The food critique
At a recent meeting on food security in Madrid, Jacques Diouf, Director General of the Food and Agriculture Organisation, said that there are “almost one billion who are hungry, out of the 6.5 billion who make up the world population”. At the same meet, Josette Sheeran, World Food Programme’s Executive Director, said the bill for feeding the hungry in 2009 would be somewhere near $5.2 billion.
No doubt, the times are tough. Especially for India, considering that the country was ranked 66th in a list of 88 ‘developing countries and countries in transition’ in the 2008 Global Hunger Index.
The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) report, which is modelled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, gives an insight into what the future holds for us. As India’s population continues to grow and incomes rise, sustainable increases in production will be required, prompting greater emphasis on diversification and increasing agricultural productivity. The report was released at a low-key function in Delhi recently, nearly a year after it was released in South Africa. Intriguingly, although the Indian government is a signatory — along with 60 other countries — the report has not been discussed, let alone debated, here publicly.
To avoid an imminent food crisis, the report — and the work of 400 international scientists — states that there’s an urgent need to shift to a more eco-friendly mode of farming. Speaking to Hindustan Times on the report, Jan van Aken, Scientific Advisor, Greenpeace International, and a participant at the IAASTD negotiations, said, “There is enough food around even though India and China are growing very fast. But the food crisis has happened due to unsustainable farming methods and distribution problems. It is a price and distribution crisis and should be treated as a warning that we have very little time left.”
Saying that the time has come for “smart farming,” he added that the Indian government must end the fertiliser subsidy (a political challenge, no doubt) and transfer those funds to promote organic fertilisers and diversity in cropping. The IAASTD report makes two very interesting points about the missing linkages in agriculture. First, the disconnect between agricultural production and remuneration. In many countries, food is taken for granted and farmers and farm workers are poorly rewarded.
Second, public interest in agricultural science, education and training and extension to farmers has decreased over time. Nothing could be truer. While travelling through Punjab last year, I was surprised to find a block agricultural office without a telephone and an official vehicle. “There is no way we can spread new information. We wait for farmers to come to us, instead of us going to them. There’s no fresh investment in infrastructure,” rued the officer-in-charge. “Farmers are also suffering from the lack of good quality seeds. There has been a complete breakdown of agriculture research that’s so crucial for development of agriculture,” says S.C. Khurana, Chief Agricultural Officer of Ropar, Punjab.
This was Punjab, India’s agricultural heartland. Contrast this with what a top executive of an agri-retail chain told me in Delhi. His company has mapped India’s agricultural tracts using satellite technology.