The key to a satisfactory food and farming system is to bring together and promote at the same time the four most important concerns of protecting livelihoods, environment, biodiversity, and food safety.
While disagreements may exist on several aspects of farm policy, hardly anyone denies that interests of both farmers and consumers should be protected. If the policy is honest and sincere, it should be possible to pursue both considerations simultaneously.
In the real world, however, in several countries conflicts have appeared as policy often has to work under strong pressures. In this context it is both interesting and educative to learn from the experience of Mexico some years back. In the early 1990s, an intense debate raged in Mexico regarding the desirability of joining (with USA and Canada) the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). It was generally agreed that as corn (maize) was the staple crop of Mexico, most of the small farmers growing this crop would lose rather heavily from the import of cheaper, subsidized wheat from the USA.
However, the supporters of NAFTA insisted that it would bring much cheaper food to consumers. As the number of food consumers was much larger than the number of corn farmers, Mexico’s government decided in favour of joining NAFTA. Soon over a million farmers were driven off their land and the rush of displaced farmers to cities also led to fall in industrial wages. What was worse, even promises made regarding cheaper food to consumers were not fulfilled. Instead of declining, the price of staple food increased steeply. Corn as the staple food is consumed in the form of tortillas in Mexico. The price of tortillas in turn is related to the price of corn flour.
In this market, food processing is highly concentrated in the hands of big business interests. At that time, just two big players controlled almost 97 per cent of the industrial corn flour market. These big processers were getting increasing government subsidies, but they connived to increase the price of tortillas sharply in the post-NAFTA years.
Meanwhile, probably as a part of the same NAFTA driven ‘reforms’, the government cut back on its own arrangements for making cheaper tortillas and other staple foods available. With disrupted livelihoods, declining income and higher price of staple food, poverty and food insecurity increased. Female-headed households witnessed poverty rate increase of up to 50 per cent. This is a classic example where interests of farmers were sacrificed by the government to advance the interests of consumers for cheaper food, but ultimately consumers ended up suffering as much as farmers. This reminds one of a frequently cited poem by the Hindi poet Dhumil in which he asks – someone grows the grain and someone rolls the roti, but there is also a third entity which squeezes profits. The poet asks — yeh teesra vyakti kaun hai, mere desh ki sansad maun hai – who is this third person, the policy makers do not say this. But what should by now be learnt from experiences such as those of Mexico is that government policy should sincerely pursue the interests of both farmers and consumers.
The essential interests of farmers lie in keeping farming costs at a low level, ensuring a fair return on their produce, and maintaining the sustainability of livelihoods by protecting soil, water, and the overall environmental base of farming. The essential concern of consumers is to get safe, healthy food at a reasonable price. If farming costs are kept low, it becomes easier to make food available to consumers at a low price. The number of people who cannot afford even this low price is relatively small, and it is easier for the government to provide them subsidized food without getting too burdened.
However, government policy created problems in the first place by opting for expensive technologies which have an in-built tendency to keep increasing costs of farmers by increasing their dependence on higher doses of expensive inputs. The result today after years of such a policy is that farmers are not happy due to their ever-rising costs and lack of sustainability, the government feels it is overburdened by subsidies and consumers suffer in terms of getting less healthy food despite all the subsidies. Hence it is time to move towards a farm policy which aims very clearly to help consumers as well as farmers. One part of this effort would be to promote direct contact between consumers and farmers for providing healthy food at a reasonble price. This process would be facilitated if there is more village-level food processing, making good use of existing local skills that can be enhanced further.
To come back to the Mexican example, things could have been different if the work of obtaining flour from corn and then preparing tortillas was also in the hands of farmers or other villagers or nearby small towns. The least that can be said is that if this food-processing was also in the hands of ordinary people, the chances of avoiding arbitrary increase of price would have been much higher.
Another advantage is better nutrition for consumers as well as for farm and dairy animals as the residues of village-level processing of grain, millets and oilseeds are likely to become available for the consumption of local animals. This is unlike big industry processing, where residues like oilcakes and bran enter the wider market to be purchased by those who offer the highest price.
Mahatma Gandhi realized all this and accorded a lot of importance to local village-level processing of food and cotton crops in his swadeshi programme. Despite the tremendous potential for livelihoods based on creativity of villagers and particularly women in this work, this path has been steadily abandoned. We need to come closer to the Gandhian path as this offers important and creative possibilities of integrating the interests of farmers and consumers.
(The writer is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Man Over Machine and Protecting Earth for Children.)