Tuesday, 12 October 2010

The Right to Food

Yesterday (October 11th), the International Food Policy Research Institute released the Global Hunger Index 2010. As the video below explains - more than absolute calories consumed by a population, the Index focuses on how gravely hunger affects the children of a nation.
The index rates 84 countries on the basis of three main indicators- prevalence of child malnutrition, rate of child mortality and proportion of people who are calorie deficient.  China ranked 9 out of 84. India ranked 67 out of 84  - as bad as Sudan, worse than Mali, and nowhere near as good as Brazil or Mexico. In spite of all her economic success and economic growth rates approaching double digits, there is still a sizable section of the population suffering from malnutrition if not outright starvation.

Ilaria Vecchi was in Rourkela, Orissa in India for the country's 4th National Convention on the Right to Food and Work held in August 2010. One of the issues raised at the convention was that of GM - Genetically Modified crops. 

Last year, on October 14th, 2009, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) of India approved the commercialisation of Bt Brinjal (Eggplant/ Aubergine). This variant was developed by Monsanto, an American MNC, together with an Indian company, Mahyco (Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company). Resistant to a particular pest, its proponents calculated that the use of this transgenic brinjal hybrid would result in a 42% decrease in pesticide use, doubling of brinjal yield, economic gains to farmers worth more than 100 million USD a year, plus health benefits worth 3-4 million USD due to reduced pesticide use.

Not everyone was convinced. Apart from the environmentalists and scientists who expressed concerns about the ecological impact of these crops, a much louder voice was that of the farmers.  
Many Indian farmers were not convinced and raised ethical issues about the corporate control of food seeds, and thus of food supply - as well as the issue of intellectual property rights to traditional food crops and their modified versions. Most GM grains, fruits and vegetables cannot be replanted with seeds and cultivars from previous crops and the farmers have to go back to the manufacturing company every season to buy the modified seeds. Thus the primary concern, especially for small scale farmers, is the economic sustainability of cultivating GM crops developed by private commercial interests.

Finally in February 2010, the Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh stepped in and declared an indefinite hold on GM crops in India. As he said "Public sentiment is negative. It is my duty to adopt a cautious, precautionary, principle-based approach." He went on to say that it was "a difficult decision to make" since he had to "balance science and society". Essentially this is one of the major challenges that India faces today while trying to feed her population of 1.3 billion people - balancing science and society.

(Of course, it is believed that there were other vested interests involved in the moratorium. India's huge crop-protection industry that supplies millions of dollars worth of pesticides to farmers would also not want modified crops resistant to pests.)

Another issue raised by farmer activists at the convention were the stockpiles of grain and food in Government godowns and silos. As they rightly say, food needs to reach the community not lie in government godowns especially when a country still suffers from significant levels of malnutrition, especially child malnutrition as can be seen by India's rank in the Global Hunger Index. It may be perfectly reasonable to have a government store a certain amount of food for distribution during times of famine, drought or other crises. However, recent shortages have not seen the government open up their stores but instead turn to the international market and import whatever it is that the country was falling short of - sugar for example.

Stockpiling encourages the natural processes of corruption. Food meant to be sold at subsidized rates to the poor, or distributed free during a calamity, is instead sold on the black market.  Additionally, poor storage facilities means that much of the food is destroyed, eaten by vermin and insects or left to go rotten. Thus, much of the surplus from bumper crops goes waste.

This is why India is now a country that  does produce enough for its population and is technically self-sufficient in food - but still has people suffering from starvation. The Greenpeace activist is not alone in expressing concern. In an article published in the Business Standard magazine, Sanjeev Sanyal, an economist, talks about the myth

"that we need to accelerate agricultural production in order to feed a growing population. In reality, India already produces enough food to feed itself but around 20 per cent of output is wasted. The problem is one of distribution and storage, not production....Yes, we need a buffer for drought years but surely the solution is better management of bumper crops rather than ever more production."

Author: Shahana Dastidar

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