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India marches against Monsanto, hauls it back into court

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The anti-GM and anti-Monsanto protest in Bangalore outside the Town Hall on 2013 October 15

The anti-GM and anti-Monsanto protest in Bangalore outside the Town Hall on 2013 October 15

This is an important week for the public movement in India against genetically-modified seed and food, and against the corporate control of agriculture. Just ahead of World Food Day 2013, the Coalition for GM Free India has held public protests, marches and events in major cities – Bangalore, Mumbai, New Delhi, Thiruvananthapuram and Chennai.

“Today, India is also under threat from the hazardous products that Monsanto wants to profiteer from – these are products that affect the very food that we eat to survive and stay healthy and our environment. These are products that have the potential to jeopardise future generations too,” said the Coalition at the protest meetings and marches.

These actions have come when, in a very significant ruling by the High Court of Karnataka, a petition to dispose criminal prosecution of the Monsanto subsidiary in India, representatives of an agricultural university and a partner company, has been dismissed.

RG-Monsanto_BLR_protest_10Mahyco-Monsanto, the Indian seed company, the University of Agricultural Sciences Dharwad (which is in the state of Karnataka), and Monsanto collaborating partners Sathguru Consultants were accused by the National Biodiversity Authority and the Karnataka State Biodiversity Board of committing serious criminal acts of biopiracy in promoting B.t. Brinjal, India’s first food GMO.

The Bangalore-based Environment Support Group (ESG) had said to the court that the entire process by which the product had been developed violated the Biological Diversity Act, 2002, and the Convention on Biological Diversity, 1992, and “constituted an outrageous act of biopiracy of India’s endemic brinjal (eggplant) varieties”.

To substantiate this charge, the ESG produced evidence that all the endemic varieties of brinjal that had been accessed by the University of Agricultural Sciences Dharwad and Monsanto-Mahyco, with technical support from Sathguru Consultants and USAID, and the act of inserting the B.t. gene (a proprietary product of Monsanto), were undertaken without any consent of local Biodiversity Management Committees, the State Biodiversity Board and the National Biodiversity Authority.

As the Coalition for GM Free India has pointed out repeatedly, Monsanto’s misdeeds in India and its growing threat to food security and the right to food cultivation and consumption choices are considerable:
* Mahyco-Monsanto used its Bt cotton seed monopoly to set exorbitant prices. The Andhra Pradesh government had to use the MRTP (Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices) Commission, which observed that Monsanto-Mahyco was using unfair trade practices in India, while asking the company to reduce the royalty/sub-licensing fee being charged in India.
* Monsanto-Mahyco did not hesitate to sue governments in India on issues related to compensation for loss-incurring farmers or price-regulation.
* After the advent of Bt cotton, Monsanto entered into licensing agreements with most seed companies in India so that out of 22.5 million acres of GM cotton, 21 million acres is planted with its seed, Bollgard. Today it controls nearly 93% of the market share of cotton seeds in India, with little choice left to farmers.
* Monsanto is on the Board of the Indo-US Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture, under which bio-safety regime for GM crops was sought to be weakened.
* Monsanto entered into agreements with several states (Rajasthan, Orissa, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir) under which the states spend hundreds of crore rupees of public funds every year to purchase hybrid maize seeds from them. Such agreements were found to have no scientific or funding rationale to support them. Appraisals have shown these to be risky for farmers. However, the corporation has found huge, ready markets supported by taxpayers’ funds!
* Monsanto is pushing the sales of its herbicide glyphosate which is known to cause reproductive problems. Approval for its herbicide-tolerant GM crops would skyrocket the use of this hazardous chemical in our fields.

The action in court and on the streets of major cities must be recognised by the central and state governments in order to pursue the criminal prosecution against biopiracy in B.t. brinjal. This is critical, said the ESG, because it is for the “first time that India has sought to implement the provisions of the Biodiversity Act tackling biopiracy, and thus the effort constitutes a major precedent to secure India’s bio-resources, associated traditional knowledge and biodiversity for the benefit of present and future generations”.

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India’s food price inflation in high gear

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There has been no shortage since November of news reports and analyses about the food inflation. The 19% annual rise in fact masks widespread individual urban centres’ price shocks and individual food item trends. I have tried to unpack the year-on-year ‘national’ food inflation number using data from the Ministry Of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution – Department Of Consumer Affairs (Price Monitoring Cell). My guess is that this data is an under-estimate but is useful for spotting trends.

I collected prices for the 36 cities tracked by the PM Cell, monthly from 2007 December. Based on a small basket of staples (rice, wheat, atta, tur dal, sugar, gud, tea, milk, potato, onion, salt) a crude index shows that in 33 out of 36 cities, the 24 month (07 Dec to 09 Dec) rise in prices of items in this basket is more than 24%, and that in 23 cities it is more than 50%.

Food inflation 2009 over 2007 in Indian cities

Food inflation 2009 over 2007 in Indian cities

About price increases in rural settlements I can find no organised information at all, although direct experience in western Maharashtra, Karnataka and Goa tells me that a staples basket can cost up to 2-3% more than in urban areas. (Agmarknet collects and maintains detailed mandi prices for farm produce but there is no comparable effort for rural retail food staples.)

The National Sample Survey 61st Round (2004 July-2005 June) on ‘Household Consumer Expenditure in India’ put down the finding that out of every rupee that the average rural Indian spent on household consumption, 55 paise was spent on food and mainly:
18 paise was spent on cereals
8 paise on milk & milk products
6 paise on vegetables
5 paise on sugar, salt & spices
5 paise on beverages, refreshments, processed food, purchased cooked meals, etc

Of the non-food expenditure 10 paise was spent on fuel for cooking and lighting.

I have tried to maintain this weightage in my calculation, but it is really no more than a crude reckoning because I haven’t been able to spend the time to clean up the publicly available data – querying the website database of Dacnet (Dept of Agriculture and Cooperation) or FCAMin returns report formats that are terribly messy, even though they contain useful data. (Although I think there may be differences even between these for the same foods and same date ranges.)

Based on what I have seen and heard on the field in Karnataka, Goa and western Maharashtra (and learnt about Gujarat and eastern UP from others) the available food basket seems to be shrinking (the so-called ‘coarse’ cereal group is conspicuously less), and where families have young and teenaged children there is pressure to buy processed and packaged snack foods (which is really a blight in our small rural markets). There are all sorts of oddities about the form that food takes in these markets – the price of a 50 gram pack of biscuits for example (Parle Glucose is the standard) has hardly moved in the last 3-4 years yet at the same point-of-purchase end, look at the way the prices of ground wheat have moved.

Then there’s fuel and transport to account for, more about which you’ll find here. This question needs much more work in 2010 to strengthen some of the reliable data we have with updates, and to try to build in what we see and hear and sense from conversations with those who live and work in all those tahsils and talukas and blocks and mandals. I feel very strongly that we are lacking in our data the presence and impact of the many linkages that connect and influence the rural farming/labour household. Many of the measures we have have served us well but I think need to be supplemented – how to integrate the lessons and findings from the comprehensive National Family Health Survey, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the many studies into the income-providing measures of NREGA.

Even though we worry about what the rural/urban poor household must spend on, the attraction to buy mobile phones amazes me. I have met young men who earn around Rs 4,000 a month but who have bought Samsung mobile phones costing Rs 5,000! Imagine spending more than a month’s income on a phone, I asked them, but they saw nothing worrying about their expenditure. Retailers who sell mobile phones used to keep the low cost and hardy Nokia phones which 3 years ago cost around Rs 1,700-1,800 (mine is still working), but not any longer, or they work at discouraging those who ask for the relatively cheaper phones. Much more than the hundred-dollar laptop we need the thousand-rupee mobile phone.

The image is of a chart I made for the project group I work with (part of the National Agricultural Innovation Project, it’s called Agropedia and you can read more about it here). This chart helps point to some patterns (you can download the hi-res image here). I’m curious for example about Gujarat, whose grain and commodity traders have a long and murky history of hoarding. The North-Eastern cities could be insulated to some extent from the regional transport subsidy (road and rail). Cities in the Deccan are relatively better off than North Indian cities. The big difference between Chandigarh and Mandi is puzzling.

In his hugely interesting paper, ‘India And The Great Divergence: Assessing The Efficiency Of Grain Markets In 18th and 19th Century India‘, Roman Studer (University of Oxford, Discussion Papers in Economic and Social History, Number 68, November 2007) has written: “Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, the grain trade in India was essentially local, while more distant markets remained fragmented. This is not to say that no grain was traded over longer distances, but the extent was very limited, as the prices from some 36 cities all over India still exhibited various characteristics of isolated markets.”

“First, annual price fluctuations were extremely high. Second, differences in price levels between markets were very pronounced and persisted until well into the nineteenth century. Third, apart from neighbouring villages or cities, price series from different markets did not show comovements at all.” Studer looked at century-old data, but we still have 36 cities to tell us about staple food retail prices! Also, the three characteristics he mentions can be seen today too.

Happy New Year!