June 16, 2021
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Iowa Is Not Far From Telengana

After a decade of agricultural neoliberalism in India, one is tempted to say, "I see the broken eggs, but where is the omelet?" Some arguments for food security in India with seven separate policy suggestions.

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Iowa Is Not Far From Telengana
Photo courtesy, P. Sainath
Iowa Is Not Far From Telengana

"The scourges of hunger and poverty are morally unacceptable and have to be defeated. Hunger and chronic malnutrition diminish human life. The lack of physical or economic access to safe, nutritious and healthy food at all times leads to negative consequences for peoples and nations."

--- Jacques Diouf,
Director General of the Food and Agricultural Organization,
A Millennium Free from Hunger
World Food Day, 2000


In the Fifteenth Century, the tomato came to India. It soon became a staple for those who could afford to cook a curry. At the same time Punjabi peasants began to grow corn, the bounty of central Mexico, and makkai-di-roti became the favorite food of the Punjabi-speaking people. The food of India today is intertwined with the foods of the rest of the world, including of the Americas. It didn’t take McDonalds to introduce India to the rest of the planet: that process has an ancient history.

Indian agriculture has not, therefore, had an insular history. Crops and plants move across the planet with little regard for the political borders that mean so much to human beings. The great trade of the early modern period spread vast quantities of Indian luxuries (spices) and necessities (cotton) to the world market, although this was not the first time these goods had been to the bazaars of Canton and Constantinople.

Far be it for us to go against this trend and argue against the tangled agricultural history of our planet: India and America will continue to trade and trade they must.

The current process known as "globalization," however, is a mockery of the long history of global interactions. Globalization is without question about world trade, but it is not trade for the world. It is trade that benefits global corporations and squelches the liberty and destiny of ordinary people. Globalization is actually corporate globalization, because it does not operate for planetary welfare, neither in the Indian region of Telengana nor in the US state of Iowa. 1

Subordination by Subsidy

Between 1998 and 2002, over a thousand farmers in the region of Telengana committed suicide. In the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the highest rates of suicide take place in the states with the largest farm populations: the Rocky Mountain states, the Dakotas, Iowa and Florida. Small farmers and farm hands are killing themselves. Why is this?

Globalization in agriculture works against those who work the soil. Farmers and farm hands do not own the bulk of farm production, and certainly not the major profit-generating part of the agro-business industry. Whether in India or the USA, those who work the soil for those who own it have been vulnerable to the fixed game of globalization.

In the relationship between nations with regard to agriculture, double standards are the order of the day. The World Trade Organization (WTO) and the main advanced industrial states (the G-8 or Group of Eight countries, including Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, United Kingdom and the United States) pressure the Third World states to reduce government support for farmers and open their agricultural economies to the rest of the world. The G-8/WTO argue that subsidies and price controls "distort" the market and contribute to the poverty of places like rural India.

Meanwhile, within the G-8, the governments provide a high level of support for agriculture and they keep their economies closed to agricultural products from the Third World.

Barry Coates of the UK-based World Development Movement says of this global regime, "The G-8 have repeatedly refused to end their abuse of the system through massive agricultural subsidies and barriers to exports of processed goods and textiles. Yet they are pushing developing countries to open up their markets. They are playing fast and loose with the multilateral trading system."

A significant fall in the incomes of the poorer farming population in India can be directly traced to the farm-subsidy and tariff structures that exist in the G-8 countries, most notably the US. The subsidy regime has allowed large agro-businesses to dominate the world agricultural industry, and create misery not only for those who work the soil in India, but also in the USA. Many US small farmers have lost their lands and livelihood to banks and agro-businesses who flourish on the world market, mainly because of their economies of scale, their use of industrial science on the fields and the considerable subsidies and tariff support they receive from the G-8.

The WTO’s ally in the destruction of older schemes for food security is the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Since 1991, the IMF in India has pushed a structural adjustment policy that demands that the state reduce its support in the production of agricultural goods and in its consumption. As the state withdraws from the agricultural arena, agro-businesses enter and decimate the security of ordinary people.

If there are now less well-paid jobs, there is also less food to eat. In the 1960s, a relatively liberal Indian government instituted a food procurement and distribution system known as the Public Distribution System (PDS). The PDS system stabilized food prices by the purchase of food grains at a fixed price from farmers. That food then entered the homes of farmers and workers through Fixed Price or Ration Shops. The crackdown on PDS in the last decade has produced dire results both in rural and urban India. Not only can small farmers not rely on fair prices for their products, but workers across the country cannot rely upon fair price shops for their goods.

Market distortions like the US subsidy regime and the privatization of credit markets, this booklet argues, directly cause the suicides of farmers around the world. In this sense, in the new global agricultural arena,

The Public Distribution System: a history

In 1943, the British engineered a massive famine in eastern India. The British government in India formulated a broad policy to reallocate boats and trains toward the war effort to the neglect of the distribution of food grains. In addition, the British bought up rice to feed the troops which resulted in a rise in food prices; they did not attempt to control the prices or create any provision to get food to the people of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. According to Nobel Laureate economist Amartya Sen, more than three million people died as a result of British policies, even as Bengal’s agricultural growth rate rose in the famine period.

The future Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, wrote a letter during the famine to his daughter, Indira Gandhi. "Starvation is after all," he wrote, "a common experience in India." Nonetheless, the situation is "ghastly, horrible. What a govt.! Hopelessly incompetent & totally incapable of dealing with the situation. It is sickening to realize that the fates of hundreds of millions of our countrymen are in the hands of these selfish, cruel, conceited, pompous incompetents & fools." Four years later, Nehru’s party took charge of the state. The memory of the 1943 famine helped form the food policy of the new nation.

Food shortages in the 1950s and 1960s sharpened the urgency of the problem. The Indian government took advantage of the US-inspired Green Revolution to produce a quick technocratic solution across certain select regions that helped increase the aggregate food availability. Food stocks increased, but not necessarily for the people’s good. Enormous inequalities within regions and across regions developed, and the environmental impact of the highly noxious fertilizers created long-term problems. Nevertheless, the government achieved a minimal self-sufficiency in food grains at the aggregate level by the 1970s.

If the expensive technological inputs provided a short-term boost in agricultural productivity, the longterm agenda had at its centerpiece land distribution or reform. If those who worked the soil controlled and owned the land they worked, they would have an incentive to add inputs to the farm and they would earn higher incomes. Income equity and increased production in the long term would directly improve food security for all. Since the ruling Congress Party relied on rural elites for its political power, it did not give priority to land reform on its legislative agenda. Indeed, in many states, the Congress Party scuttled debate on land reform and left land relations intact. Where the Left became politically dominant, in Kerala and West Bengal, land reform led the agenda and these regions now have the highest agricultural growth rate as a result, among other factors, of land reform.

As the dominant Congress government relied on technocratic solutions to increase production, it had to turn to consumption-oriented strategies to prevent the famine conditions of the 1940s. The Public Distribution System (PDS) is a result of the failure of land reforms and of the need by the liberal state to feed its people.

The Congress government created the PDS initially to keep prices stable in urban areas, and to cut-down on private trade (which it deemed to be exploitative). In the early 1980s, PDS entered rural areas. PDS provided food staples (rice, wheat, sugar, oil) and fuel (kerosene and coal) at below market prices through a network of Fair Price or Ration Shops. The Food Corporation of India (FCI) procured food for a Minimum Support Price (MSP) from farmers and traders, stored the food in warehouses, distributed it across the country and then sold it in its shops. The PDS was universal, although some states used it to target specific income groups.

The Critics of PDS

(1) Neoliberalism.

Neoliberal economists and policy makers are the main critics of the PDS. Not only is the PDS expensive for the state, they point out, but it distorts markets. PDS gives the wrong incentive to farmers by buying food at government-decided prices, and it coddles the consumer who gets addicted to cheap food. The criticism of the workers who rely on the PDS is similar to the criticism in the US against those who relied upon governmental social welfare to raise their children.

Against this system, neoliberal policy makers argue that gaps between food production and consumption should not be filled by price controls and subsides but by purchases on global food markets. Support prices to farmers must be replaced by direct income transfers and the PDS must be replaced by cash or coupons to the destitute. The model for this new post-welfare regime came from Europe and the US, both contexts far removed from the everyday Indian reality. Since the Indian government knew that such a drastic "reform" would create a political backlash from the population, it created a Targeted PDS scheme in 1997, where only the most destitute people had access to price controls. Targeted PDS is, as we will show below, ineffective and regressive.

Certainly, the PDS is rife with corruption and it is expensive for the state. Furthermore, the PDS did not reach the most destitute and vulnerable populations. However, the PDS did have at least two significant achievements. First, it made available a minimum quantity of food grain at reasonable prices to all parts of the country. Second, it shipped surplus food grains from certain parts of India (Punjab and Haryana) to food deficient regions (Tamil Nadu and the North-Eastern states).

The increased consumption of grains and of the people’s nutrition in Kerala shows us that this corruption is not endemic to the PDS system. The shortcomings of the PDS owe much more to its implementation than to its policy.

(2) Too Few Machines, Too Many People.

Agricultural technocrats argue that aggregate food availability can only be increased by the adoption of a more technocratic approach to the food security issue. What we need is a new Green Revolution. In 1994, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization’s Director General underlined the importance of increased food production through technology, an approach endorsed by the World Food Summit in 1996. What the FAO meant by "technology," however, is not the same as what the Green Revolution advocates mean by the word. The latter mean that we need to use any scientific means to increase productivity, including Genetically Modified seeds, toxic fertilizers, and other such instruments. The FAO, in its Plan of Action from 1996, notes, that while food production must be increased it can only be done "within the framework of sustainable management of natural resources, elimination of unsustainable patterns of consumption and production, particularly in industrialized countries." Furthermore, the FAO acknowledges the "fundamental contribution to food security of women, particularly in rural areas of developing countries, and the need to ensure equality between men and women." Research on technology and farms shows us that such inputs tend to create unemployment among women and remove them from farm activity.

Others point out that the problem with food security is population: if we reduce the world’s population then we’d all have enough to eat. Food security is a manifestation of a deeper problem: overpopulation. Ample evidence shows that while overpopulation is a concern for us, to identify it as the main problem of food scarcity is to confuse cause and effect. Overpopulation does not cause hunger, even as it does contribute to hunger. Conventional wisdom holds that social and economic development creates a population balance, while population control does not lead to socio-economic development.

What is most bizarre about those who want to increase food production or decrease the population as a response to the problem of food security is that they don’t register the tragic paradox of recent times: the massive food surpluses in the PDS combined with the increased starvation deaths across India. The critics of the PDS don’t engage with this paradox which we take as central to our approach to the problem. There is ample food produced in India. It simply does not get into the hands and the mouths of ordinary people.

Factories in the Field: farming in the US

At the close of John Steinbeck’s 1939 The Grapes of Wrath, he writes, "There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trucks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificates – died of malnutrition – because the food must rot, must be forced to rot."

In the 1930s, during the Depression, those who worked the land did not have the money to buy its products, now owned by larger and larger agricultural industries. "The monster," Steinbeck wrote, "has to have profits all the time. When the monster stops growing, it dies. It can’t stay one size." The "monster" is agricultural capitalism, the factory in the field, as socialist writer Carey McWilliams put it in the title of his own 1939 book. Industry had expanded onto the farms, and despite the "drought and dust" it was the new factory farms that intensified the depression for those who worked the soil.

President F. D. Roosevelt’s New Deal responded to the Depression with an array of programs collected in the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933. The 1933 act allowed the government to get the farmers a controlled price for their products (either through the payment of a guaranteed minimum price for products, through a "deficiency payment" to make up for a drop in market prices below the costs of production, through payment to decrease land under cultivation and therefore keep a check on total production, and through the purchase of cultivated crops to keep the price down). Such price controls helped small farmers stay in business, even as it did little for migrant workers.

The post-Depression protectionism of US policy is replicated across Europe, where governments also increased tariffs to prevent the "dumping" of cheap commodities from elsewhere, and initiated price controls to protect farmers. From the 1950s to the 1970s, the massive growth in US maize and soy products enabled it to expand its livestock production, because these two field crops are the base for livestock food. Animal husbandry and livestock feed became the engines for the growth of the US agrobusiness industry in the post-War period. European subsidies for domestic wheat and diary, and US subsidies for almost all sectors of farm production, enabled the buoyancy of the Atlantic world’s agricultural dominance. Central to the farm sector in this region was the agro-business that slowly began to overrun the small family farm.

The crisis in international agriculture in the 1970s, matched by the general economic crisis of the decade, allowed the large agro-businesses to consolidate their position. These agro-business concerns supported protectionism if it allowed them to thrive, but they argued against it where it hurt their interests. USbased agro-business giants that enjoy the subsidy within the US fought to protect and expand this agrocorporate welfare, just as they fought to end the tariff and subsidy regime that protected the Third World economies from the wiles of the profit motive. The agro-businesses integrated the world’s agricultural economy by disrupting the logic of food security in the service of the logic of corporate profits: it was more important to make a profit than to feed every mouth.

In the 1996 Federal Agriculture Implementation and Reform Act (FAIR), the US government eliminated the deficiency payment scheme and replaced it with the Production Flexibility Contracts. By the new contracts, the government expanded its subsidies to agriculture – now more to agro-business and less to small farmers. As the Institute for Agricultural Trade and Policy shows, the new farm policy provided an average of 15% annual return on equity for agro-businesses and only 2% for small farmers.

One result of this has been the decline of the family farm, where income is currently just above $23,000. Between 1994 and 1996, 25% of hog farmers, 10% of grain farmers and 10% of dairy farmers went out of business. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that between 1998 and 2008 the number of family farms will decrease by just over 13%.

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