The Human Right to Eat


Somini Sengupta’s front-page article, “India’s Growth Outstrips Crops” (New York Times, June 22, 2008) points out various reasons for the current shortage of staple foods in India– including rapidly sinking water tables, inadequate government investment in agriculture and especially in irrigation and access to loans for farmers,  agricultural land being sold for residential use since the profits from agriculture were so poor.  Between 1968 and 1998 India’s production of  cereals had doubled, but between 1998 and 2008 it has gone down due to the cancellation of  government  support prices, which followed the advice of the World Bank and the United States economists.  Based on my own field research on agricultural  issues in India over the last fifty years I have always been surprised by the disconnect between what farmers tell me and what I hear from economists (most of whom rarely visit many farms).  I see a very different  picture.

Starting with the colonial occupation of India, the government’s agricultural policies have focused on the accumulation of money by the well-do-do farmers and the government at the expense of those who tilled the land. Instead of focusing on increasing the production of multiple crops, grown in tandem either through crop rotations or by intercropping (such as the intercropping of trees and field crops), the focus was from early on, and more so during the last 10 years, on crops for export (for example bananas and other fruits to Europe) rather than on feeding its own population.  The journal Seedling, published by an NGO named GRAIN, points out that all of the largest grain traders in the world have greatly increased their profits during the past two years;  Cargill, for example, announced that its profits from commodity trading for the first quarter of 2008 were 86% higher than for the  same period of 2007.  It is not surprising that the poor do not have enough to eat. See: www.grain.org

While many of us would consider the right to food to be a fundamental human right, the concept of “rights” has paradoxically been appropriated by multinational corporations, as well as governments, to  expand the philosophy of neoliberalism. For example, recent changes in Mexican law have elevated the “right” of private ownership over the communal ownership of common lands, water resources, etc., traditionally observed by indigenous communities (Seedling, Oct. 2007, pages 6-7.) And we are all familiar with the use of the “right” to individual (or corporate) ownership to steal traditional products of nature from local traditional societies, including not only indigenous tribal groups but also many preparations used by our grandmothers,  by patenting them in a slightly modified form. Seedling quotes a Canadian farmer saying: “farmers all over the world need to start thinking once again of food as a source of nutrition and sustenance and to re-connect with old ideas about fertility, knowledge, labour and community. . . awareness that the corporate strategy for world domination is unsustainable and ultimately self-defeating.”  Not only in some parts of rural India, but the world over, people’s “rights ” and their advocates are increasingly being heard, and people are beginning to look to a new pattern of agriculture that will be directed toward feeding people rather than toward profit.

After the dry spell in the mid 1960s-early 1970s, making India self-sufficient in food became a rallying call. But instead of basing the methods for accomplishing this on land reform (along with really well informed, ecologically sound extension),  the politically driven emphasis on mono-cropping, export for profit, and complex market chains led to an adoption of the U.S. model of agriculture based on a limited number of commodities.  This approach  relied on an extensive use of artificial petrochemical-based fertilizers and pesticides, with a strong emphasis on the large and very large farmers (size defined in locally relevant terms).  With the so-called “liberalization” of the economy in the last 10 years, there has been a large emphasis on export crops, based on the views of economists who believed that it would  be good for trade if India were to import many of its basic grains, taking advantage of what economists call “economies of scale”,  a concept borrowed from industry which ignores the realities of rural/agricultural life. As George Mombiot recently pointed out, it has been known since the 1960’s that small farms produce greater yields per acre than large farms, sometimes as much as 20 times greater. (The Guardian, London, 10 June 2008).  In the 1950s WalterGoldschmidt’s work, as well as the political reaction to it, made it clear that industrial agriculture is less a matter of efficiency (productivity, energy, or capital usage) than of political power.

In any case, food is not simply a product, like  a piece of cloth or a machine, though food companies have tried to turn it into commodities like pieces of cloth.. The growth of plants and animals is part and parcel of local communal life, of the quality of rural day-to-day existence and the local exchange of goods.  The current policy also makes people dependent on the transportation of food and food products over long distances (using large amounts of petrochemicals), as well as on petrochemicals for fertilizers, herbicides, and enormous quantities of pesticides which are destructive of the soil, apart from having numerous health impacts.

In addition, the central and state governments have chosen to focus on larger size dams and irrigation projects, while neglecting local-level water conservation and water harvesting along with small household level ponds, the recycling of semi-contaminated water at the local level (such as bath water etc.) and failing to employ the most ecologically sound methods of water use, which has inevitably had a negative impact on agriculture.

In 1995, an important conference organized by the International Food Policy Research Institute based in Washington, D.C. concluded that with existing technology, along with new methods already being tried out–such as the SRI (System of Rice Intensification, developed in Madagascar), India would be able to feed itself for the next 25 or more years.  Yet the significant  increase  in export farming, the continual neglect of small farmers, the belief  held by the urban elite that basically nobody wants to farm, the rapid increase in the price of oil and other petrochemical products, has made it extremely difficult for poor farmers and even middle-sized ones.  The failure of various south Indian state governments (where I have been working) to support the use of (formerly) common lands by self-help groups of landless women which were producing vegetables both for their own consumption and the local market is one of the pieces of a broader failure to see sustainable agriculture by villagers as a meaningful alternative to so-called “modern” agriculture.

The tendency  among the elite, and this includes many (though not all) economists, to belittle small  farmers, those that grow for the local community and perhaps the nearby city, encourages farm policies that make rural people more dependent on importing foods from longer and longer distances, and that fail to meet the needs of local farmers and consumers both.  The government’s downplaying of procurement policies, buying of grains and basic foodstuffs at lower than market prices, only exacerbates food crises, and may even create them.

I have seen NGOs struggling to obtain funds to help with programs that assist small farmers having to fight both their local government policies  as well as those of the central government.  I
have also witnessed  farm after farm obtaining high yields of multiple crops when they are given not only financial support but also technical advice and examples to follow as well as  community support. The focus of these groups is clearly at variance with most government policies.

Agricultural changes in the US today also reflect a rejection of centralized agricultural policies. We are experiencing a major change  as more and more people turn to Community Supported Agriculture associations (CSAs), farmers’ markets, and small-scale urban agriculture, which is creating a significant though still small movement which may well transform the way we eat. Even though this movement  is against the interests of large corporate interests,  it continues  to grow.  The movement in the US is starting from a very different place compared to the situation we find in India.  While the gap between urban elites and food cultivators is every way as great in India as in the U.S., perhaps even greater because of issues of caste in India, it is still possible for Indian farmers to be weaned away from export crops, and to return to production for local and regional markets.  For example, in Bangalore I have seen how organic food brought in to a city market usually sells out in a few hours–even in poorer neighborhoods.  People want healthier foods. Even urban people  are beginning to grow their own vegetables and fruits (though not yet grains), as well as keeping a few hens to provide their families with fresh eggs.

For a number of reasons, the increasing cost of food may serve to send more people back to local consumption. The real problem in India and elsewhere are the really poor, in rural areas the landless, in urban areas the homeless or the slum dwellers, who lack even tiny amounts of space to grow food, or to innovate on water conservation, etc.  At this moment in many countries of the world, these people are barely able to afford the minimum nutrition their bodies need.  This is fine for the commodity traders, who are in a perfect position to profit from other people’s hunger.   Is a trader’s “right” to obscene levels of profit more sacred than a poor person’s right to eat?

Which brings us back to the question of human rights–the right to land, to housing, to water, to food and to a decent quality of life for everyone. With a recognition of these rights  most of the people reading this will have the chance to gain more autonomy over their own lives. The struggle for this is essential for both human survival and the survival of all types of life on this planet. .

JOAN P. MENCHER is an Emerita Professor of Anthropology from the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, and Lehman College of the City University of New York.  She is the chair of an embryonic not-for-profit called The Second Chance Foundation,which works to support rural grassroots organizations in India and the United States who work with poor and small farmers on issues of sustainable agriculture.  She has worked  primarily in South India but also in West Bengal briefly, on issues of ecology, caste, land reform, agriculture, women, and related issues over the last half century, and has published widely both in the United States and in India on all of these subjects, primarily in academic journals. For comments or questions, write JMencher@TheSecondChance.org.







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