Posted by Gokul
Happened to see the academy award nominated documentary Food, Inc today. It was about how corporate farming has replaced traditional agriculture and how it affects both the people and the environment. Together with advocating changes in the system, the documentary calls for transparency to let people know what exactly they are eating. It’s completely about agriculture in the USA. But it definitely has warnings for a developing nation like India which, I feel is slowly heading towards that stage.
Compared to other developing nations and developed ones, agriculture in India is one of the least productive and income generating. We need solid changes in the way we manage the sector if we are to redeem a sector in which 58% of our population depends for sustenance. But rather than looking for strong and solid long-term steps, the shift of approach is ostensibly towards the supposed panacea of market solutions. In the process, a number of changes are happening in the agricultural sector that make the situation described in the documentary quite possible in the near future. Although the changes are very small when compared to the scale of agriculture in India, one should not miss the warning signs which clearly shows a shift towards corporate farming.
1.GM crops: Nothing in the field of agriculture has been more controversial than the introduction of GM crops. Traditional cotton breeds have been completely replaced by Bt cotton. Today India has the fourth largest area under GM crops. One may not have forgotten the sheer callous way in which the govt gave approval for Bt Brinjal. If it was not for the organised protest of farmers and civil society and the commitment of an environment minister to move from the ‘rubber stamp’ image of the ministry, we would have seen the introduction of the first GM food crop in the nation without any on field trials, studies on the effects of humans, other crops and cattle (brinjal is used as fodder) and without any laws on labeling GM crops (so that people can know they are purchasing GM crops). Besides all such environmental and ecological concerns, both the crops are patented by Monsanto. As these crops are hybrids, seeds will not germinate and farmers will have to buy new seeds for every season from the company. As it has happened in the developed world and shown in the documentary, this would lead to a complete dependence on a few seed companies.
2. FDI in multi brand retail: This has been branded as the next big thing in India. The market retail business is estimated to be $400 billion annually. More than 30 million people depend on this sector for existence. Although the debate on this issue is a very old one, the ministry of corporate affairs has recently circulated a note to other ministries calling for a fresh debate on the issue. Experience in other nations suggest that although in the initial phases, the opening up facilitated good competition, removed inefficiencies and middle men and created value for both farmers and customers, gradually consolidation occurred leading to dominance by a few majors like Wal-mart, Carrefour etc. This meant that the competition that offered choice for farmers was no longer present and they were left with only two choices: either sell it to the corporate in terms set by them or let his produce rot. This micro control by corporates on farming issues is also discussed in the beginning of the documentary.
3. Changing pattern of agricultural loans: Lack of credit through proper channels is another problem that our agricultural sector faces. But inspite of this, P. Sainath notes that agricultural loans ranging between Rs. 10-25 crores is on the rise. These are not loans given to the ‘marginal’ (defined as one with agricultural land between .01-2.5 hectres) farmers who form 80% of our farmers but to big corporates for warehouses and corporate farming.
The need to feed one of the largest population in the world and the prospective increase in the size and nature of the demand as our economy grows is mooted as the justification for all these changes. But have we reached a stage in which the only way forward is the highly subsidized, unsustainable, harmful and intensive farming as followed in the developed nations. The answer i feel is ‘Not yet’ (and very much avoidable). The reasons are:
1. Famines and hunger in India is more a result of mismanagement of food rather than lack of availability. As the supreme court had noted, food rot in our godowns even as people die of hunger. The surplues grains stored in FCI godownsis more than 65 million tonnes. This can feed almost 50% of our population for a year. An effective way to distribute this to the poor through a leakproof PDS can go a long way in addressing our shortage.
2. We lead the world in lack of productivity. The productivity per hectre for almost all major crops other than rubber is way below global average. Fresh investment in agriculture has been abysmally low since the 1980s. The 2010 budget allocated just Rs.12,ooo crore to the sector. Improvements in the fundamentals like irrigation, dissemination of proper knowledge etc can greatly improve productivity.
The documentary shows the real side of agriculture and food market in the developed world. It should act as a strong warning for us to know what to avoid as we continue on the high growth path and join the leading economies in the world. And as most of the important, long term changes are often pushed through by the governments without meaningful debates and public discussions, it is important that we keep our eyes and ears open and keep our legislators accountable for changes in this most vital sector.