The recipe for food rights

Activist and ecologist Dr Vandana Shiva says free trade is pushing up prices.

An Indian vegetable vendor waits ... food prices

Food prices in India have rocketed due to an
surge in the cost of commodities [EPA]

Prices of basic foods have sharply increased amid a rise in costs of commodities.

The crisis has led to riots in poor countries by people who have limited access to food.

Dr. Vandana Shiva is a physicist, ecologist, activist, editor, and author of many books. She talks to Al Jazeera about the food crisis in India, and what can be done to overcome it.

Al Jazeera: One of the causes of the huge rises in India’s food prices is the soaring rate of inflation. India is experiencing its highest rate of inflation in three years. What is behind this increase?

Dr Shiva: There are a number of reasons why the prices of food commodities are rising in India. The first is related to economic policies – the policies of integrating India with global markets.

There is a huge agrarian crisis but it’s not from the beginning of our freedom, it’s not a leftover of feudalism. The agrarian crisis is a result of globalisation.

With the price rise, I can see about 70 to 80 per cent of India will be pushed into hunger and starvation

The farmers who are committing suicide in India are precisely in those areas where genetically engineered cotton is being grown by Monsanto [a chemicals and agricultural science corporation]. 

This is a new crisis. A small farmer could make a living in this country a few years ago. Today, as a result of globalisation, agriculture is being run down.

We have grown enough wheat in the last few years – 74 million tonnes. We are still self-reliant in food, but we are being forced to import; both under the multilateral globalisation free trade agreements as well as under bilateral arrangements like a crazy treaty called the Agriculture Knowledge Initiative between the US and India.

It was signed at the same time as the nuclear treaty was signed. The nuclear agreement has had a lot of political attention. The agriculture treaty has had absolutely no attention.

Indian farmers are being paid 8,000 rupees [$200] for a tonne of wheat. When the farmers ask for more, to make a viable living, the government says it will cause a rise in inflation.

So the government goes to Cargill [a transnational agricultural corporation] and the United States because of this bilateral agreement and buys wheat at $400 dollars a tonne, which is 16,000 rupees a tonne – twice the price that Indian farmers can produce wheat for.
What effect is that having on ordinary people in India?

It’s having a huge impact. Already, about half of India was not eating full meals; going through days without food. With the price rise, I can see about 70 to 80 per cent of India will be pushed into hunger and starvation.

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There are two other additional issues that have come up in recent years. Last year, both the European government and the US government made a 10 per cent blending requirement and put huge subsidies into biofuels, diverting food from feeding the hungry to running automobiles. This has driven up prices of food.

Climate change is creating instability in agriculture. Unfortunately the UN representative said the new green revolution in Africa would solve these problems. It is going to make it worse.

A green revolution based on nitrogen fertilisers in 2008 is a recipe for emissions of nitrogen oxides, further instability of the climate and further hunger and starvation.

We need to localise food systems. We have enough farmers to produce enough food in this country [India], if we were not being forced to integrate with a speculative market.

There are now calls for some sort of co-ordinated response to the problem – by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the UN. Is there any short term solution?

There is a very short term solution – give up the industrial agriculture using fossil fuels, high cost imports.

Give up the forced linking with an international commodity market. Allow farmers to grow and give them a just price. We can solve the problem tomorrow.

I work with 400,000 farmers in India growing organic food. We have doubled yields and doubled output on farms. Nobody is dying of starvation in the villages where there is organic farming.

But do you think governments will look at that as a solution? What has the government in India done?

Indian farmers tend to receive lower prices for
their produce than those in the US and EU [EPA]

It has to be the solution. The Third World does not need charity; the Third World needs food sovereignty. It needs freedom to produce it own food. Let’s just recognise the ecological endowments – it is Africa and Asia that have the best soils, the best sun, the best biodiversity.

Never, ever have we had this scale of a problem, except during the great Bengal famine, which also was driven by so-called free trade.

I’d like to just mention: free trade is not free. Every one of the problems we have … have been triggered by government policy.

Globalisation is government policy. Trade liberalisation is government policy. Biofuels is government policy. Climate change is triggered by government subsidies for fossil fuel use.

If the governments have caused the problem, they cannot now throw up their hands and say that they cannot intervene. They have created the price rise, they need to intervene in creating a fair market for famers and ensure the rights of all.

Food is about life, and the right to life is protected in our constitution.

If those solutions are not taken, where do you think this will end? Will there be more food riots in Africa and Asia?

If the governments continue to make interventions on behalf of the rich, they can bail out the banks in their absolute unwinding of the financial crisis – then they can intervene in the market.

But if they refuse to intervene in the market to ensure food prices are regulated, we will see more riots. Either governments will fall because of riots or they can become enlightened and not see the pseudo free trade as a sacred cow that has to be protected.

Food rights of people have to be protected; the rights of the poor have to be protected. That is the only obligation governments have. Any democratic government that fails in that duty will only be part of the problem of creating food wars and food riots.

Source: Al Jazeera