The end of ‘cheap’ food?

Slowly but surely, politics in this country is acquiring a foundation in contemporary issues, rather than one of mere rhetoric, alliances and muscle power. It is not that the shift is sharp, or that all core issues are being addressed — education and healthcare access are glaring examples — but there is hope that the reality of economics will bring more accountability to India’s imperfect democracy.

Perhaps the severest test for our polity will come from the reality of food prices which are fuelling runaway inflation. This country is witnessing the alarming spectacle of rising food prices, largescale grain imports and a simultaneous violent takeover of agriculture lands mostly by Government as largesse for manufacturing industry without a parallel concern to raise the productivity of the land.

The blithe advocacy of market economics is heard in many forums. In agriculture it was advocated on the BBC’s World Debate programme this weekend by right wing scholars in the context of rising food prices, with the World Bank representative Ngozi Okonjo Iweala (who has been a Finance Minister in Nigeria) acknowledging the turnaround that the Bank had to do after it was found inflicting damage on many communities in the past. (The Bank is still the darling of our politicians, but that calls for a separate discussion.)

On the programme, Raj Patel, the author of Stuffed and Starved, was intense, genuine and candid in attacking the corporatised vision of food production that the Bank (his former employer) has disastrously supported, South Africa being a telling example where significant redistribution of land after apartheid  did not happen mainly because it was restricted to ‘willing seller, willing buyer’. His observation about the “bottleneck corporations” that choke the flow of food from producers to consumers was revealing (four of these faceless entities apparently control three fourths of the trade); it was certainly unnerving for Unilever’s Jan Kees Vis who was on the panel. Sarath Fernando of the Sri Lanka Small Farmers Association made short work of the flaky arguments of the pro-market participants (Sean Rickfield of Cranfield University who kept harping on historical evidence of market efficiency and Unilever, which admitted that its busines was about profits for shareholders); the pro-sustainability-pro-small-farmer group in the debate was aided in good measure by Gary Howe of IFAD.

Here at home, one is most enthused by the sustained campaign being carried on by Pasumai Vikatan, on the merits of organic farming to raise productivity. The campaign also questions the credibility of Tamil Nadu’s politicians when it comes to agricultural policies.

The magazine wonders why politicians like Jayalalithaa, Vijayakanth and others demand a roll-back of the two rupee hike in milk price for farmers, when agriculture is becoming unremunerative and the land is being encroached, divided, sold and used for real estate speculation. Are not politicians responsible for the cornering of grazing porombokes and their being parcelled out for real estate business, Pasumai Vikatan asks. How can cattle be maintained in the absence of higher prices to afford stall feed?

The observation of the columnist, Kovanandi that loss of agricultural output has led to largescale imports and shortages of food, creating a price spiral, resonates with the same fervour that Raj Patel shows in his observations on the world food supply situation (winning plaudits from Naomi Klein).

Stuffed and Starved. How true, whatever the scale you look at. Global or local. 

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