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Is food security possible without farm security? (Oct)

Statesman Delhi, 15th October, 2013

Bharat Dogra

Most discussion on food security in recent times has taken place in the context of the law for food security which aims to make available cheaper foodgrains to a larger section of the population. While the availability of foodgrains at an affordable price to needy people will be welcomed by most, other aspects of food security where the position is more vulnerable also need to be considered.

Supporters of food security legislation have time and again cited the argument of huge loads of grain surplus available in the country's warehouses which should reach  needy people in greater amounts instead of rotting in storage. While the justification of this demand is clear, what is not so clear is whether such surplus can be assured in future. Doubts arise due to vulnerability of several other aspects of food security and accentuating crisis situation for more and more farmers.

In large parts of India's farmland the natural fertility of land has been badly impeded by the indiscriminate use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and weed-killers. Due to this and other causes, friendly insects, birds and other forms of life have perished on a massive scale. As a result of the loss of tree-cover and greenery as well as other reasons, soil-erosion has increased. In the case of much of our farmland, groundwater levels have declined, and will affect irrigation in future.

In addition the direction of official policies has been such as to greatly reduce the self-reliance of farmers which had enabled them to practise very low-cost farming for centuries. Official policies have misdirected farmers to give up this self-reliance and to become excessively dependent on expensive inputs, equipments and machinery. This is particularly true in the case of seeds where our agriculture has been transformed from self-reliance to dependance on expensive seeds within the space of a few decades (all in the name of development).

Other aspects of traditional skills particularly relating to ingenious use of local resources have also been lost as in many farm families the tendency to pass traditional wisdom from generation to generation has eroded in recent times. This again happened under the impact of government policies which dismissed traditional seeds and knowledge as backward while launching huge propaganda and providing subsidies for expensive market inputs.

Excessive inputs and equipments pushed farmers into debt, generally involving high interest rates, and this in turn led to loss of land by several of them. In addition there has been massive acquisition of land for various industrial, mining, infrastructure or other projects as well as for expansion of cities, due to which fertile farmland has been lost forever.

Farm-workers have lost their livelihoods due to huge shift of work to farm machinery, including combine harvesters, and weed-killers. Thus millions of small farmers and farm-worker households who could earlier get sufficient grain and other staple foods from their livelihood can now no longer do so. Animal husbandry and dairy activities-based mixed farming could have checked this trend, but depleted pastures and high costs of feed as well as neglect of indigenous species of cattle have reduced these possibilities.

In such a situation of turmoil causing disruption of farm-based livelihoods for millions of rural families as well as ruining the base of environment-friendly agriculture, merely providing cheaper foodgrains for some more households will not bring food security. In fact the possibility of the country being forced to import grain in the near future cannot be denied, despite the overstocked godowns today. When such dependence increases, India could face increasing pressure to accept also GM food despite the huge health and environment risks associated with this. In fact already the country faces high pressure from food and multinational companies trying to increase their grip on food and farming systems using GM crops.

Clearly we need broad-based efforts for food security as well as farmers' security. Without multi-pronged efforts, merely increasing the availability of cheap food can even become a disincentive for local production. This is particularly the case in India where the government procures a huge share of its grain from only a few areas like Punjab and Haryana.

We need a different approach in which all areas particularly those considered most backward are also encouraged to become self-reliant in all staple foods. The government should procure all its requirements of buffer stock, public distribution system, ICDS, mid-day meals etc. in a rural district from the same district or its immediate neighbourhood as far as possible. Similarly the needs of a city should be met as far as possible from neighbouring districts and farmers should get a just price for their produce.

Towards this end environment-friendly, self-reliant and low-cost methods best adapted to small farmers and local conditions should be encouraged in all rural areas of the country. Sustainable production of all staple foods and components of a balanced diet should be encouraged by providing a stable market, a fair price, self-reliant and low cost technology. A particularly strong effort should be made in areas where the country is deficient such as indigenous crops and species of oilseeds and pulses.

While special steps should be taken to help small farmers, landless farm workers should also be provided some land so that they can emerge as small farmers. The possibilities of reclaiming a lot of wasteland for agriculture, animal husbandry, and tree-farming should be seriously considered.

 In the case of land which is not cultivated for crops, farmers can be encouraged to produce mixed farming of indigenous tree species producing not just fruits and nuts but also other important minor forest produce on a sustainable basis.

Such a balanced many-sided approach will strengthen food security as well as farmers' security.