduction targets. When alleged leaders of the world gather together in the United Nations General Assemblies and other grand international fora and ask (in a tiresome and repetitive way) how we are going to feed 9 billion people, no individual smallholder farmer listens, because growing and feeding is done locally, and therefore ‘targets’ are also local, just as food insecurity or security is local.

This is why the SOFI 2013 approach – which is to say that “the estimated number of undernourished people has continued to decrease [but] the rate of progress appears insufficient to reach international goals for hunger reduction” – is utterly out of place and does not in any way reflect the numerous variety of problems concerning the provision of food, nor does it reflect the equally numerous variety of local approaches to fulfilling food provisioning.

Next, it is way past high time that FAO and the UN system in general jettison the “developing regions” label. It has no meaning and is an unacceptable legacy of the colonial view. Besides, as I point out a little later, food inadequacy (including insecurity and outright poverty) is becoming more and not less prevalent in the so-called developed regions. And moreover, I object to “considerable and immediate additional efforts will be needed” to reverse food insecurity, as the SOFI recommends, because this is the green signal to the global industrial agri-food industry to ram through its destructive prescriptions in the name of additional efforts.

SOFI 2013 also “presents a broader suite of indicators that aim to capture the multi-dimensional nature of food insecurity, its determinants and outcomes”. Once again, it is way past high time that the FAO ceased encouraging a proliferation of indicators of every description (and then some) that do next to nothing to ensure low external input and organic agriculture supported by communities and local in scale and scope, and in which the saving of seed and the preservation of crop and plant diversity is enshrined. There is not one – not a single indicator from FAO (and not one from any of its major partners, the World Food Programme (WFP) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) – for this need that is at the core of the myriad wonderful expressions of human civilisation.

Oxfam has made graphic the growing poverty in the European Union.

Oxfam has made graphic the growing poverty in the European Union.

SOFI 2013 also said that “recent global and national food consumer price indices suggest that changes in consumer prices were generally much more muted than those recorded by international price indices, often influenced by greatly increased speculation in spot, futures and options markets”. This unfortunately is completely untrue, for even FAO’s own database on national consumer price indexes (supplied by FAO member countries themselves) suggests that the CPI follows international price indices (this blog has pointed out the correlation a number of times in the last two years). And it is the same macro-economics that rewards speculators in “in spot, futures and options markets” which also deepens food insecurity every year.

Now, to return to the question of who is “developing” and who is not. The European Union (28 countries) has a population of 503 million (the early 2012 estimate). The USA has a population of 313 million (mid-2012 estimate). How large a group in both the European Union and the USA are hovering around the poverty lines, or who are plain poor, and who cannot afford to buy enough food for themselves?

In a report released in September 2013, the Oxfam aid agency warned that the poverty trap in Europe, which already encompasses more than 120 million people, could swell by an additional 25 million with austerity policies continuing. The report, ‘A cautionary tale: Europe’s bitter crisis of austerity and inequality’, said that one in two working families has been directly affected by the loss of jobs or reduction of working hours.

The food insecurity problem has been growing in the non-“developing” world just as fast as it has been growing in sub-Saharan Africa, south Asia, south-east Asia and other “developing” regions that the FAO’s flagship reports habitually places in the foreground. In early 2012 news reports in European Union countries were mentioning regularly how “ever more people are threatened with poverty”. The European Commission’s office for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion said so too: “Household incomes have declined and the risk of poverty or exclusion is constantly growing.”

Across the Atlantic, a US Census Bureau report released in September 2013 titled ‘Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2012’, poverty was found to be “at a near-generation high of 15 percent, close to the high point since the 1965 War on Poverty, the 15.2 percent rate reached in 1983”. This report found that 46.5 million USA ctitzens (about 9.5 million families) live in poverty and that some 20.4 million people live on an income less than half of the official poverty line of the USA.

FAO’s ‘State of Food Insecurity in the World 2013’ will with its present methods, outlook and biases be useful neither to cultivating communities growing the food we eat, nor to administrators in districts and provinces who must plan and budget to encourage local action that brings about food security, nor to the member countries of the United Nations if it continues to ignore the very large and growing numbers of the poor in the European Union and USA – 170 million poor people, and therefore food insecure, is a population that is considerably larger than that of any country in sub-Saharan Africa which inevitably figures in these reports.

Here are the materials for FAO’s ‘State of Food Insecurity in the World 2013’: The FAO news story. A frequently asked questions document. The FAO page on State of Food Insecurity 2013. The executive summary. The full pdf file and chapters. The e-book. The food security indicators data.

What rural India does and doesn’t eat

with 3 comments

How much cereals (rice, wheat, millet, sorghum) and pulses do rural Indians consume in a month? In general, not anywhere near how much they should.

How much cereals (rice, wheat, millet, sorghum) and pulses do rural Indians consume in a month? In general, not anywhere near how much they should.

The circles in this chart represent the rural population of 20 of India’s largest states by population. The National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) divides the rural (and also the urban) population of each state into tenths (they call them ‘deciles’), and the NSS surveys on consumption expenditure tell us how much each decile in each state spends, for example between Rs 800 and Rs 950 a month.

I made this chart using data from the NSS report, ‘Level and Pattern of Consumer Expenditure’ (the 66th Round, which surveyed the population between 2009 July and 2010 June). With 20 states and ten categories each, I had 200 readings to plot, examining the consumption in quantities for cereals and pulses.

Depending on the population of the state, some of those circles represent 3-5 million people! Now here is the grim finding. Of these, 72 do not meet even 75% of the minimum cereals requirement (about 10.4 kg) a month, and 106 do not meet even 50% of the minimum pulses requirement (about 0.6 kg) a month – these are the National Institute of Nutrition recommended dietary allowances. And 43 of these deciles are severely deficient in both.

How can the state explain the existence of these huge deficits in basic nutrition (see the coloured area of the chart, which includes tens of millions) while simultaneously chasing 'growth' as the means to remove those deficits?

How can the state explain the existence of these huge deficits in basic nutrition (see the coloured area of the chart, which includes tens of millions) while simultaneously chasing ‘growth’ as the means to remove those deficits?

For the last week, there has been a great deal of comment and discussion about how the increase in expenditure – especially in rural India – is ‘evidence’ of increasing incomes, of widening prosperity and a general ‘lifting out of poverty’. It is misleading because neither the central government nor its supporters (there are many supporting views to be found in the media) has pointed out that an increase in expenditure will of course take place given the rise in the price of food and fuel.

Comparing what the NSS has surveyed in 2009-10 with its 2004-05 survey, in some areas of expenditure the rupee rise is 300%-400% (such as for the eggs fish and meat, fresh fruit and beverages categories) and it will be useful to extract the quantities behind these increases in expenditure (I will get around to doing this as soon as possible).

In any case, the quantities consumed for cereals and pulses have actually declined for rural and urban citizens. While the proportion of expense, out of total food expense (all-India figures for rural populations), on pulses and on milk (and milk products) has remained roughly the same – 5.6% to 5.2% and 15.3% to 15.2% – the proportion spent on cereals has dropped from 32.7% to 20.2%.

I think this an extremely significant change that can be read together with the two big increases in proportion of spending – on egg fish and meat from 6% to 9% and on beverages from 8.2% to 15%. In the NSS definition, beverages also includes purchased meals and processed food, and it is this conversion of primary cereals (including coarse cereals) and pulses to processed foods that I see as an important factor behind the biggest change in the proportions spent on food in recent years.