Searching for our daily bread

If the word crisis is vastly overused, to speak of a global food crisis is, if anything, an understatement.

The first signs of trouble appeared in 2000, when global grain stocks declined for the first time in several decades, but it was not until the spring of 2007 that the full gravity of what was occurring became clear. That year, the prices of the principal food staples — rice, corn, soybeans and wheat — effectively doubled. This was an |unprecedented rise, and it reversed more than 50 years of declining prices. The results were immediate and devastating: the number of hungry or chronically malnourished people rose by at least 100 million, to nearly one billion people. Food riots and other forms of unrest broke out.

While global grain prices have declined substantially since 2008, they are poised to rise again. When they do, the costs in terms of both human suffering and political and social upheaval are likely to make the 2007 price crisis pale by comparison.

It is easy to mock the various conferences, emergency meetings and seemingly endless policy documents that have tried to mitigate the threat but so far have achieved little. In fairness, though, responding effectively will be extraordinarily difficult. Despite what some conspiracy-minded critics have alleged, the crisis has a number of drivers, each one of which would be challenging enough on its own, but which taken together seem to call for a hard-to-imagine radical restructuring. These drivers include the diversion of grains in North America and western Europe to biofuel production; higher energy costs, which translate into more expensive chemical fertilisers; and since 2000, financial speculation over staple crops, which causes price fluctuations.

As if this were not bad enough, these changes have been taking place during a period of very rapid population growth. And in some regions with dramatic demographic increases, like sub-Saharan Africa and parts of South Asia, climate change is threatening to lower crop yields at precisely the time that more staple foods urgently need to be produced.


Although everyone agrees there is a food emergency, there is little agreement on what should be done. The dominant approach, championed and to a considerable extent financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — now the world’s principal private funder of agricultural research — holds that the global food crisis is fundamentally the result of both inefficient and insufficient food production. Therefore the solution is what Gordon Conway, the former president of another major philanthropic supporter of this effort, has called “the doubly green revolution.” Conway has defined this as harnessing “the power of science and technology not just for the better-off, or even the majority, but for those millions of poor and hungry who deserve and have a right to enough to eat.”


Arrayed against this view are the agroecologists, grouped around organisations and coalitions like the right to food movement in India and their intellectual supporters, like Olivier de Schutter, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food. They argue that agroecology — the application of ecological principles to agriculture — offers the possibility of increasing crop yields without resorting to expensive, patented inputs beyond the means of poor smallholder farmers. They also argue that the global food crisis is less a technical problem than a social and political crisis, whose roots and solutions lie in creating a fairer and more accountable world system.


For now, the technological aproach remains in the ascendant. Whether it remains so much longer will depend to a considerable extent on whether its innovations live up to their advance billing, are financially sustainable and prove to be culturally acceptable to farmers.


Both sides would probably agree that neither technical innovation nor agroecology can work unless governments are fully committed to reducing the number of hungry and chronically malnourished people. When governments have been committed, progress has been very rapid, as the examples of China, Thailand, Vietnam, Mexico, and, most brilliantly, Brazil, have demonstrated conclusively over the last three decades. When they have not been, as is the case, disgracefully, in India — where the malnutrition rate for children under five stubbornly remains at 46 per cent, double the average in sub-Saharan Africa — conditions have deteriorated.


But if the global food crisis is real, it is not unsolvable. One of the greatest accomplishments of the 20th century was to make famine — for all of human history a scourge that seemed as inevitable as the other three horsemen of the apocalypse, war, plague, and death — a rarity. Today, famine is almost invariably the product of evil governments, North Korea being the obvious case, or of no government, as in Somalia. The hunger that maims and blights should be consigned to the past, just as the hunger that kills has been.


World produces enough food for the year 2050. The problem is access and distribution

Devender Sharma
With the world population crosses 7 billion, feeding the teeming population is becoming a major concern. At times of diminishing land resources, and in an era of climate change, ensuring food security is the biggest challenge.

All efforts are aimed at increasing food production. Somehow an impression has been created that the world needs to increase crop production manifold if it has to meet the food requirement for the year 2050. The global population would then be 9 billion. What is however deliberately being glossed over is that there is at present no shortage of food. It is not production, but access and distribution that need immediate attention.

At present, the total quantity of food that is produced globally is good enough to meet the daily needs of 11.5 billion people. If every individual were to get his daily food requirement as per the WHO norms, there would be abundant food supplies. In terms of calories, against the average per capita requirement of 2,300, what is available is a little more than 4,500 calories. In other words, the world is already producing more food than what would be required in 2050. So where is the need to panic?

Why then is the world faced with hunger? Simply put, one part of the world is eating more and the other is left to starve. Hunger has grown over the years because of gross food mismanagement. Let me explain. At the 1996 World Food Summit, political leaders had pledged to pull out half the world’s hungry (at that time the figure was somewhere around 840 million) by the years 2015. In other words, by 2010, the world should have removed at least 300 million people from the hunger list.

Instead it has added another 85 million to raise the hunger tally to 925 million. In my understanding, this too is a gross understatement. The horrendous face of hunger is being kept deliberately hidden. But nevertheless, let’s again go back to the question we posed earlier: If there is no shortage of food than why the growing pangs of hunger?

Consider this. An average American consumes about 125 kg of meat, including 46 kg of poultry meat. While the Indians are still lagging behind, the Chinese are fast catching up with the American lifestyle. The Chinese consume about 70 kg of meat on average each year, inclusive of 8.7 kg of poultry meat. The Indian average is around 3.5 kg of meat, much of it (2.1 kg) coming from poultry. If you put all this together, the Chinese are the biggest meat eaters, and for obvious reasons – devouring close to 100 million tonnes every year. America is not far behind, consuming about 35 million tonnes of meat in a year.

When I said earlier that one part of the world is eating more, this is what I meant. Six times more grain is required to provide the proteins that are consumed by the meat-eaters. Changing the dietary habits therefore assumes importance. But still worse, Americans throw away as much as 30 percent of their food, worth $ 48.3 billion. Why only blame the Americans, walk into any marriage ceremony in India and you would be aghast to see the quantity of food that goes waste.

Food wastage has therefore become our right.

Considering FAO’s projections of the number of people succumbing to hunger and malnutrition at around 24,000 a day, I had calculated that by the year 2015, the 20 years time limit that World Food Summit had decided to work on to pull out half the hungry, 172 million people would die of hunger. These people are succumbing to hunger because both at the household and at the national level, we have allowed food to go waste.

In America, for instance, hunger has broken a 14-year record and one in every ten Americans lives in hunger. In Europe, 40 million people are hungry, almost equivalent to the population of Spain. In India, nearly 320 million people live in hunger. The International Institute for Food Policy’s Global Hunger Index 2011 ranks India 67th among 81 countries. While India ranks lower than Rwanda, what is still more shocking is that Punjab – the food bowl – ranks below Sudan and Honduras in ensuring food security.

Is it so difficult to remove hunger? The answer is No.

A simple act of saving and sharing food is the best way to fight hunger. It can begin at the household level, at the community level and of course at the regional and national levels. If every household were to ensure that no food is wasted, and then organise the left over to be delivered to the poor and needy, much of the hunger that we see around can be taken care of. A small initiative in Rewari town in Haryana has galvanised the township into saving and sharing food. If it can happen in Rewari, it can happen in your neighbourhood too. Try it, and you will see you too can make a difference. #

Feeding with lies

Devinder Sharma
When there is no additional storage space, how will more production of food grains help? Will it too not go waste?
Although prime minister Manmohan Singh considers rising food inflation to be a sign of growing prosperity, the reality is very harsh and painful. Rising food inflation, which continues for the 4th successive year now, has hit the aam aadmi like never before. Adding fuel to fire is the periodic rise in petrol prices.

For over four years now, at every media discussion that I am invited to, I am appalled at the economic ignorance that prevails. They go on harping again and again on what the textbooks would prescribe as the plausible reasons behind any runaway inflation.

Whether it is any member of prime minister’s Economic Advisory Council or the Planning Commission or one of the senior officials of the RBI, the answers you get are all the same: food inflation is because of low production; with rising incomes there is a shift in demand towards nutritious foods thereby increasing the prices of fruits, vegetables and milk products; and because the farmers are being paid a higher procurement price, the consumers have to pay more.

Now let us look at the each of the arguments separately. The common refrain that one hears is that food prices are on an upswing because production is unable to match the growing demand. For several months now, you have watched with concern news reports of foodgrains rotting in godowns.

While lakhs of tonnes of wheat and paddy are allowed to rot, we are being told that there is need to increase crop production. Ever since the TV channels began highlighting the grain wastage, except for lip-sympathy, the government has not made any significant allocation for creating additional storage space. In such a depressing scenario, how will more production help? Where will the government store the additional produce? Will it too not go waste?

Every year, as per official figures more than 16 lakh tonnes of foodgrain rot in godowns. The quantity of wheat and rice that becomes sub-standard and unfit for human consumption and which has to be sold for manufacturing alcohol and goes as cattle feed is several times more.

When Manmohan Singh equated inflation with prosperity, he was trying to say that with more income in hand people have shifted to nutritious diets. The demand for fruits, vegetables and milk products has shot up as a result. This too is untrue, and has no scientific basis. Since this is a frequently asked question, I did some computation of the production estimates.

The per capita daily availability of fruits and vegetables is 480 grams. The per capita requirement for a balanced diet is roughly 80 grams, against which the actual consumption is much low. Therefore it becomes apparent that there is at least six times more availability of fruits and vegetables in this country than what is required. So where is the shortfall? Why are the prices of fruits and vegetables sky-rocketing when the availability is in abundance?

False assumptions
In any case, the argument that with rising incomes the intake of nutritious food products in the food basket expands is also not based on any empirical evidence. The 2007 National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) tells us that cereal consumption has been on a steady decline, with no corresponding increase in the intake of more nutritious eggs, vegetables, fruits and milk.

It means hunger has been on a rise and is now more widespread and well-entrenched. The feeling was that with the changing food habits, people have shifted from cereals to nutritious foods. This assumption too does not hold true anymore.

The decline in cereal consumption has more or less followed a steady pattern in the rural and urban areas, of course, much faster in the rural areas. Per capita cereal consumption per month in the rural areas across the country has fallen from 13.4 kg in 1993-94 to 11.7 kg in 2006-07.

The decline has been sharper between the period 2004 and 2007 when just in three years, cereals consumption fell from 12.1 kg to 11.7 kg. In the urban centres the decline was from 10.6 kg in 1993-94 to 9.6 kg in 2006-07. In a largely vegetarian society, cereals constitute the single important source of nutrition and therefore its importance in the Indian context is well established.

Moreover, if the claim was true, India’s ranking in the 2010 Global Hunger Index prepared by the International Food Policy Research Institute should have improved. India continues to rank 67th among 81 countries, faring much lower then Pakistan, Sudan and Rwanda. If people had started eating more, I see no reason why India should be ranked so low in the hunger index.

And finally how true is the argument that food prices are going up because farmers have been paid a higher procurement price? Wheat, rice and sugarcane are essentially the three major crops where farmers have received a higher procurement price.

Interestingly, wheat and rice are not the crops where food inflation is hurting the poor. In case of sugarcane, after a hike in prices in 2009, sugar prices have stabilised even though the growers are getting a higher price. It is in case of fruits and vegetables, which do not receive any benefit of procurement prices, where the market prices have made a hole in the pocket of average consumers.

Much more needed to help the poor

The government stands accused of not only corruption but also Marie Antoinette-style insensitivity
Jayati Ghosh

Today is the “International Day for the Eradication of Poverty”, so it an appropriate day to note how necessary it still is to emphasise this concern among Indian policy makers.
Sadly, lack of official awareness is evident in all sorts of recent policy measures, for example in the cynicism of increasing oil prices that feed into all other prices with cascading effects, even when inflation has already imposed huge burdens on living conditions of people especially the poor. But it is also evident in the medium term strategy of the Union government, as expressed in the Planning Commission’s Approach to the Twelfth Plan. Consider the complacency of this: “The pace of poverty reduction has accelerated, though it may still be short of the target. India is well poised to meet the MDG (Millennium Development Goals) target of 50 percent reduction of poverty between 1990 and 2015.” This assessment comes, of course, from a mechanistic and disturbing reliance on a unidimensional measure of income poverty, defined on the basis of a poverty line that has already come in for much public flak.
While some measure of what is surely extreme destitution (which is really what the official poverty line has described over the decades) may be useful simply from the point of view of tracking a long term trend, it is really a shockingly poor guide to policy. That is why the Planning Commission’s affidavit to the Supreme Court declaring that the amounts of Rs. 26 per person per day in rural areas and Rs. 34 per person per day in urban India are “adequate” for basic conditions of life created so much outcry. As a result, the government stands accused of not only corruption but also Marie Antoinette-style insensitivity. The public furore can only be a good thing, because indeed the current official attempts to measure poverty are not just arcane but riddled with contradictions.
Any sensible government today would adopt a multidimensional definition of poverty, because it is now widely accepted that poverty relates not just to lack of monetary income, but also lack of food and nutrition; lack of decent employment opportunities: poor housing, sanitation and living conditions; inadequate access to basic services of health and education; time poverty because of an excessive combination of paid and unpaid work; and so on. In terms of these criteria, the persistence of widespread poverty in India is a critical challenge. But it can hardly be treated as such if it is not even recognised!

Perhaps the most glaring example of this is in terms of hunger. Interestingly, there is no mention of the word “hunger” in the entire Approach Paper. Maybe this silence is because in this dimension there has been no progress, but actual regression. In 2004-05, the proportion of population accessing less than 2200 calories per person per day in rural areas and 2100 calories per person per day in urban areas (which incidentally still constitute the official benchmarks for determining the estimates of poverty) were 69% and 64.5%. In 2009-10, the proportions increased to 76% and 68%.

Surely a concern with poverty reduction must encompass the reduction of hunger, as the first Millennium Development Goal also specifies? Unfortunately, this is not explicitly addressed – and the only indirect reference is to promoting agricultural growth, where too the strategy is inadequately developed. Indeed, the government’s negative and niggardly approach to the proposed food security legislation, insisting on targeting the provision of subsidised food to a group specified by these irrational poverty lines, does not give rise to much optimism.

The other critical aspect of poverty reduction is obviously employment (which is also recognised in MDG 1). The Approach to the 12th Plan accepts this: “For growth to be inclusive it must create adequate livelihood opportunities and add to quality employment commensurate with the expectations of a growing labour force.” (page 9) Even so, the government does not really seem to have an employment strategy at all. So there is no chapter in the Approach Paper on employment, and the macroeconomic discussion barely allows this “soft” consideration to intrude into its macho obsession with GDP growth rates. Indeed, despite all evidence to the contrary, the underlying assumption seems to be that output growth in itself will generate the required employment.

Worse, in terms of improving rural poverty, the entire policy seems to be on the National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM). This misguided strategy seeks to impose a pilot with limited success on the entire country, based on the linkage of women’s Self-Help Groups with commercial banks. “The real power of the SBL model lies in the economies of scale created by Self Help Group (SHG) Federations (comprising 150−200 SHGs each). SBL and livelihood programmes are complementary to each other and their simultaneous implementation is the key to poverty alleviation.” (page 81).

It is extraordinary that the difficulties of the SBL model, including the high rates of mortality of many SHGs, have been noted – but the opposite lesson has been drawn from them! It is not as if the notion that these must be tied up with livelihood programmes did not exist, in fact this has very much been tried – the problem is that the livelihoods turned out in most cases of failure, to have been unsustainable! This is the real problem that needs to be addressed, and it ties up with the problems faced by petty producers in general, even when they are federated into what are effectively co-operatives. Without adequate consideration of the particular competitive and macroeconomic environment faced by SHGs in the proposed NRLM, this effort too is likely to end in tears. It is strange that the overall economic environment is given a lot of attention when it is an issue of corporate profitability, but seems to be completely absent when poor rural women are being considered as producers.

Further, the significance of certain kinds of public expenditure in reducing multidimensional poverty is ignored in the Approach Paper. Where is the focus on providing a minimally decent home with functioning toilet and adequate water for sanitation to all citizens? This issue is particularly important for women, and even threatens physical security, yet it is still not a priority area.

Overall, then, the Approach Paper is disappointing, even disturbing, in its attitude to poverty reduction. The macroeconomic processes that generate poverty are ignored and policy interventions proposed are pathetic. We should expect much more from a government that must increasingly fight for its political survival in a country in which poverty is still so widespread.

Jayati Ghosh is professor of economics at Jahawarlal Nehru University.

Global Governance for World Food Security

Report by Nora McKeon about global governance for world food security, in which the (non)links between the CGIAR system and the UN system are mentioned. Many of the experiences in governance through the CFS (Committeee on World Food Security) would be relevant also for agricultural research with a view to food security.

Population has bigger effect than climate change on crop yields, study suggests

Bernard Appiah

4 October 2011 | EN

A maize farmer in BeninClimate change and population hike might mean smaller maize yields in the future

Flickr/IITA Image Library

Population pressure will be as significant a factor as climate change in reducing crop yields — and thus increasing food insecurity — in West Africa, according to a modelling study.

The authors inserted different climate change, land use, and demographic change scenarios, into an internationally validated model to estimate maize yields in Benin from 2021–2050.

They found that, as the population increases, farmers frequently cultivate cropland without allowing adequate resting periods for the soil to regain its fertility — thus reducing crop yields.

Overall, they found that various land use scenarios reduced maize yields by up to 24 per cent over the period, whereas climate change scenarios reduced them by up to 18 per cent.

But beyond 2050, “climate change is most likely to be the predominant driver for crop productivity”, they concluded.

“Our main assumption [before conducting the study] was that the low-input fallow systems (which allow resting periods for ploughed, but un-seeded land) in Benin and other West African countries would not change in the near future,” said Thomas Gaiser, lead author and a researcher at the University of Bonn, Germany.

“If governments in the region introduce policies such as the promotion of the use of mineral fertilisers, then the decrease [in the amount of land left fallow] will not be as serious as that without fertilisers,” he added.

Gaiser said farmers should use mineral fertilizers or intercrop with leguminous crops to promote soil fertility and increase yields.

He added that the findings are relevant to many Sub-Saharan Africancountries relying on leaving land fallow for soil fertility, like Ghana, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo.

“I am not surprised by the findings,” said Brian Keating, the director of Sustainable Agriculture Flagship of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), based in Australia. “It is important to look at all the factors that contribute to agricultural productivity output, and not just on climate change.”

But Keating told SciDev.Net that many farming systems in West Africa yield only 20–30 per cent of what would be possible if better practices and technologies were adopted.

Temi Ologunorisa, director of the Centre for Climate Change and Environmental Research at Osun State University, in Nigeria, said African governments should adopt climate change adaptation strategies.

“Agriculture in Africa is about 80 per cent rain-fed, and this must change given the declining amount of rainfall,” Ologunorisa said.

The study was published in the August edition of Agricultural and Forest Meteorology.