Food First Policies needed to tackle hunger in India

By   October 17, 2008

Shiva: Food-First Policies Needed to Tackle in India

Indian activist Vandana Shiva holding a pin that reads 'No thanks to GMO food'

Shiva blames the increase in hunger on the use of genetically engineered seeds

Dramatic price increases have left nearly a billion people hungry worldwide. As World Poverty Day draws attention to the issue, DW’s Dennis Stute speaks with activist Vandana Shiva about India’s huge hunger levels.

Dr. Vandana Shiva is a physicist, ecologist, activist and author. In India she has established Navdanya, a movement for biodiversity conservation and farmers’ rights. She also directs the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy.

The UN has declared Oct. 17 as the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.

DW-WORLD.DE: How has the affected India?
Vandana Shiva: Very severely. Prices of staples have literally doubled in the last year and that has meant that the poor who were already only eating half of what they should be eating are now eating a quarter of what they should be. Unfortunately, it is the poor who must make a living by working physically and what we’re basically doing is robbing them of their ability to earn a living.

In addition, when children don’t get enough food to eat or when a mother is malnourished and she gives birth to a low birth-weight child, we are creating generations of people deprived of full mental health and full physical health.

According to a new report, there are “alarming” levels of hunger in 12 Indian states and “serious” levels in the remaining five. What, in your view, is the reason for the widespread malnutrition?

There are two very big reasons why India has emerged as the capital of hunger. The first is the “Green Revolution” model of agriculture, which was actually a hunger-creating model proposed as a hunger solution. But when you destroy food sources in pulses, in vegetables, in grains, in oil seeds and create monocultures of rice and wheat, you destroy the millets — the nutritious grains that have 40 times higher level of nutrition — and call them inferior grains and push them to extinction. On the ground, you have less food per unit acre and you have less nutrition access per capita.

Man picking an ear of corn from a stalk GMO crops require more water and provide less nutritional value, says Shiva

The second is related to the new thrust of the 1991 policies of trade liberalization which instead of focusing on food for people focused on exports of luxury cash crops to rich countries, destroying India’s food security base. This was trade-driven and really put food on the back burner then, treated as something you don’t need policy for.

The food situation is particularly bad in the state of Madhya Pradesh. Why is this state doing even worse than the others?
The two reasons Madhya Pradesh is more severely affected than others is that it’s a large forest state and it’s largely a tribal state. The food security of the tribals came from abundant forest products including edible products from the forest’s produce. Mining and industrialization is so rampant that tribals are losing their food resources.

It’s also the state where the drought impact because of climate change has been felt very severely. Bundelkhan has had a drought and rainfall failure for four years — there has been no cultivation at all. And that’s partly because the agricultural model is based on new seeds like hybrid seeds which need chemicals. But that’s the stupidest thing you could do because climate change requires adaption to drought which means planting crops that are resilient to drought — the millets that use only 250 millimeters of rain.

But unfortunately the government, driven by international agencies like the World Bank, has walked on the wrong road for a period of market volatility and climate uncertainty. The combination is a recipe for hunger and famine. We need to shift our focus from global markets and global trades to local food security and away from export crops to growing food and nutrition for our people.

In the past ten years, more than 140,000 farmers in India have committed suicide according to official figures. Why is their situation so desperate?

The first suicide came in 1997. When the impact of the new policies of liberalizing the seed sector started to get felt and corporations like Monsanto, who wanted to sell genetically modified seed, entered the market.

They started to sell non renewable hybrid seeds which meant the farmers had to spent huge amounts of money buying seed every year. These seeds also needed irrigation and were vulnerable to pests to the farmers had to spend more money putting in irrigation systems and buying pesticides. That meant a higher debt burden on farmers. Falling prices of the products and rising costs of production squeezed the farmers even further into debt. And that is what has led to the spate of suicides.

How can you tackle the problem of hunger?

A bowl of rice is being handed from an adult hand to a child's Getting food into the hands of the poor is difficult due to heavy subsidies

I think the most urgent steps to be taken to tackle the problem are to actually develop the farming systems to produce more food per unit acre. Every assumption of industrial agriculture is wrong because it does not produce more food but uses more chemicals and more water per unit acre. It produces more commodities for international trade per unit acre but it does not produce more food or more nutrition per unit acre. Models of farming that can increase food-production fivefold, ten fold, depending on your climatic conditions have evolved through the organic movement. Those models of biodiverse, ecological systems can solve the problem of hunger.

The second thing that needs to be done is to bring back food-first policies. In India after independence we have not had hunger on the scale we are now witnessing. We had a famine in 1942 which killed two million people. We had enough food in the country but the British were extracting every bit of rice from Bengal and exporting it for profit — exporting it to finance the war. We drove that famine away through public policy that put food first through a universal public distribution system that meant everyone has a right to affordable food. That was dismantled by the World Bank and it has to be resurrected.

The poor must have food at affordable price instead of subsidizing global corporations. What the government has to do is to buy, preferably organics, from the Indian farmers and then subsidize the prices for the poor. We would save our financial budgets, we would save our taxes and we would have more food at lower prices. India this year is spending one trillion rupees in subsidies for global corporations to buy chemical fertilizers. That’s the wrong way to go. We can lower costs of production, increase output per acre, increase equity and distribution. That is . That is food security. That is food first.

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