Challenges of moving towards a food sovereignty perspective

A realistic vision or flight of fancy?

Food shortages, nutritional imbalances and ecological degradation are the direct consequences of distorted government policies. Only a movement away from the present model of agriculture to one that is based on locally adapted food sovereignty principles will help us overcome this situation. Genuinely decentralized policies for the production, distribution, marketing, processing and consuming of food, with an emphasis on the local and the regional level need to be evolved.

Distorted government policies will lead to eventual food shortages

It is not uncommon for me to buy a few apples or oranges and then find that they have travelled all the way from the US or South Africa. Each of those apples or oranges leave behind a carbon footprint and contributes to climate change. Likewise the food grains transported over long distances also leave their prints. Globalisation has created a monstrous system of food production, distribution and consumption where we don’t know anymore where the food comes from and whether it is healthy or not. It is true that in the big cities of India we now find shelves with various kinds of organic foods. But this is available only to the well-off and the majority of our population must make do with the grain and vegetables produced with overdoses of pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilisers.

Upto a point we can say “we are what we eat”. In India, and much of the world, the ability for people to eat locally grown nutritious food is a luxury. The white rice that most people consume on a daily basis in south India is high in starch and has a high glycemic index, meaning that it releases glucose rapidly into the bloodstream. The answer would be to consume unpolished rice. But unpolished rice, with the nutrients intact, does not have a long shelf life and will turn rancid after a few months. If the food system was regional it would be possible to hull paddy every few months and make whole grain rice freshly available to the consumer at regular intervals.

We are however living in a global food market involving huge profits. Market fundamentalism and agri-business call the shots. Any attempt to go regional would be seen as a political and economic threat. In India, were it not for the resistance movements of farmers, the government (in collusion with agribusiness) would have embraced a model of ‘agriculture without farmers’ sometime ago. Despite the importance of the small farmer to the electoral process, only an intensification of farmer’s struggles and intelligent advocacy and lobbying can bring about meaningful changes. Of course, all this can only happen if there is a simultaneous change in our values, for we are facing a major civilisational crisis.

Most of us have forgotten Mahatma Gandhi’s dictum of local production for local consumption. We can quite easily make a list of food grains, masala powders, cooking oil, khadi, firewood, vegetables, biscuits, sweets, etc. that can be produced at the local level for family consumption and for the local market. A long list of locally produced goods would signify that a country is genuinely independent and not subject to supra-national tyranny. The present model of neo-liberal globalisation weakens the nation state and transfers elements of sovereignty to transnational corporations and their collaborators like the WTO, the World Bank and the IMF.

If we have to feed the billion plus population of India it is clear that we need to move from the competitive, standardised and monocultural approach of food security to that of food sovereignty which is based on cooperative and democratic forms of food provisioning. It is also clear that we need to shun the agribusiness approach and progressively embrace a decentralised and small farmer-centred model of production and distribution where the consumers are primarily, but not exclusively, local. We are not there yet. In fact we are aggressively moving in the opposite direction. It looks like things will only get worse before they get better.

Despite the good harvest that the country’s farmers have produced in 2011, millions of people will still go hungry. Amartya Sen famously stated that food availability in the markets and an emphasis on aggregate food availability does not mean that particular individuals and groups will be able to access the food. In other words stating that a country has acquired food security says little about all those people who will still go hungry.

Even before climate change became an issue we were heading for serious water shortages. Our two major cereals, wheat and rice, will not have enough water to sustain present levels of production. Lester Brown states that it takes 14 tons of water to make a ton of steel, but it takes 1000 tons of water to grow a ton of wheat. My friend Devinder Sharma recently told me that 5000 litres of water is needed to produce 1kg of rice.

With ground water tables dropping and several rivers like the Ganges and the Brahmaputra slated to have less water because of the melting of the Himalayan Glaciers the future prospects for rice and wheat do not look very good. With every one degree Celsius rise in temperature, food production might diminish by as much as ten percent. Suman Sahai of Gene Campaign states that in the case of wheat, which is a temperature sensitive crop, a one degree rise in temperature might lead to a loss of four to five million tons in South Asia.

All over the world food prices have been shooting up these past few years. In India the increase has occasionally hovered around 20%. In addition to the usual reasons like poor monsoon, bad storage facilities and hoarding we must now reckon with factors related to acute water shortages and climate change. Some countries like Saudi Arabia may be rich in oil but poor in water. Once selfsufficient in wheat it will see the end of wheat production by 2016. This is because of over-pumping from their aquifers. In nearby Egypt water shortages have forced the country to import 40% of its grain requirements. Algeria has no choice but to import 70% of its grain.

The shifting of land towards bio-fuel production is also a grave cause of concern. The US harvested 416 million tons of grain in 2009. Of these 119 million tons was diverted to ethanol production to provide fuel for cars. The increase in bio-fuel production all over the world has led to a stampede to buy land wherever it is available. The Chinese company ZTE International bought 6.9 million acres of land in the Democratic Republic of Congo to produce palm oil and bio-fuel while the people of Congo themselves use only 1.9 million acres to produce corn for its 66 million inhabitants. China was also trying to acquire 2 million hectares in Zambia for bio-fuel production from Jatropha.

In many countries free trade agreements benefit fewer and larger transnational corporations who dump cheap farm products. This leads to farming becoming uneconomical, and farmers abandoning their farms to migrate to the cities, which in turn affects local and national food production. TNC’s like Cargill and Monsanto have been pushing GMO seeds. Apart from affecting the health of the consumers these companies are also forcing farmers to buy seeds from them. In India we are experiencing this phenomenon with BT cotton, where the farmers have no choice but to buy from seed companies. Likewise, if genetically modified food grain production eventually enters India we will find farmers becoming completely dependent on seed companies.

Case study of ‘local’ agriculture being destroyed by the market

My experience from the field at H.D.Kote taluk, Mysore District, South India, suggests that government is sending a clear message: let the market decide. What is narrated in the following account, documented by Shabin Paul (Pipal Tree) in collaboration with the Millet Network of India, shows that a local system of food production has been destructively transformed and progressively integrated in the national and international market.

Antharasanthe Panchayat of H.D.Kote taluk used to produce much of its own food about forty years ago. The local food and farming culture was based on millets like finger millets (ragi), sorghum (jola), foxtail millet (navane), little millet (samay) and pearl millet (sajje). Sixty per cent of the land was under millet cultivation. Today ragi is the only millet grown here, cultivated in about 20 per cent of the land. A good proportion of farming has now shifted to BT cotton, sugarcane, ginger, turmeric and tobacco. The farmers are now obliged to buy food grains from the open market and also procure from the public distribution system (PDS).

Since agriculture in Antharasanthe panchayat is mainly rain-fed, millets were the ideal food crops as they did not need irrigation. They were cultivated as mixed crops and were grown together with about seven varieties of pulses and lentils. Hence local communities were self-sufficient in their food requirements when millet-based mixed farming was the practice.

Although the farmers were not aware of it, the cultivation of millets also represented low carbon farming, since they did not use chemical fertilisers and pesticides that are responsible for harmful nitrous oxide emissions. Apart from reducing the cost of cultivation millets based mixed farming also improved soil fertility and prevented soil erosion. Since millets also provided sufficient fodder, the farmers were able to maintain bulls for ploughing the fields and cows for milk. The dung went to provide manure.

Today the poorer farmers are dependent on the inorganic polished rice, wheat and processed sugar of the PDS and the open market. The small quantities of vegetables they buy in the market also contain high doses of pesticides.

Some of the reasons for these unfortunate changes are as follows:

Due to the low market rate and diminished demand for millets their cultivation does not bring them enough revenue to meet their household needs. If they lease out their lands to others they get Rs.30000 to Rs.35000 per acre per annum. So leasing appears as a better financial option.

Values from the new market context, combined with traditional  prejudices, have convinced the poorer section in rural areas that the consumption of millets is a sign of low social status; many have now switched to rice and wheat.

The loss of traditional awareness related to seed collection and household grain storage methods has led to the unavailability of quality seeds in time. Obtaining seeds from the agricultural extension is difficult since the farmers have to follow a tedious procedure of submitting various documents which takes a long time to be approved. Besides, they are apprehensive about the quality of seeds they get from there.

With the rise of individualistic values, the culture of seed exchange has all but stopped. In earlier times, farmers borrowed seeds from each other.

While the government shows a lack of enthusiasm for the  cultivation of millets, financial and technical support is given to cash crops.

Since the use of tractors for ploughing and transportation has become popular the number of livestock has reduced considerably. This in turn has increased the cost of cultivation and the growing of millets is not considered economical.

The availability of rice and wheat through PDS at highly subsidized rates gives small and marginal farmers a false sense of security. So even those who were cultivating millets for their own consumption turned to the cultivation of cash crops, or leased out their land.

All this has led to serious consequences for the local communities. For example, middlemen and money lenders have benefited most from the shift to commercial crops. Many self-reliant farmers have now become dependent on wage labour and the PDS for the survival of their families.

Changes in the food habits have resulted in the poor health of the people. Farmers say that they were healthy and strong when millets were part of their food. Health problems related to diabetics, blood pressure, cholesterol, etc. were rare in earlier days. Most of the women and young girls these days are anaemic and have problems during pregnancy.

Women now have less control over food supply. Since men are the ones who market commercial crops the women have little say on how income should be used. Alcoholism among men has kept pace with the increase of commercial agriculture and violence against women is on the rise.

Its not just millets that have suffered as a result of market forces. Locally available non-market varieties of greens have seen a dramatic decline in consumption. People are now dependant on greens that come from outside the area. In the case of the adivasis most of their traditional food sources (like wild tubers, mushrooms, and greens gathered from the forest) are not available to them anymore due to eviction from the forest or displacement when the Kabini dam was constructed.

Going by similar studies from other areas it is clear that we have moved away dramatically from a traditional model of sustainable agriculture to one that is more unjust, global and related to agribusiness.

Despite the negative trends is there a way to get back to a food sovereignty approach that is more just and democratic? It’s a tough challenge, but we must nevertheless struggle in this direction. Otherwise the future will be catastrophic, especially in the context of climate change. We must also emphasise that hundreds of thousands of small farmers are bucking the trend with their organic farming practices, where they try to be self-reliant in food production for the family.

Moving towards the local and the regional

Food sovereignty is nothing more than a rephrasing of Gandhi’s notion of Swadeshi. Satish Kumar, the founder of Schumacher College, has reworked Swadeshi in more contemporary terms:

“According to the principle of Swadeshi, whatever is made or produced in the village must be used first and foremost by the members of the village. Trading among villages and between villages and towns should be minimal, like icing on the cake. Goods and services that cannot be generated within the community can be bought from elsewhere.”

“Swadeshi avoids economic dependence on external market forces that could make the village community vulnerable. It also avoids unnecessary, unhealthy, wasteful, and therefore environmentally destructive transportation. The village must build a strong economic base to satisfy most of its needs, and all members of the village community should give priority to local goods and services.”

This kind of local production not only meets most of the local needs but also creates full employment. Since goods are mostly marketed/exchanged and consumed at the village, local and regional level it would reduce transportation requirements considerably, one of the key factors that could mitigate climate change.

The organic farmers movement in H.D.Kote taluk, Savayava Krishikara Sangha (SKS) is an inspiring example of 166 small farmers coming together to produce for domestic consumption and for the market. Even a two-acre farmer who grows cash crops like cotton will put aside at least half an acre for growing ragi for the family. The farmers in the movement sell vegetables locally and sugarcane and ragi through their marketing outlet at Handpost, which is in the same taluk. Most importantly they produce their own seeds or exchange with each other. What this movement shows is that a food sovereignty approach can go hand in hand with the production of cash crops in a responsible manner.

After much prodding, the government of India has at last come out with a National Food Security Bill in 2011 that has a strong regional flavor. It talks of encouraging state governments “to undertake a decentralized planning process and to procure, store and distribute food grain at local levels from district to panchayat, with a view to minimize transportation costs and losses and provide state governments with the appropriate facilities and incentives”. The Bill also states that state governments will set up procurement centres within a radius of 10 kilometres and provide spot payment to farmers.

Food production must be for the needs of the local community first, and then for regional, national and international requirements. It must lead to self-reliance, which implies reducing dependence on others and allowing for non-exploitative trading relations. This would be possible if the right value framework and political will were there. Notions like GDP and standards of living are taking us away from true happiness. We should replace them with a quality of life index that includes material, psychological and spiritual well being. Bhutan talks about Gross National Happiness instead of GDP.

It is easy to make suggestions, but difficult to transform them into reality. Nevertheless, hope springs eternal and the struggles must continue. Here are a few basic points that cannot be overlooked if we have to move to a regional approach. To begin with, the government must regulate markets so that the market does not dictate what is grown. Guidelines may be worked out so that food crops do not suffer due to the unrestrained cultivation of cash crops. Local grain warehouses should be established as soon as possible. The grain from these warehouses may first supply the local PDS and markets and only then be made available to more distant regions. Apart from farmers producing their own seeds the state government should help with technical inputs in all possible ways. One of the big problems in rural areas is the absence of compost. Even those farmers who have livestock end up merely heaping the dung and spreading it out on the fields before cultivation. It is necessary to create awareness through farmers’ movements, NGOs and government extension services that producing compost is a fundamental condition for meaningful agricultural practice. In addition, the cultivation of millets, integrated with mixed cropping, must be practiced in at least fifty per cent of all dry land areas in India. Landless agricultural labourers must develop kitchen gardens where a little land is available around their homes. Bullock carts can come into vogue again for transporting farm products within the panchayat. As far as possible smokeless chulas, basic solar lighting and bio-gas must be staple practice for the majority of rural homes. Horticulture and green manure trees must be grown along bunds and the boundaries of the fields.

Only a movement away from the present model of agriculture to one that is based on locally adapted food sovereignty principles will prevent farmers from becoming disillusioned with their vocation. An NCAP study states that forty per cent of Indian farmers would like to quit farming. A regional approach that is participatory will empower a farmer to be creative and fulfilled. And this is not an impossible dream to work towards. It would imply a national debate on the relationship of food to human well being. The awareness that is generated should push the government to evolve genuinely decentralized policies for the production, distribution, marketing, processing and consuming of food with an emphasis on the local and the regional.

Pipal Tree, Fireflies Intercultural Centre,
Dinnepalya village, Kagalipura P.O., Bangalore-560082, India.

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