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Laying the Foundations for Food Insecurity
12 Nov 2011

By Devinder Sharma**

As the first decade of the 21st century fades into history, the clock is almost getting back to square one. With international food prices once again soaring, breaking the record achieved when global prices went through the roof in 2008, the next decade certainly begins on a sour note.

Algeria as already been faced with food riots in the first half of January. United Nations is worried that 2011 may turn out to be a repeat of 2008 when 37 countries were faced with food riots. I am worried that the next decade will turn a majority of the developing countries, including India, into net food importers.

For several years now, I have been silently praying and hoping that every New Year will have something to sheer for the Indian farmers. But unfortunately this has not happened. Every passing year, the economic condition of farmers has further deteriorated. The next decade is going to be still worse.

With India aggressively promoting corporatisation of agriculture, and privatising the natural resources like water, forests and farm land, the country is fast returning back to the days of ‘ship-to-mouth’ existence, when the country was predominantly dependent upon food imports to feed the hungry millions. Policy makers and planners are working hard to force farmers to quit agriculture and move into the urban centres.

In any case, excessive use and abuse of chemical fertilisers has poisoned the soils; hybrid crop varieties being pushed at a subsidised price have destroyed the soil fertility and sucked the groundwater dry; drenching crop fields with all kinds of chemical pesticides has not only poisoned the food that we eat but have also brought in more pests; and finally the farmer is left high and dry with no income in his hands. Agriculture has also turned economically unviable as a result of which 40 per cent farmers have expressed the desire to quit farming if given an alternative.

There is hardly a day when dozens of farmers across the country are not drinking chemical pesticides to end their lives. In the past 15 years, more than 200,000 farmers have committed suicide. Millions of farmers continue to somehow live in perpetual indebtedness. According to the latest report of the National Crime Records Bureau of India, 17,368 farmers had killed themselves in 2009, an increase of 7 per cent over the 2008 count.  


India is witnessing a thousand mutinies. Pitched battles are being fought across the country by poor farmers, who fear further marginalisation when their land is literally grabbed by the government and the industry. From Mangalore in Karnataka to Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh, from Singur in West Bengal to Mansa in Punjab, the rural countryside is literally on a boil. Large chunks of prime agricultural land are being forcibly diverted for non-agricultural purposes.

Let us take the case of Uttar Pradesh. It has the largest population in the country, and is also the biggest producer of foodgrains. Western parts of Uttar Pradesh, comprising the fertile Indo-Gangetic plains, have been considered part of the green revolution belt. In addition to 410 lakh tonnes of foodgrains, it produces 1.30 crore tonnes of sugarcane and 1.05 crore tonnes of potato.

This is expected to change. And that is what I am worried about. The proposed eight Expressways and the townships planned along the route, along with land being gobbled by other industrial, real estate and investment projects are likely to eat away more than 23,000 villages. As per rough estimates, 66 lakh hectares that would be taken out of farming would mean a production loss of 140 lakh tonnes of foodgrains. In other words, Uttar Pradesh will be faced with a terrible food crisis in the years to come, the seeds for which are being sown now.

The story of Uttar Pradesh is being repeated across the country. Policy makers say that with rapid industrialisation the average incomes will go up as a result of which people will have the money to buy food from the open market and also make for nutritious choices. But the bigger question is where will the addition quantity of food come from? Already, Punjab and Haryana, comprising the food bowl, are on fast track mode to acquire farm lands. Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chhatisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab are building up ‘land banks’ for the industry and Rajasthan has allowed the industry to buy land directly from farmers setting aside the ceiling limit.

Internationally, the food situation is worsening ever since the 2008 food crisis when 37 countries were faced with food riots. Even now, food prices globally are on an upswing. As Russia extends the wheat export ban till the next year's wheat harvest sending global prices on a hike, deadly food riots were witnessed in Mozambique in December 2010 killing at last seven people. According to news reports, anger is building up in Pakistan, Egypt and Serbia over rising prices.

Reverting back to India, it was primarily during the period of high agriculture growth following Green Revolution that the environmental footprint of the chemically-intensive technology – chemical fertilisers, pesticides and water guzzling crop varieties – began to be seen. The second-generation environmental impacts, as these are called in scientific terms, were overlooked by the agricultural scientists as a result of whom the natural resource base, on which farming is dependent, got severely devastated.

The combined effect of the failure of technology was reflected in a drop in agriculture growth. Since the early 1990s India had witnessed a drop in growth in agriculture production. The compound rate of growth in agriculture fell below the population growth rate for the first time after green revolution. It hasn’t looked up since then. Green revolution has petered away, and in the process it has brought in several associated socio-economic problems. The spate of farmer suicides since 1991 is also in a way linked to the failure of the green revolution technology.

Not drawing any lessons, India is in an undue haste to open up its agriculture so as to integrate agriculture with the global economy. India has progressively removed or lowered import tariffs. More than the obligations under the World Trade Organisations (WTO), autonomous liberalisation of agriculture has allowed cheaper imports of agricultural commodities – wheat, pulses, maize, edible oils, spices, fruits, vegetables, and milk and sugar. At the same time, the focus has shifted from food self-sufficiency to encouraging export-oriented cash crops.

What is more worrying is that instead of learning any lessons from the continuing farm debacle, the UPA has put the 2nd Green Revolution on a fast track, which would not only compound the existing crisis but push farmers out of agriculture. Under the Indo-US Initiative in Agriculture Research, Education and Marketing (KIA), an agreement signed with the Bush administration, India is committed to privatisation of agriculture, and vertical integration of farming to promote “farm-to-fork” model wherein farmers are not required.

Farmers have to be moved out of agriculture. Economists tell us that there is no other way to growth. But no one tells us where will these farmers go? Which country in the world, and that includes the US of A, can provide jobs to even 10 million people? Which company/industry in the world at times of jobless growth can promise jobs to even one million people? And we in India are talking of displacing at least 50 per cent of the farming population, close to 250 million, in another 10-15 years. We must be mad.

Coupled with land rental policies that have promoted a surge in land acquisitions, setting up of special economic zones, and by encouraging  corporatisation of agriculture through contract farming and commodity trading, India is now poised to enter the 2nd green revolution phase, which will ultimately push farmers out of agriculture. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has time and again reiterated the need to go in for a population transfer, from the rural to the urban areas.

The next decade will see the strengthening of corporate control over agriculture. With seed technology companies, and some of the major food giants already setting shop in India, it is now the turn of multi-brand big retail. The recent price rise is being conveniently used to justify the entry of big retail into India with the premise that it will help farmers as well as consumers.

But ever since big retail – dominated by multi-brand retailers like Wal-Mart, Tesco and Carrefour – has entered the market, farmers have disappeared, and poverty has increased in the United States. Today, not more than 7 lakh farmers remain on the farm in America. In fact, the number of farmers has come down to such a low level that America has stopped counting the farmers since its last census in the year 2000.

In Europe, despite the dominance of the big retail, every minute one farmer quits agriculture. According to a report, farmer’s income in France has come down by 39 per cent in 2009, having already slumped by 20 per cent in 2008. In Scotland, low supermarket prices are being cited as the reason for the exodus of dairy farmers. It is therefore futile to expect the supermarkets rescuing farmers in India.

With food imports increasing, and farmers being pushed out of agriculture, India is fast getting back to from where it began. In the past 60 years, the country has reversed the policies that helped usher in food self-sufficiency. The next decade will see food self-sufficiency being sacrificed in the name of economic growth. The socio-economic and even the political fallout from a deliberate destruction of the agricultural base is too difficult to fathom.
** Devinder Sharma is a distinguished food and trade policy analyst. An award-winning Indian journalist, writer, thinker, and researcher well-known and respected for his views on food and trade policy. Trained as an agricultural scientist (he holds a Master’s in Plant Breeding & Genetics), Sharma has been with the Indian Express, amongst the largest selling English language dailies in India. And then quit active journalism to research on policy issues concerning sustainable agriculture, biodiversity and intellectual property rights, environment and development, food security and poverty, biotechnology and hunger, and the implications of the free trade paradigm for developing countries.
Blog: Ground Reality http://devinder-sharma.blogspot.com