The bogey of Food Security

23rd April, 2016

To be interested in food but not in food production is clearly absurd”

Wendell Berry

 

Lets start with the Food & Agriculture Organisation(FAO) (1999) definition of Food Security -  “Food Security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food, to meet the dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” 

When we talk of food security, we generally ask – Are we producing enough? But, we tend to ignore whether this food is “physically and economically” being accessed by all. Here lies the first issue related to food security – making it available to all, including the poor and the hungry, even if they cannot pay for it. Next comes “sufficient, safe and nutritious” food. Are we sure, the food that we get through our Public Distribution System (PDS) or the private markets is safe and nutritious? Has all our efforts to increase food production through  “Grow More Food” or “Green revolution” improved its nutrition and safety? Clearly, after the Green Revolution and modernisation of the food industry, food has become less nutritious, unsafe with pesticide residues, processing chemicals such as colourants, additives, preservatives, flavouring agents and so on, many of them unnecessary. Today, there is an increasing population asking for natural, pure or organic food. The last of the criteria is “meeting the dietary needs and food preferences”. Here the question is about localisation and diversity. Obviously our food preferences and dietary needs are not the same as those in the Mediterranean or the Arctic regions !

Food preferences are local in character. Food has evolved along with the culture, environment and the geography of a region. Our ecosystem, climate, culture and environment have evolved a food system and agricultural system suitable for us. However, there has been an intervention into this system, and it is not a natural intervention. The global movement of products and people has led to a cultural influx into our system. We have not been able to discern and filter the suitability of this. Hence, there is a mix of food, culture and technologies in us. We can be open towards technology, but the moment we see that it  can be unsustainable or unhealthy or a general threat to ecosystems or to cultural systems, as it is turning out to be, we must take a precautionary approach. We should think of whether this technology will do good or bad for us or whether it will sustain us. Will it help us evolve into a better and healthier society?

 

                When Green Revolution was introduced in the 1960's through High Yielding Varieties, Chemical Fertilisers and Pesticides, the big issue facing the nation was the supposed food insecurity. India was depending on what is called the “ship-to-mouth” existence, where the ships from the United States filled not the go-downs but literally the Indian hungry mouths !  The aftermath of this was an increased production, grain productivity ( primarily rice and wheat ) and some reduction in poverty and the percentage of hungry. But after all these efforts where by in 50 years we quadrupled the total grain production in India, (and also globally), why is such a large population still hungry? Still deprived of their daily food needs?

Are India and the World Food Secure ?

Its always a NO, that this question receives. There is nothing more farther from truth and its surprising that most of us have been tricked into this wrong answer.

The world population as in 2012 was around 7 billion, the chronically undernourished were about 870 million of which 250 million are from India. Total food grain production in the world was 2239 million metric tonnes (mMT). All the other supplementary food items including pulses, vegetables, fruits, wild edibles etc are not counted in the food security basket.  Food security is calculated as the availability and consumption of grains all around the world. The WHO defined the family intake of food for a healthy life to be 35kg per family per month. In India, the Food Security Act has fixed it at the same. If we compare the total food grain production of the world and the requirement of food for the actual population, it can be seen that the total population of the world can be fed with just 504 mMT, and thats less that one-fourth of the total production. Yet, why does such a huge population go hungry ? Its because the issue addressed by all nations globally is only about increasing production and not about distributing it equitably to all, especially the needy. Moreover, the FAO estimates the wastage of food to be 33%. The International Institute for Mechanical Engineers, a U.K based institution estimates the wastage of food at 50%. Clearly, its  not a question of production or productivity; rather it is post production issues, such as wastage, distribution, that leads to food insecurity.

Now lets look at the situation in India.

In 2012, India’s total production of food grains is around 250 million metric tonnes and our total population was around 1.2 billion. According to the Food Security Act, 50% of India’s urban population and 75% of rural population will be entitled to a subsidised food supply. This is estimated to be the average Below Poverty Line (BPL) sector. Every such family is entitled to 35kg of rice per month. Now, suppose we assume that the country decides to feed 100% of the population (we will call it UPDS-100) directly with the same formula, only 100 million metric tonnes of grains are required. We already produce 2.5 times what we need. We have been misled by academicians and food experts that there is a food shortage in the country when we really do not have one.

Here is a table that will reveal some interesting facts about food security in India.

Table – If the complete population of India were to be provided with the WHO / Food Security Act standards of 35 kg of grain per family per month or 7 kg / capita/ month, the total grain requirement would be as in Column 4.  Column 5 shows the percentage of grains actually required vis-a-vis total grain produced every year – Never did India have a Food Production shortage !!

 

 

1

2

3

4

5

Year

Total Population (million)

Total Food crop production (mMT)

Total actual needed (mMT)

Total needed as % of total production

1951

361.1

69.8(1953-54)

30.3

43%

1961

439.2

82.02

36.9

45%

1971

548.2

108.42

46.04

42.5%

1981

683.3

129.59

53.4

41.2%

1991

843.4

176.39

70.8

40.1%

2001

1027

196.81

86.3

43.8%

2011

1210

244.78

101.6

41.5%

2051

1706 (estimate)

 

143.3

 

 

The table shows that India even during the Independence period never had a food production issue. Infact, even in the 1950's, and through out after that, we were producing for more than 2.5 times the population. Still, lakhs of people were kept in perpetual hunger. Why ? Because food was never produced for equitable distribution, instead it was produced for the markets and those who had money brought it. Sometimes it was for the hoarders, some times for the rich in India, sometimes it was the army, and sometimes even for export, but never for the really deserving. And today the situation is worse. According to Govts own admission, atleast 30% food produced and stored for supply is eaten by the rats. And thats the quantity needed to feed its chronically undernourished population. So we have a nation feeding its rats but not its poor !!

 

The Corrupt Economics of Food

Actually, Food is going through a process of a corrupt economy - appropriation, commercialisation, hoarding, smuggling etc which has had its impact on prices as well as food availability. The sudden spurt in global food prices all over the world is also because food grains have either gone into the meat industry as fodder or into the biofuel industry.

In the last fifty years there has been an intensive change in the way of cultivation that the pesticide and fertiliser companies have become millionaires. Everyone in the food-trade chain has reaped the benefits of this system except the real farmer. The average monthly income of the farmer still remains at less that Rs 3000. More than 3 lakh farmers have committed suicide in India in just a decade. Farming has become non remunerative and the people who provide us with food security are dying. This needs to be addressed. The MS Swaminathan Commission for Farmers in 2004 had recommended a higher payment of Minimum Support Price for the farm products, but even the present Government refuses to implement it. Recently, the 7th Pay Commission for Government employees has fixed the lowest entry pay  at Rs 21,000, but the farmers average income lingers 7 times below this. Recently, the largest grouping of farmers organisations, together representing 40 crore people, came together under the banner of Kissan Ekta, and demanded that a Farmers Income Commission be constituted, before such huge dole outs are paid to already wealthy employees. After all, they are not killing themselves in chronic debt, like farmers !!

What is also needed is to develop and revive a system which is safe and sustainable. Farmers who are life givers have themselves been made murderers through the excessive use of pesticides and chemicals. They themselves are getting eliminated through this system of farming. The entire food chain is poisoned and the accumulated impact of this on the environment is very high. The Centre for Disease Control (CDC) in America has found on their research on newborn babies that 287 chemicals are found on an average in an American newborn baby. If thats the situation in a well regulated developed nation, imagine what would a blood analysis of all of us in India reveal.  Looks like we are all a living, ticking bomb, waiting for the next cancer or endocrine disorder to happen.

Science of safety has progressed over time, and the world has banned many pesticides, but In India, we still continue to use them. In 2011, out of the 229 pesticides registered for use in India, 67 were banned in other countries. We continue to use them, thanks to a dangerously corrupt regulatory mechanism. Its just not the chemicals that is hazardous, our regulatory system is itself criminally hazardous !!

The Green Revolution that wasn't

In a recent report, the Planning Commission had also accepted the fact that green revolution did not deliver. What it actually did was to poison the entire ecosystem we are living in. Our biodiversity and agro biodiversity has been lost due to the overuse of chemicals and pesticides which are being banned all over the world. Our best seeds, locally evolved, many even high yielding, many medicinal in value, many very potential even in a monetary sense, have all been wiped out and we are left with a few unsustainable high yielding varieties and hybrids. Imagine in rice alone we had 1.5 lakh indigenous varieties, today we are left with a few thousands. 

Genetically modified and engineered seeds are now the next new threat. After the biosafety data on Bt Brinjal was revealed, and after lakhs of Bt Cotton farmers killed themselves in India, we have realised two things – One, these seeds are much more expensive than the native varieties available. Second, these seeds have serious health effects, many well documented. And worse, the Multi national Companies, or even the public sector agencies refuse to divulge the truth about the impacts of the seeds. The most recent question asked in the Indian Parliament, also got us the same answer – That genetically modified crops are not known to have any adverse impacts. Even the Minister-in-charge is forced to lie in the Parliament, inspite of a compilation of 400 studies showing adverse impacts, lying in his Ministry !!

And whats the argument that these scientists or governments or even the MNCs put forth for promoting pesticides or even GM crops – Food Security !!  The argument is that India will not achieve food security if we do not adopt such technologies.

India is four times food secure ! Its delivery and safety that matters now !!

Adequate food production has been achieved. Infact, for feeding the nation ( food security), India Government only procures about 25 to 30% of its food grains from farmers. The rest of the farmers are forced to sell their produce in the markets, and get swindled many a times by the market hawks and cartels. So, the focus need to now shift to see how the farmer’s livelihood can be enhanced with a better income. This is why the need for the Income Commission for farmers becomes important.

We must also now refocus agriculture in India, and the World. Our focus should be to revitalise the small farmer, the small land holding, to enhance productivity through reducing cost with a low external input sustainable agriculture. We need to bring back our native varieties of seeds which had natural resistance and resilience to our soil and climatic conditions. This is the only sustainable hope for economic development combined with climate resilience. Hence, a total revamping of the system is required at the operational, administrative and spiritual level.

Organic Farming/Natural farming – the viable option.

The face of organic farming has changed globally. From the conventional organic farming to a more intensive, but simpler system, which is optimising the use of inputs. One example is the use of cow dung and cow urine. Earlier, these were used directly in the farms, but now farmers have developed their own biotechnology - Panchagavya, Amruthpani, Beejamruth, Jeevamruth, Five-leaf pest repellants and many such mixtures are all cow-based and have become the sustainable farmers manthra. There have been major changes in the agronomic practices, which has made agriculture at par with normal chemical agriculture, but more sustainable, safe and most importantly sovereign. Its also been clearly demonstrated that small  scale agro ecological farms are the most effective and the world can be provided enough food by this method.

In a study by the UN Special Rapporteur on Right to Food, 289 projects in 57 countries covering 37 million hectares were evaluated and it was found that agro-ecology increased productivity on an average 79%. According to the study - Agroecology does not rely on chemical insecticides or GM crops for pest control, instead fostering beneficial biological interactions. Agro ecological approach raises productivity at field level, reduces rural poverty, contributes to improving nutrition and also contributes to adapting to climate change.

Obviously, the need of the hour is to revive and maintain agriculture sustainably and food security in a safe way and ensure the sovereignty of our nation’s agriculture. The political system has changed in such a way that our ecosystem, culture and lifestyle are being designed by agents of poison and profits, with whom we have got into trade relationships rather than cultural and scientific relationships. Simply speaking, markets have started skewing  and manipulating culture, science, and hence the real spiritual and holistic growth of the species. This has to be addressed and today a large group of individuals and institutions are addressing this in a collaborative, globally and nationally.  Hundreds of organisations in India are doing deep rooted work to change the face of this nation through sustainable agriculture. Sikkim is the best example. Recently, launching the Organic Sikkim, the PM of India, appealed to all states to adopt organic farming and said the winds of organic is now going to take over the nation !!  Its a dream, let us as consumers and farmers be part of this wind of change.

 

Let me conclude with another Wendell Berry quote - “When going back makes sense, you are going ahead.”

 

Source : 

  1. This article as it appeared in "One India One People" magazine
  2. Complete copy of "One India One People" magazine for february - 2016

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