Mar 6, 2014

HUNGER GAMES: "We are waiting for a food riot" -- My interview on food wastage.

The unprivileged sleeping hungry, the rich wasting food, government schemes not making much of a difference and farmers committing suicide! India, despite all the newly acquired progress and prosperity, seems to be deep in the middle of what one can only call Hunger Games. On the crease are the million-dollar dream-boy, the Food Security Act and the lets-shop in-malls Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). The bowler is the aam aadmi, not the political one but the one striving hard for his bread and butter. And no, strangely there are no fielders who could contain the damage collateral or otherwise! With all the food first grown at the cost of the environment and then wasted out of sheer short sightedness, the verdict is out hit wicket. 

Unable to comprehend the bizarre scenario, we asked a third umpire, an expert food analyst. to demystify the scenario. Agri scientist Devinder Sharma has earned the sobriquet Green Chomsky, for his work in the area of food trade and policy. He talked at length to ECO about past mistakes, present confusion and future uncertainty when it comes to food security. Food loss, he said, was the tipping point at which most of the planning and policy really toppled. Excerpts.

ECO: There has been a constant cry for quite some time now that agriculture needs to be throttled up, that we will face a food crisis due to the deficiency of crops. What do you think? 

Sharma: I think we need to clear the air first. Out of the planets total population of 7.2 billion, according to the FAO, roughly 900 million go to bed hungry. So, the entire focus has been to increase productivity in order to maintain the food requirement in the year 2050. I think this is a totally wrong direction to work on. The US Department of Agriculture calculated that the food produced globally in 2012 was enough to feed 13.5 billion people. That means we are already producing food for double the existing population. At the same time we are being told that the population would rise to 9 billion by 2050 and therefore we need to produce more. Population is expected to be around 11 billion by the end of this century. But are we not at present producing food for 13.5 billion people? So where is the crisis on the food production front? Lets be therefore clear. There is no shortage of food. The world is in fact saddled with double the quantity that we need.  

But then what do you make of the millions of hungry people? 

Food mismanagement! At present, around 40 per cent of the worlds food is lost or wasted. If that loss is minimized, we will have food for each and every one. So, food loss is where the thrust should be, globally as well as nationally. The entire focus is on the wrong side when it should be about minimizing food loss. 

How threatening is the food scenario since 40 per cent of all food is reportedly lost in India? 

Who said that? Thats not correct. Everywhere in the media, people say food loss is 40 per cent. Its not according to me. Parliament had asked the Indian Council of Agriculture and Research (ICAR) to do an analysis on the post harvest losses in various crops.  The  ICAR  entrusted  this project to the Central Institute of Post Harvest Engineering and Technology (CIPHET). They came up with the report which says that in case of cereals, the post harvest loss is less than 6 per cent. Similarly, among the vegetables, the highest loss occurs in tomatoes which is around 12 per cent. In case of fruits, guava suffers the most with loss of around 24 per cent throughout the Food Supply Chain (FSC). However, in case of milk there hasnt been any wastage recorded, which is not amazing. 

Well, in that case, where in the supply chain does food loss occur extensively? 

With regard to food loss, there is something that hasn't been observed from a wider outlook. And that is the wastage at the level of processing. That is where the crux lies and nobody wants to talk about it. Because that is industrial wastage, I mean a wastage which everyone is OK with! Maximum food that I find being wasted is in the processing sector. And weve been given to believe that this sector will help minimize food loss. 

If we look at the United States, more than 40 per cent of the food loss happens at the level of processing. And we believe that if FDI happens in our country, food loss will be minimized. But studies show that 50 per cent of fruits and vegetables rot in the American supermarkets! 

With reference to India too, the Agriculture and Food Processing Minister went on record stating 0.6 per cent of the food stored has been wasted during storage. Thats a pretty arguable and a non-realistic figure. But it would surprise you to know that private food distribution companies such as Cargill and ADM waste 3 per cent of their stored food on an average. That means even they are not efficient, contrary to the general belief. 

Now with FDI coming in the food market, are we looking at a significant improvement? 

Improvements? Are you kidding me? Are they successful in their own backyards? I know there are problems in the storage sector and transportation in India. But the impression that I have been getting is that unless FDI retail comes to India, things will not improve. What rubbish? In America, FDI retail is not maintaining the backend processes; neither in Europe. Their government is doing that. Moreover in India, we have this wonderful system of milk co-operatives thats famous around the world for its efficiency. If the milk co-operatives can build up a highly efficient food value chain for a perishable product like milk, without the help of America or Europe, why cant we do the same for agriculture in India? 

And its not that retail stores are new to us. For quite some time now, organized retail chains have been in operation in India. We have Reliance Fresh, Fair Price, Big Bazaar, Easy Day and so on. Their argument was the same. They also promised the same quality of infrastructure and transportation facilities that these foreign chains are now boasting. None of them has been able to develop that type of infrastructure. Theyre not interested; they only wanted to earn money. 

But, going by the hype, there must be some ways in which the country will benefit from FDI? 

Why do you think these foreign investors are lined up to invest in the country? So that we Indians can benefit? These retail chains havent been able to do wee bit of improvements in their country. How can you expect them to do anything here? In America, Walmart has completed 50 years now. And I think more than 60 per cent of the consumer products and agriculture products are being sold or procured or marketed by Walmart. That means the farmers over there should be thriving and prosperous. But thats not what it looks like. Studies show that before Walmart came in, for every dollar of produce that the farmer would sell, his income would be 70 cents. In 2005, the income came down to 4 cents. The income should have gone up now that they were no middlemen. Truth is Walmart in itself is the biggest middleman! American agriculture survives not because of Walmart but because of massive federal subsidies. Same goes for Europe. About 145 billion Euros have been provided to agriculture under the common agriculture policy. In a nutshell, if foreign organized retail comes to India, food loss will break records, farmers would get a lower price, food quality will go down and knowing that processed food is largely unhealthy, Indians  will suffer.

Lets start from the first level of Food Supply Chain. At the ground level, how can farmers contribute and ensure that there is no food loss? 

The only food loss that happens at this stage is during drying and threshing. Farmers leave their harvested crops to dry up under the sun. Thats where some wastage occurs. Washing, threshing and cutting are some more phases but you cannot compare them with the massive loss that happens in the processing sector. And if you ask me the reason for food loss at the farmers level, its because of the policies that devoid the farmer of any progress. Unites States develops some technology, Indian policymakers blindly implement the machines on our Indian farmers. Why do you force some foreign machines or technology on the Indian small farmers? These technologies were not developed for small farmers. Why cant you listen to what the small farmers need and then develop you own mechanisms that would help him? Instead we first develop a technology and then want the farmer to fit into it. 

The government has never paid heed to the woes of farmers. Rather they have looked forward to the benefits of big companies. In Punjab, farmers have been lured in to buy tractors that have no commercial viability for most of them. For a tractor to be commercially viable, one needs at least 10 hectares of land. Now, the government has reduced that figure to 2 acres. Result is, every other farmer is buying tractors on loan from these companies in order to cultivate his small piece of land, which really does not require a tractor. Every second farmer in Punjab owns a tractor. Tractor has now become a symbol of suicide. Tell me what kind of policy is this? Instead of this, tractors should be leased out to farmers for their cultivating season at a reasonable price. 

There are three organizations responsible for food storage in India, the Food Corporation of India, the Central Warehousing Corporation and the State Warehousing Corporation. Still, were left with millions worth rotten food grains every year. Why is that? 

See, setting up of a warehouse is not rocket science. Unfortunately, we see it as a highly technical thing. Planning teams from India have gone to Argentina to understand how they store food. What rubbish! In 1979, a programme was launched by the Indian Government named Save Grain Campaign in order to prevent damage of food grains after the successful Green Revolution. The programme suggested that 50 major warehouses be set up in the country in different states. Imagine if that programme  would  have  been implemented, there would have been no need to bring grains from different states and spend on transport. Food grains could have been distributed locally from the respective warehouse. But food storage has never received any priority. Well, even now there is apparently no priority. Its just glib talk. 

Two three years back, the government had decided to construct Panchayat ghars in each of the roughly 265,000 panchayats. Now, this is ridiculous. Panchayats have always been known to operate from open premises. Instead of this, had they converted these panchayat ghars into food godowns, much of the food storage and distribution problem would have been solved by now. Then there would have been local production, local procurement and local distribution. This shows that there is no emphasis on food storage. 

The media has shaken the thinking of the average person by showing images of food rotting owing to bad storage. But I doubt if this will even remotely affect the policymakers. Instead of stocking food grains in unhygienic places where they will eventually rot, they could have distributed the grains among the poor! But they did not. The policy makers are waiting for a food riot to happen! Only then, their conscience will wake up from its slumber! 

What are your views on the Food Security Act? Is there any provision in it to combat food loss? 

In my understanding, the Food Security Act is an opportunity lost. After 66 years of independence, the government finally decided to bring in a legal mechanism to provide food for the hungry. But in my understanding the National Advisory Council drafted a lousy bill; its faulty.  This Food Security Act is only good for the dustbin. Why? Well, one-third of the worlds hungry people live in our country of 1.25 billion people. They are not hungry because there is shortage of food. They are hungry because there is a grave problem with food access and food distribution. 

The bill aims at providing food to poor people for all times to come. If you make people dependent on a food dole, then you are not empowering them. Will the government go on providing subsidized food to these hungry people throughout their lives? Why not develop a system wherein the people can themselves become self-reliant in ensuring their food security? The question that needs to be asked is that out of the estimated 6.5 lakh villages in India, 5 lakh produce food. Why is it that the same food producing villagers live in hunger? 

It would have been a better option to have two different programmes under the Act, one for rural areas and another for the urban parts. See, in a country like India, one size is not going to fit all.  Time and again, the government is banking upon the same Public Distribution System (PDS) to deliver. The system had failed earlier. 

If the government opted for something more sustainable, like a food grain bank, it would have been much better. This system was in operation on a large scale before the British came. A cluster of villages would have their own community controlled food grain bank system which would prevent prospective starvation. There are many villages in India where such community driven grain banks operate. There is no hunger in these villages. Why cant we operate this community driven grain bank scheme on a large scale? This is the only way to ensure that people become responsible for their own food security and this, in turn, will also boost local production and distribution. 

At a time when 2,500 farmers quit agriculture daily and 3 lakh farmers have committed suicide in the last 17 years, this Food Security Act is nothing more than a vote security bill. On the one hand, farmers are dying and on the other, a huge population goes to bed hungry. Most of the hungry are in fact farmers. Am I the only one who thinks there is something seriously wrong? After all, providing subsidized food to the poor and hungry farmer is not the solution. 

Roughly sixty per cent of the hungry in India are farmers; the government needs to make agriculture sustainable and economically viable for the farmers so that they he can first become food secure. In a country which has 60 crore farmers, the only way out is to link up agriculture with food security. Driving them out of agriculture and ensuring food security by food imports is a suicidal policy. India needs to do what Mahatma Gandhi had suggested. It needs a production system by the masses and not for the masses. #

Source: ECOEarthCare. Mar 2014. 

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