Why the industrial food chain need not be India’s destiny
In my first piece about the debate between industrial food chain and peasant food web, I had listed the four components for a grassroots food web revolution to take place: No use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides; diversity in seed banks; small landholdings by farmers and growers; and proximity to end consumer markets (urban centres).
If we examine these factors, we can see why India could be an epicentre for this food revolution. Let me start with the third and fourth factors. Farmers today barely get 25-30% of the consumer price, especially for horticultural products like fruits and vegetables. Shortening the supply chain and bringing farmers closer to customers mean that the end markets are closer to production. Another advantage of proximity is greater understanding of seasonal consumer demand, and flexibility in production for the farmers. This is also related to farm size, a counter-intuitive idea, compared to current received wisdom that we need to increase farm holdings. Smaller holdings that are closer to urban centres can result in significant benefits for farmers, but only if they are part of a complete new food system.
Our farmer landholdings are small. According to the Agriculture Census 2010-11, the total number of operational holdings in India numbered 138.35 million with an average size of 1.15 hectares. Of the total holdings, 85% are in marginal and small farm categories of less than 2 hectares.
NASA’s nightsky shots of the earth are revealing. They show us how evenly distributed India’s urbanisation is, compared to that of any other country in the world. We have a little over 700 districts, each of which has at least 10 urban centres of differing sizes — and this when we are still at the early stages of our urbanisation story. Compare this to the US, China, Russia or Brazil, all of which have lopsided urban massing, concentrated in thin ribbons of their geography.
As to the first two factors, we still haven’t become victim to the chemical scourge – India’s use of chemical fertiliser is lowest among most countries in the world. And we still have a rich heritage of seed and plant diversity, albeit under increasing threat.
India’s beneficial landscape is not the result of deliberate policy positions, but rather an accidental outcome of oversight or ineptitude, sometimes both. Notwithstanding the reasons, we find ourselves in this unexpectedly favourable situation. If we harness this opportunity, India could well witness an agricultural leapfrog, vaulting us into the world of the food web, without going through the industrial food chain phase, akin to the telecom revolution, where we leapfrogged from no coverage to mobile networks. Just as in that case, where India’s weakness became an unexpected factor in enabling the viral spread of a new network, the food revolution could also see a similar outcome. We have to remember that the industrial food chain system is barely 60-70 years old, primarily built after the Second World War. It need not be our destiny.
Central to this future will be our cities, and how we harness their potential to not only be the commercial flywheels for this new food web, but also to encourage urban agriculture both within cities as well in the urban peripheries. As one example, how we deal with municipal solid waste is closely connected to this larger vision of the food web. Today, we see the burgeoning garbage production as a crisis. But if we saw this in the food web context, our garbage becomes an integral part of the complex system that can be positively harnessed. In India, unlike other countries, we generate about 50% wet waste, which is ideally suited for composting. Close to 15% of this waste can be converted into organic compost. At a 0.5 kg/person/day, we generate about 200 thousand tonnes per day of waste across urban India; this translates roughly into about 15,000 tonnes of compost every day, or 5.5 MMT (million metric tons) in a year. Our chemical fertiliser demand is about 30 MMT a year, so municipal waste generated organic compost can be 20% of the chemical fertiliser production. Given our rapid urbanisation, the share of organic compost can only grow.
Harnessing this potential will require the integration of many policy elements. For example, to harness municipal waste-to-compost at scale, we will need to create alignment between fertiliser subsidies and municipal waste treatment subsidies. Other ways to encourage an accelerated adoption of a sustainable food web system can be to have these integrated into newly announced government agricultural and farming policies like Operation Greens; incentivising Farmer Producer Companies to grow organic; investing in high quality infrastructure at fruit and vegetable markets, and linking these with transportation hubs; having enlightened zoning with incentives to enable ‘urban agriculture’ in and around cities, so that the land use of ‘green zone’ isn’t a death knell for landowners who only see the opportunity cost of not monetising their land for development purposes, and so on. All this will take time and serious, committed leadership from various levels of government.
Meanwhile, champions on the ground are not waiting. Thousands of Indians across villages and cities have begun experimenting on growing food sustainably and are sharing their experiences on YouTube channels, going viral with the same gusto as the latest Bollywood songs. The large numbers of views indicate the latent demand for food systems that improve health, are ecologically sustainable, equitable, and just. The activity on social media also suggest that beyond thinking of food as just another commodity to be consumed, it is becoming something more fundamental to us as human beings, to be connected to nature in a deep and personal manner.
The food revolution isn’t going to have one big-bang moment of victory, but rather hundreds of small victories bubbling up in local communities across the country. Indeed, this is the best way to ensure its eventual success. Policy makers would do well to listen carefully to what is happening at the grassroots, because the revolution is already afoot.
Swati Ramanathan is chairperson, Jana Urban Space Foundation, and co-founder of Jana Group.
The views expressed are personal