A high-level conference on World Food Security has been convened by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) in Rome from June 3-5, 2008. The conference is in response to the growing global food emergency arising partly from the steep escalation in the price of fossil fuels and partly from weather aberrations. The conference will consider both the pressing problems of today and the emerging problems arising from climate change and diversion of pr ime farmland for the production of bioenergy.
It has become a trend in such conferences for heads of governments/states from Africa and other developing countries to participate in large numbers. In contrast, the industrialised countries tend to be represented either by their ambassadors in Rome or senior officials. It has also become customary in such large international political gatherings for developing countries to blame both rich countries and the WTO for not responding to their needs adequately and at the right time. The industrialised countries, in turn, stress that developing countries normally neglect their farmers and also exhibit a deficit in governance and surplus in corruption. At the end of the meeting, a few small gestures of immediate assistance will be forthcoming along with volumes of advice, but the long-term problems will remain under the carpet. The entire exercise, involving considerable expenditure, ultimately becomes a forum for photo opportunity and media cynicism. The poor nations and the poor in all nations will suffer most from the inaction associated with such a blame game.
As the immediate past president of the Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs, I wish to quote what Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein said in a Manifesto issued on 5 April 1955: “We appeal as human beings, to human beings. Remember your humanity and forget the rest. If you can do so, the way lies open to a new Paradise, if you cannot, there lies before you the risk of universal death.”
This immortal appeal is the guiding principle behind the Pugwash movement for a nuclear-peril free world. An even greater peril confronting us today is the spectre of widespread hunger and the consequent food riots. Unless the right to food becomes a fundamental human right and gets enforced legally and socially, the hungry will have to eat only promises and platitudes.
Reducing hunger and poverty by half by 2015 is the first among the U.N. Millennium Development Goals which, in my view, represent a Global Common Minimum Programme for Sustainable Human Security and Peace. Unfortunately, an assessment made at the end of five years of the 15-year period revealed that most developing countries, including India, are not making proportionate advance in achieving even this very modest target. China is a notable exception to this trend. There are no technical, economic or political excuses for the failure to eliminate endemic hunger in an effective manner. This is unfortunate since food occupies the first position among the hierarchical needs of a human being. This is why Roman philosopher Seneca mentioned over 2000 years ago that a hungry person listens neither to religion nor reason nor is bent by any prayer. The widespread social unrest we see today in many parts of the world is partly due to the growing rich-poor divide in entitlement to the minimum purchasing power essential for household nutrition security.
Threats to human security
Compounding the problems arising from poverty and unemployment are the new threats to human security arising from the rising cost of petroleum products and the consequent diversion of land and crops for fuel and feed production. The answer to these questions lies in improving the productivity and profitability of major farming systems in an environmentally sustainable manner. In most developing countries affected by high food prices, agriculture is the main source of rural livelihoods. They should hence initiate steps to take advantage of the vast untapped production reservoir existing with the technologies on the shelf, and thereby build a sustainable food security system based on home grown food. For example, in Africa, Asia and Latin America, the average yield of food crops like sorghum, maize, millets and grain legumes is less than 50 per cent of what can be achieved. Most of the farms in the developing countries of Asia are small in size, often less than two hectares. The smaller the farm the greater is the need for marketable surplus in order to get some cash income. Carefully planned agricultural progress can help to create simultaneously more food, income and jobs. It is only agriculture, including crop and animal husbandry, fisheries, forestry and agro-processing that can promote job-led economic growth. Modern industry, in contrast, promotes jobless growth, which will lead to joyless growth in population rich nations.
Besides responding to the immediate food needs, the global community should help nations affected by the food crisis in the following areas:
The agriculture of industrialised nations is energy intensive, while most of the traditional agricultural practices in developing countries are knowledge intensive. Therefore, developing nations should not take to the path of energy intensive agronomic practices but should refine the traditional methods of soil health enhancement and pest management and blend them with modern technology. Also, developing nations should fully harness their vast animal wealth. India for example, has over 20 per cent of the world’s cattle, buffalo, sheep and goat populations. It will therefore be prudent to promote crop-livestock integrated farming systems, rather than monoculture of the same crop and variety. In other words, the global energy and food crises have opened up uncommon opportunities for developing nations to promote conservation farming and sustainable rural livelihoods. This will help them to achieve an evergreen revolution leading to the improvement of productivity in perpetuity without associated ecological harm. Population rich, but land hungry countries like India, China and Bangladesh, have no option except to produce more per units of land and water under conditions of diminishing per capita arable land and irrigation water availability, and expanding biotic and abiotic stresses.
While participation in large high-profile international conferences may be important politically, charity begins at home and we must first attend to our own hungry who constitute the bulk of the hungry in Asia. Our immediate tasks are first to enable the over 4 crore of farmers relieved from the debt trap as a result of loan waivers to restart their agriculture in an effective manner and, secondly, to assist all farmers in the country to derive maximum benefit from the normal southwest monsoon which has arrived in Kerala. A good weather code will involve attention to all links in the production, consumption and commerce chain. The necessary inputs, particularly seeds of appropriate varieties and the nutrients essential for balanced fertilization, should be available at the right time and place and at affordable prices. The extension effort should focus on the adoption of risk-minimising and soil enriching technologies. The minimum support price should be announced at the time of sowing and a remunerative procurement price offered at the time of harvest based on national and international market prices.
Drought & flood codes
In addition to a good weather code, drought and flood codes should also be kept ready. The drought code will involve the popularisation of crop life-saving techniques and the cultivation of low water-requiring but high-value crops like pulses and oilseeds. Tuber crops will also do well even if planted somewhat late. The flood code should have strategies ready for post-flood farming activities. Seeds and planting material of alternative crops should be built up. After floods, the aquifer will contain adequate water and it is important that the post-flood season becomes a remunerative cropping season. Contingency plans for the flood prone plains of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Assam involving alternative cropping strategies should be prepared forthwith.
With a population of over 1.1 billion, India’s agricultural strategy should aim to keep the Central and State governments in a commanding position with reference to the management of food distribution systems such as PDS, ICDS, and school noon meal programme. In the ultimate analysis, assured and remunerative marketing will hold the key to stimulate and sustain farmers’ interest in producing for the market. Climate change may result in adverse changes in temperature, precipitation and sea level. Dependence only on wheat and rice will enhance vulnerability to climatic factors. Therefore, there should be revitalisation of the earlier food traditions of rural and tribal families, who in the past depended for their daily bread on a wide range of millets, grain legumes, tubers and vegetables. The PDS should include, wherever appropriate, ragi and a wide range of nutritious cereals, inappropriately referred to as coarse cereals, and tubers.
India has the technological and economic capability to demonstrate how farming systems can be adjusted to different weather patterns. It is hoped that at the Rome Conference, Indian representatives will serve as a bright affirming flame in the midst of the sea of despair we see around us. In this hour of grave energy and food crises, we should revert to the advice of Russell and Einstein and remember our humanity and forget everything else. The call for “Food for All” which will be made by world leaders in Rome on June 3, 2008 will not then remain a populist slogan.
(Professor M.S. Swaminathan is Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha) and former Chairman, National Commission on Farmers.)
Article, courtesy, The Hindu newspaper.