India’s food security emergency

Corporate influence on food production and large, chemical monoculture farms is causing a severe food insecurity crisis.

Indian farmers
Widespread crop failures in India have provoked over 200,000 farmers to commit suicide over the past decade [GALLO/GETTY]

The proposed introduction of the Food Security Act by the UPA Government is a welcome and much needed step towards securing the right to food for all of India’s citizens. The right to food is the basis of the right to life, and Article 21 of the Constitution guarantees the right to life of all Indian citizens.

India has emerged as the capital of hunger, illustrated by the fact that per capita consumption has dropped from 178 kg in 1991 – the beginning of the period of economic reforms – to 155 kg in 200-2003.

Daily calorie consumption of the bottom 25 per cent of the population has decreased from 1683 in 1987-88 to 1624 in 2004-05, against a national norm of 2400 and 2011 k cal/day for rural and urban areas respectively.

Therefore, a response on the food security front is really a response to a national emergency. Unfortunately, the current approach to food security in the draft law Food Security Act ignores the larger food crisis.

What is food security?

Food security includes three vital aspects: Ecological security, food sovereignty, and food safety.

Land, water and biodiversity are the natural capital for the food production. Currently, each of these is under severe threat. The land-grab of fertile farm land is not just an issue of injustice against farmers, but it is actually a threat to the nation’s food security.

If fertile farm lands disappear, there will be no food.

India’s seed wealth is being handed over to global corporations leading to erosion of biodiversity and undermining of farmers’ rights. Without seed sovereignty there can no food sovereignty.

The country as a whole is growing increasingly vulnerable on the ecological security front, even more so because of climate change. That is why ecological agriculture that builds ecological security and resilience is necessary at this time for food security.

Food sovereignty is increasingly being lost as food and agriculture is hijacked by global agribusiness and determined by the unfair rules of WTO. That is why fair trade and WTO reform is vital to food security, and food sovereignty must be its foundation.

India’s food is becoming unsafe and hazardous, with GMOs and chemically-processed food being promoted.

Corporations like Pepsi and Coke sit on the newly formed Food Safety Committee. The corporate influence on issues of safety is denying citizens their right to safe food. Without safe food there is no food security; without food democracy there is neither food safety nor food security.

The biggest blind spot in the dominant paradigm of food security is neglecting food production and food producers as a core element in the current food security approach.

You cannot provide food to people if you do not first ensure that food is produced in adequate quantities. And in order to ensure food production, the livelihood of food producers must be ensured. The right of food producers to produce food is the foundation of food security. This right has internationally evolved through the concept of “food sovereignty”. In Navdanya we refer to it as Anna Swaraj.

Food sovereignty is derived from socio-economic human rights, which include the right to food and the right to produce food for rural communities.

As Peter Rosset has written in the Monthly Review July-August, 2007 (“Fixing Our Global Food System”):

“Food sovereignty argues that feeding a nation’s people is an issue of national security – of sovereignty, if you will. If the population of a country must depend for their next meal on the vagaries and price swings of the global economy, on the good will of a superpower not to use food as a weapon, or on the unpredictability and high cost of long-distance shipping, then the country is not secure, neither in the sense of national security, nor in the sense of food security.”

“Food sovereignty thus goes beyond the concept of food security, which says nothing about where food comes from, or how it is produced. To achieve genuine sovereignty, people in rural areas must have access to productive land and receive prices for their crops that allow them to make a decent living while feeding the nations people.”

Two aspects of food security have disappeared in the current approach – firstly, the right to produce food, and secondly national food security. Both are aspects of food sovereignty, one at the level of food producers and the other at the level of the country as a whole.

Any country risks genuine food insecurity if it ignores food producers because two thirds of India’s population is involved in agriculture and food production. Small farmers produce food for the country and have provided a nation of 1.2 billion with food security, and today they are the ones who account for the largest number of hungry people.

What’s more, large numbers of food producers will be hungry because of increasingly common occurances of climate change-induced draught and floods. And unless the system can respond to their food needs there will be large scale starvation.

Farmer suicides

The most tragic face of the agrarian crisis India is facing are the suicides of over 200,000 farmers over the past decade. If food producers do not survive, where is the nation’s food security? If our producers do not eat, where is the nation’s food security?

The second reason why India cannot afford to ignore the crisis of our food producers is because rural communities face a deep crisis of hunger.

Globally, too, half of the hungry people of the world today are food producers. This is directly related to the capital and chemical-intensive, high external input systems of food production introduced as the Green Revolution.

Farmers must go into debt to buy costly inputs, and indebted farmers must sell what they produce to pay back the debt.

Hence the paradox and irony of food producers being the highest number of hungry people in India and in the world. Farmers suicides are linked to the same process of indebtedness due to high costs of inputs.

The World Bank and others have proposed to shift from distribution of grain to cash, which would not only increase corruption – it will condemn the poor to food insecurity and the farmers to livelihood insecurity. Cash will break the fragile umbilical cord between food production and consumption. The farmers will be abandoned, deepening the agrarian crisis. Cash for food will rapidly translate to cash for junk food.

As the example of United States shows, if food distribution is abandoned food deserts are created where the poor live and become dependent on a diet of junk food. This pseudo is particularly dangerous since while giving cash to the poor, the state will step away from its responsibility of ensuring adequate food production and regulation of prices.

With rising food prices there is no food security.

The solution to the hunger of producer communities is to shift to low-cost, sustainable agriculture production based on principles of agro-ecology. Ecological agriculture is not a luxury. It has become a food security imperative.

And contrary to the false perception that small farmers and sustainable systems do not produce enough, data from India and other parts of the world establishes that small farmers have higher output than large farms, and that biodiverse organic farms have higher food output than chemical monocultures.

Our report on “Health per Acre” shows that through the implementation of ecological agriculture, we could be growing enough food to feed two India’s.

Vandana Shiva is a philosopher, environmental activist, and eco feminist. She has authored more than 20 books and 500 papers in leading scientific and technical journals. She received her PhD in Philosophy from the University of Western Ontario, Canada.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.