Starvation and Politics

Organic NZ Magazine: September/October 2001
Author: Devinder Sharma

Biotechnology is not the answer to world hunger. Devinder Sharma explains how government sanctioned greed is the cause of rural poverty in India.

The genetic engineering industry has been claiming that at a time when more than 800 million people go to bed hungry each night, and with their number likely to swell to over 1.5 billion in the next ten years, biotechnology provides the only hope of feeding the burgeoning population.

Jumping on to the biotechnology bandwagon are many of the Nobel laureates, distinguished agriculture scientists, corporate bigwigs and of course the economists. After all, the cutting-edge technology, as biotechnology is fondly called, provides them with a perfect tool to distract the decision-makers from the more pressing problems of alleviating hunger and poverty.

The fact is that even at present, the world has enough food to feed these 800 million hungry mouths. If the food that is currently available were to be evenly distributed among the 6.4 billion people on the planet (providing each individual with a minimum intake of 2500 calories), there would still be a surplus left for 800 million people. The problem, therefore, is not of production but clearly of access and distribution. It involves more of politics than technology, with biotechnology having virtually no role to play.

A third of the world’s 800 million hungry live in India. How grim the poverty scenario is, was made clearly evident in a recent World Bank poverty update: in absolute terms, the number of those below the poverty line who cannot manage two-square meals a day shows a significant increase in the post-reform era (1991). The number of the hungry and malnourished in India alone has been steadily rising – in the rural areas, from 224 million in the early 1990s to 250 million in the mid-1990s. This corresponds to an almost constant increase in the incidence of rural poverty and a slow decline in the incidence of urban poverty, the report states.

Eradicating hunger from India, therefore, would alleviate much of the problem at the global level. Successive governments, especially in the past three decades following the advent of green revolution, have, however, very conveniently abdicated their constitutional responsibility to feed the nation. Year after year, the governments have managed a sizeable buffer stock essentially by depriving the poor of their basic human right – food.


India’s food glut

India is, once again, faced with an unmanageable food glut. From a food-grain surplus of ten million tonnes in 1999, the stocks have multiplied to 42 million tonnes of wheat and rice this year, some 18 million tonnes more than the annual buffer requirement of about 24 million tonnes. Instead of distributing the surplus grain among those who desperately need it, the government is toying with the idea of either finding an export market or releasing it on the open market (i.e. for private trade) at a subsidised price.

Much of the plentiful stocks are lying in the open for want of adequate storage space, and by the time the next harvest flows into the markets, considerable quantity would have been rendered unfit for human consumption. Is the biotechnology industry competent to address the problems arising from over-production and its lack of distribution? Even if we were to buy the industry’s argument that the technology will increase food production, how it will solve India’s hunger crisis has never been spelled out and for obvious reasons.

In 1999, India had produced a bumper harvest of wheat, some six million tonnes more than it produced a year before. It already had a carryover stock of four million tonnes. In effect, the country was saddled with a “surplus” wheat stock of ten million tonnes above the buffer requirements. Aware that at least 250 million people were going to bed hungry every night, still the government allowed the surplus stocks to be exported.

Although the country is “self-sufficient” in food-grain production, reports of hunger and starvation pour in regularly from the infamous Kalahandi region of Orissa. The region, with a population of 20 million, suffers from the pangs of hunger and malnutrition despite any visible signs of ecological devastation. Kalahandi is otherwise a fertile tract and has traditionally had food surpluses. So much so that in 1943, at the time of the great Bengal famine, Kalahandi had come to Bengal’s rescue.


Enter Monsanto, with cattle feed

Even in Kalahandi, the problem is not of production. What is not known is that the Kalahandi region is the biggest contributor of surplus rice to the central food reserves. In the past five years, Kalahandi has provided some 50,000 tonnes of rice on an average to the food reserves of the government of India, the highest from the State. People die of starvation and hunger for the simple reason that they cannot afford to buy the food they produce.

Meanwhile, an American company, RiceX, has entered into a joint collaboration with the multinational agri-business giant, Monsanto, to produce and test its patented technology for nutritious food, converting the traditionally used cattle feed – rice bran – into a human food. While the surplus grains are being exported – much of it going to feed cattle in the west – the government has invited the American companies to convert cattle feed into a nutritious food for its ever-growing population of the poor and hungry.

This is merely an attempt to provide a clean cover-up to the collective guilt of the nation, a cover-up which fails to find a solution to hunger, malnutrition and starvation. One doesn’t know for sure how many Kalahandis are tucked in different parts of the country. The only way to escape the humiliation and shame that is associated with governing a country where at least a third of the population is deprived of food, is to find solace and escape in cosmetic measures. Biotechnology is yet another cosmetic tool, which is being attempted in the name of eradicating hunger.

Faulty policies have ensured that food reserves are built essentially by keeping the food away from the reach of the poor. But with food prices continuously rising, and with the percentage of the population earning less than a dollar a day also keeping pace, more and more people are finding it difficult to meet their daily food needs. How will biotechnology provide food to those who are desperately in need? In fact, given the high seed cost, royalty and the cost of other inputs that the farmers will have to use (for instance, more herbicides in the herbicide-tolerant plants), the cost of cultivation will go up and so will the market price. Food will then be put out of the reach of still more people. Biotechnology will ultimately push more people towards hunger, starvation and suicide.


Devinder Sharma is an Indian journalist, writer and a food and trade policy analyst. Among his recent works are two books: GATT to WTO: Seeds of Despair and In the Famine Trap.