Monday, September 5, 2011

India's Food Security Emergency

The proposed introduction of the Food Security Act by the UPA Government is a welcome and much needed step towards securing the right to food for all of India's citizens. The right to food is the basis of the right to life, and Article 21 of the Constitution guarantees the right to life of all Indian citizens.

India has emerged as the capital of hunger, illustrated by the fact that per capita consumption has dropped from 178 kg in 1991 - the beginning of the period of economic reforms - to 155 kg in 200-2003.

Daily calorie consumption of the bottom 25 per cent of the population has decreased from 1683 in 1987-88 to 1624 in 2004-05, against a national norm of 2400 and 2011 k cal/day for rural and urban areas respectively.

Therefore, a response on the food security front is really a response to a national emergency. Unfortunately, the current approach to food security in the draft law Food Security Act ignores the larger food crisis.

What is food security?

Food security includes three vital aspects: Ecological security, food sovereignty, and food safety.

Land, water and biodiversity are the natural capital for the food production. Currently, each of these is under severe threat. The land-grab of fertile farm land is not just an issue of injustice against farmers, but it is actually a threat to the nation's food security.

If fertile farm lands disappear, there will be no food.

India's seed wealth is being handed over to global corporations leading to erosion of biodiversity and undermining of farmers' rights. Without seed sovereignty there can no food sovereignty.

The country as a whole is growing increasingly vulnerable on the ecological security front, even more so because of climate change. That is why ecological agriculture that builds ecological security and resilience is necessary at this time for food security.

Food sovereignty is increasingly being lost as food and agriculture is hijacked by global agribusiness and determined by the unfair rules of WTO. That is why fair trade and WTO reform is vital to food security, and food sovereignty must be its foundation.

India's food is becoming unsafe and hazardous, with GMOs and chemically-processed food being promoted.

Corporations like Pepsi and Coke sit on the newly formed Food Safety Committee. The corporate influence on issues of safety is denying citizens their right to safe food. Without safe food there is no food security; without food democracy there is neither food safety nor food security.

The biggest blind spot in the dominant paradigm of food security is neglecting food production and food producers as a core element in the current food security approach.

You cannot provide food to people if you do not first ensure that food is produced in adequate quantities. And in order to ensure food production, the livelihood of food producers must be ensured. The right of food producers to produce food is the foundation of food security. This right has internationally evolved through the concept of "food sovereignty". In Navdanya we refer to it as Anna Swaraj.

Food sovereignty is derived from socio-economic human rights, which include the right to food and the right to produce food for rural communities.

"Food sovereignty argues that feeding a nation's people is an issue of national security - of sovereignty, if you will. If the population of a country must depend for their next meal on the vagaries and price swings of the global economy, on the good will of a superpower not to use food as a weapon, or on the unpredictability and high cost of long-distance shipping, then the country is not secure, neither in the sense of national security, nor in the sense of food security."

"Food sovereignty thus goes beyond the concept of food security, which says nothing about where food comes from, or how it is produced. To achieve genuine sovereignty, people in rural areas must have access to productive land and receive prices for their crops that allow them to make a decent living while feeding the nations people."

Two aspects of food security have disappeared in the current approach - firstly, the right to produce food, and secondly national food security. Both are aspects of food sovereignty, one at the level of food producers and the other at the level of the country as a whole.

Any country risks genuine food insecurity if it ignores food producers because two thirds of India's population is involved in agriculture and food production. Small farmers produce food for the country and have provided a nation of 1.2 billion with food security, and today they are the ones who account for the largest number of hungry people.

What's more, large numbers of food producers will be hungry because of increasingly common occurrences of climate change-induced draught and floods. And unless the system can respond to their food needs there will be large scale starvation.

Farmer suicides

the most tragic face of the agrarian crisis India is facing are the suicides of over 200,000 farmers over the past decade. If food producers do not survive, where is the nation's food security? If our producers do not eat, where is the nation's food security?

The second reason why India cannot afford to ignore the crisis of our food producers is because rural communities face a deep crisis of hunger.

Globally, too, half of the hungry people of the world today are food producers. This is directly related to the capital and chemical-intensive, high external input systems of food production introduced as the Green Revolution.

Farmers must go into debt to buy costly inputs, and indebted farmers must sell what they produce to pay back the debt.

Hence the paradox and irony of food producers being the highest number of hungry people in India and in the world. Farmer’s suicides are linked to the same process of indebtedness due to high costs of inputs.

The World Bank and others have proposed to shift from distribution of grain to cash, which would not only increase corruption - it will condemn the poor to food insecurity and the farmers to livelihood insecurity. Cash will break the fragile umbilical cord between food production and consumption. The farmers will be abandoned, deepening the agrarian crisis. Cash for food will rapidly translate to cash for junk food.

As the example of United States shows, if food distribution is abandoned food deserts are created where the poor live and become dependent on a diet of junk food. This pseudo is particularly dangerous since while giving cash to the poor, the state will step away from its responsibility of ensuring adequate food production and regulation of prices.

With rising food prices there is no food security.

The solution to the hunger of producer communities is to shift to low-cost, sustainable agriculture production based on principles of agro-ecology. Ecological agriculture is not a luxury. It has become a food security imperative.

And contrary to the false perception that small farmers and sustainable systems do not produce enough, data from India and other parts of the world establishes that small farmers have higher output than large farms, and that biodiversity organic farms have higher food output than chemical monocultures.

Our report on "Health per Acre" shows that through the implementation of ecological agriculture, we could be growing enough food to feed two India's.

Key to Indian food security is distribution fix - expert

India will be self-sufficient in production of staple foods until 2025 and there are signs it could act as soon this month to improve distribution -- key to ensuring its half a billion poor have enough to eat, a food expert says.
As Asian economies grapple with soaring inflation, driven by higher prices for food and fuel, governments are looking at levers such as export bans and lowering import duties to ensure their voters can afford to eat.
India recently imposed an export ban on onions and cut import duties on the vegetable as prices soared when rains hit harvests. But such moves may not be necessary and could even be counter-productive.

"The likelihood is that India will remain self-sufficient for the next 10-15 years in basic staples and hopefully a marginal surplus. So there is no panic,"

India has nearly 20 million tonnes of wheat stockpiled and 28 million tonnes of rice -- well above targets for both staples.
But the coalition government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is still worried about malnutrition and wants to introduce subsidized grains for the poor.
Both India and Asian rival China need to ensure availability of staples.

"Both countries are so large that they simply cannot afford to rely to a large extent on external markets for their basic staples, rice and wheat."

In 2009, India's monsoon rains were so poor that the country had to turn to international markets for sugar imports, spurring prices to record highs.


But distribution, rather than production, remains the key issue for India, and the recent mini-crisis around onions could prompt the government to take action here.
"Governments act when there is a crisis. So this crisis may turn into an opportunity to change. At least the right noises are coming out of this,"

Earlier this month, Singh called for a "paradigm shift" to improve availability of foods domestically and distribution networks needed upgrading, especially as Indians shift their diet towards perishable fruit and vegetables.
"You need to invest in facilities that can store them and increase their shelf life. That is where investments are needed and where the laws have to be cleaned up,"

As much as 40 percent of India's fruit and vegetable production is wasted because of poor networks and a lack of cold storage facilities, with much product still sold on flat-bottomed carts by smallholders even in the centre of cities such as Delhi.

the government should look at increasing incomes of its half a billion poor who live on less than $1.25 per day, rather than handing out free or subsidized grain.

“The best way is to mainstream these people into high productivity activities so that their incomes go up," he said. "But that takes a little time and therefore in the short term you may have to keep feeding them."
IFPRI would favour cash transfers on a targeted basis, such as for specific foods or for children, rather than subsidizing foods or intervening on exports and imports.
With many of India's poor spending up to 60 percent of incomes on food, price volatility is a much more important issue than in the United States, for example, where only 10 percent of average incomes go on groceries.
"Nutrition also depends on hygiene. You may be feeding the child but if the water is not clean it's washed away in diarrhoea."

India’s public distribution system faulty: World Bank

Though India’s social sector spending is higher than many other developing countries, one of its flagship welfare programs — the public distribution system (PDS) — is fraught with leakages, a World Bank report said.

The PDS scheme, which consumes around one percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and covers up to 25 percent of the poor households, has had limited success, as only 41 percent of the food grain released by the government reach their target, the report said.

‘Only 41 percent of the grains released by the government reach households, according to 2004-05 national sample survey (NSS), with some states doing much worse,’ the World Bank study said.

According to the report, apart from leakages, the PDS also suffers from an ill-conceived procurement system.

The government’s policy of minimum support price for farmers too contributes to grain wastage every year.

‘There will continue to be large grain stocks purchased each year, which need to be drawn down,’ it said.

The report recommended that in the medium to long term, the government should consider replacing the system with the option of cash transfer, while continuing food-based support for specific situations like natural disasters.

‘Experience in India and in many other countries have highlighted the benefits of target cash transfer. These diverse experience stress the need for further evaluations and the fact that immediate and medium term solution may vary in different states,’ Roberto Zagha, the World Bank’s country director for India, told reporters here.

Zagha gave the examples of states like Bihar and Chattisgarh, which are testing alternate system of food allocation like food stamps and coupons coupled with community participation and robust monitoring of the system.

The report said that other welfare schemes like Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREG) has also not fulfilled its promise of 100 days work per rural household, but added that the scheme has had a positive impact on the rural economy.

The report lauded Rashstriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY) due to its positive impact through targeted allocation.

‘A future priority should be to strengthen its capacity to oversee and administer the expansion of the program through the key oversight of a specialized agency,’ the report added.

Targeted PDS is a failure: Plan Panel member

Work Bank marked out deficiencies in the country's public distribution system (PDS) for food grain, a senior government official has said that restricting public distribution to below poverty line (BPL) households has been a failure in India.

"The mess in the public distribution system has been created by the notion that it is only meant for the poor. All problems of the current system are actually the problems of targeting," planning commission member Abhijit Sen said.

Batting for a universal public distribution system, Sen said that the role of the PDS should be facilitating movement of food grain from surplus areas to deficit areas and stabilizing prices across the country instead of just targeting BPL households.

A World Bank report said that even as the government spends 1% of its GDP to make the public distribution system work, effect on poverty reduction has been low. The report has said that in 2004-05, only 41% of the grain had reached poor households in 2004-05. The numbers gain significance as the government will use the PDS to implement the proposed Food Security Act.

The report has sided with Sen's argument that adopting a universal access policy for subsidized grains might increase the effectiveness of the PDS to reach poor households. Citing the case of Tamil Nadu, which has universal PDS, the report had said that coverage rate of the poor in the state is very close to the national average.


We can’t only concentrates on food productivity aspect of the major problem and challenge of food security. There are so many other important aspects to it viz., ever growing population, diversion of agricultural lands, inherently defective public distribution system, non-reasonable pricing policy for raw food products, flaws in agricultural marketing, craze for commercial crop production such as flowers, spices, sugarcane etc., climate change, commercialization of agriculture, villages losing their ages old self sufficiency in food resulting in larger national problem of food shortage,......

Since there is no scientific marketing and pricing policy in place in this country, subsidies must substantiate the loss the farmers make in this market capitalistic environment. Let us balance the productivity and the farmer welfare. That is the only way. Food security cannot be achieved by keeping our farmers out of the benefits for their toil on the land. They must be acknowledged for their efforts. They must be made to feel comfortable with their farming life. Farming is a way of life in India, not commerce.


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