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Mainstream, VOL LII No 1, December 28, 2013 - ANNUAL 2013

Towards a Comprehensive Understanding of Food Security

Sunday 29 December 2013, by Bharat Dogra

Recently there has been a lot of discussion on food security, but most of this discussion has taken place in the narrow context of making available cheaper foodgrains to a larger number of people. The kind of questions which dominated this debate are-how many more people can be provided cereals priced at Rs 2 or Rs. 3 per kg and what will this cost the government in terms of increasing the food subsidy. A time has come now to go beyond these narrow concerns and seek a wider, comprehensive, balanced understanding of food security.

Clearly for good health cereals alone are not adequate, in addition pulses, vegetables, milk and milk products, oil or ghee, fruits, jaggery or sugar, salt and spices are also needed. An important question is how many of our households are able to access this food all over the year for all members of the family? In addition availability of clean drinking water, kitchen, fuel and utensils should be ensured and also time for cooking and feeding children. Only families assured of all this can be said to have food security.

Households having such food security at present form a very small percentage of the total number of households in India. In rural India the body mass index of 35 per cent of adults is below the norm of 18.5 (values below 18.5 indicate chronic energy deficit). Child malnutrition rate was estimated at around 44 per cent in a recent assessment by the Nandi foundation, an estimate not much different from earlier estimates of the National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau (NNMB). NNMB surveys also show significant anaemia in 55 per cent of the men and 70 per cent of the women as well as high levels of deficiency in vitamins and minerals.

One question is: how many people have access to balanced nutrition and hygienic food? The other question is: from where we obtain this food? In other words, where are the cereals, pulses, vegetables, fruits, sugarcane, oilseeds, milk and milk products are produced?

It is generally considered a very risky proportion to become dependent on imports for meeting essential food needs. However in recent years India has become dependent on rather heavy imports of edible oils and even pulses. Pulses or legume crops with their nitrogen formation abilities got uprooted from traditional mixed-farming systems and crop-rotations in the new ‘green revolution’ monocultures. Pulses which are on their own the most important source of protein for India also facilitate the absorption of protein from cereals like rice, one reason why rice-legume (daal bhaat) is considered such a satisfying combination.

In fact the existing self-reliance in meeting cereal needs also rests on a weak foundation as fertile agricultural land is being rapidly acquired for other uses, the natural fertility of land is declining rapidly and water table is declining at a rapid pace.

Trade rules linked to WTO regulations and free trade agreements have increased indiscri-minate imports leading to adverse impact on many farmers, a trend that may worsen in the near future.

Apart from some dependence on imports from abroad, there is also the localised dependence of many deficit districts on cereals and other essential foods from surplus areas in the country. To some context such internal trade is fine, but not to the extent that many districts become permanently dependent for essential food needs on distant surplus areas.

When very low-price cereals obtained from other parts of the country are supplied to the majority of people of an area while efforts to strengthen local production and procurement are not made, then farmers here will face adverse market conditions and their ability to survive will be further eroded.

So apart from national self-reliance in a still predominantly rural country like India we should speak also of local or decentralised self-reliance in which all rural districts should try to be self-reliant in meeting the food needs of rural people apart from supplying food also to the nearest urban centres. The government should purchase food items needed for public distribution system and nutrition programmes from the local district, thereby also making massive savings on transport and storage costs (and accompanying economic costs as well). This decentralised approach will also make it possible to make better use of traditional wisdom and ecologically protective farming practices, apart from suppling food of local taste and preference.

The methods of food production and processing are also an integral part of food security. Food grown using excessive chemical pesticides and weedicides can be harmful for health in many ways. Excessive use of chemical fertilisers is widely believed to lower the taste and nutrition of foods, apart from contributing to water pollution and endangering health. As pointed out by prominent nutritionists, indiscriminate use of chemical fertilisers results in micro-nutrient depletion of soils which is likely to
be eventually reflected in impaired nutritive value of food grains grown in such soils. Also there are other serious health risks as well, as pointed at by Richard Douthwaite in ‘The Growth Illusion’, “Nitrogenous fertilizers can raise the amount of nitrate in the final crop to four or five times the level found in the compost growing equivalent, while at the same time cutting vitamin and dry matter levels. This change in potentially serious, since nitrates can be turned into powerful carcinogenic nitrosamines by bacteria found in the mouth while vitamin C has been shown to protect against cancers.”

The other aspect of this farming technology is that the increasing costs associated with high use of agri-chemicals, machinery and seeds purchase from big companies can lead to a crisis situation for many farmers.

This in addition to large-scale displacement, increasing inequalities and climate change related factors have combined (apart from long-existing factors like family land-division) to create a situation in which nearly 90 million farmers ceased cultivation on their land during 2001-11 (according to census data) while the number of landless farm workers increased greatly. In other words India’s farmers have been driven from their land at the rate of over 2000 a day. Now the bottom 60 per cent of rural households own only five per cent of village farmland (about 30 per cent are landless while another 30 per cent or so own an acre or less of land).

Thus households who do not grow their own food are increasing rapidly in rural areas. Farm workers who get paid in food are declining as combine harvester take over crop harvesting work.

So the base of farmers and farming is being eroded and weakened rapidly, and if the base of farming is weak, food security cannot be strong.

In this situation there is increasing pressure from the WTO and related forces to open up imports even more. In fact the subsidies for existing food security set-up have also come under increasing scrutiny allegedly for being more than what is permitted under the WTO rules (never mind that the rules themselves are very unfair) and so this is being used as a pressure point to open up the country more for food and related imports. This in turn will have a very adverse impact on farmers, just as the proposed free trade agreement with the European Union can have a very adverse impact on farmers, particularly dairy farmers.

Also there is increasing pressure for acceptance of GM foods (imports as well as home-grown crops). Already the grip of multinational companies and other big companies on the seeds sector has been tightening steadily. If GM crops and imports are approved, this control will increase greatly while at the same time health hazards and environmental risks will increase in unacceptable ways and our food system will become captive to multinational companies.

These various dimensions of food security should be considered together for a comprehensive approach to planning for food security.

Bharat Dogra is a free-lance journalist who has been involved with several social initiatives and movements.

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