By Raakhee Suryaprakash
Edited by Michelle Cherian, Associate Editor, The Indian Economist
Roti, Kapda, Makan … was a war cry for Indian politicians on par with Liberté, Égalité, Fraternitéof the French Revolution.Yet even as we head into the sixty-seventh year of our independence,hunger, inflation, and poverty seems to be aninvincible multi-headed hydra before the Indian administration. And the situation is not unique to India, for the very first Millennium Development goal is:
Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.
Fourteen years into the new millennium, in the last lap before these goals morph into Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the United Nations and the world it administers, leaders and economists struggle to feed the billions on our planet while fighting resource stagnation and climate change. An article in the World Wildlife Magazinesummarizes the scarcity succinctly: “Each year, 7.2 billion people consume 1.5 times what the earth’s natural resources can continue to provide. In short, our planet simply can’t replenish itself fast enough to meet expanding human needs.”
Asia has most of the world’s poor and young, as well as most of the world’s hungry and malnourished – storing up problems for the future generation as lack of essential nutrients and care in the first five years of a child’s life can adversely and sometimes permanently affect growth and development. Agriculture maybe the backbone of the Indian economy but the levels of productions in India and most nations of Asia is rather appallingly low. Improper farmer credit, excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides, not to mention power crises hitting water supply at crucial times of crop cultivation as well as unpredictable monsoons all combine to break the back of the small-holding farmer!
By 2050 we will need to feed more than nine billion over-consumers with the same or lesser resources than we have today. The only way this can be managed sustainably is by improving efficiency and productivity of agriculture while reducing food waste and shifting consumption patterns.A second green revolution is an election promise of the Mr. Modi’s government. The architect of the first green revolution, M. S. Swaminathan and his research foundation meanwhile are dedicated to fighting “hidden hunger” – essential nutrient malnourishment! By vetoing the World Trade Organization’s trade facilitation deal while insisting “that a permanent agreement on its subsidized food stockpiling must be in place at the same time”,India has shown the priority it places on food security. Meanwhile inflation has been pushing the prices of food and vegetables to unimaginable heights, e.g., the price of tomatoes a staple vegetable on par with onions has crossed Rs. 100 per kilo. These are all symptoms of the resource “hunger” that’s slowly eating away at the health and the economy of the nation and the world.
According to WWF research, the only way to increase production levels sustainably is to focus on helping the least-efficient of food producers to become the most sustainable and efficient food producers as it turns out “25% of food producers whose practices are least sustainable produce only 10% of the product. But they cause about 50% of the environmental impacts. Yet all of our previous work focused on the best performers.”
Food wastage is another major cause of the famine-like conditions that affect people globally. About 1.3 billion tons are wasted annually—four times the amount needed to feed more than 800 million people who suffer from malnutrition.In an economy where the food industry and food entrepreneurs thrive while other industries face slow-down and stagnation, it’s ironic that hunger also continues to thrive. India’s food stockpiles and distribution system are second to none yet we also have most of the world’s hunger and disheartening statistics on farmer suicides. It’s an oft-repeated saying that we have the most well-fed rats and the most unfed people in India as a result of improper grain and food storage. Add to this the frozen foods rendered inedible due to power shutdowns and we have massive food wastage coexisting with massive hunger. Most statistics put global food wastage at 30%-40% of food produced. The leftovers and drying vegetable in our fridge and kitchens are but the tip of the iceberg!
In developing countries such as India the reasons for wastage include lack of proper infrastructure and storage for food, inefficient food processing as well as post-harvest losses. In developed countries supplied by foods from across the globe, the wastage occurs in the long supply chains in homes, restaurants, and retail operations due to unused and uneaten food.Be it developed or developing nations, food waste reduces food availability and leads to lower prices for food producers and higher outlays for consumers. Food waste also aggravates climate change with adverse impact on the environment. By eliminating existing food waste, greenhouse gases emissions can be reduced by 10%and water use by 23%. Efficient food production, distribution, and consumption can halve the amount of new food needed by 2050.
Perhaps it’s a harbinger of good times that the Union Cabinet Minister of Food Processing in the Government of IndiaHarsimrat Kaur Badal is the Member of Parliament from Bathinda in Punjab, the state that started off India’s first green revolution. A go-getter with a social conscience evidenced by her initiative “NanhiChhan” (Innocent Lives) aimed at saving the girl child and trees even before she formally entered the political arena,it is to be hoped that Ms. Badal can institute measures that reduce food waste in India. International cooperation in the field of food processing and reducing the storage issuespost-harvest must also be looked into. For example countries like the island nation of Taiwan has many food processing industries ensuring food security for its population while hauling in massive profits across the globe. Technical cooperation between Indian agricultural producers and international food processors could help bring jobs to rural India while simultaneously helping reduce post-harvest wastage. The DRDO – the Indian defence research institution – also needs to step up and promote its food processing innovations that could create food-processing SMEs that both create jobs and eliminate food wastage.
In the Philippines, food security became a top priority after the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan. One long-term solution instituted by the UNDP was communal gardens producing fruits, vegetables and crops. As of April 2014, it was estimated that some 5.6 million Haiyan survivors were in need of food assistance. In an age when the aid-curse is as much a reality as the resource-curse, the community garden initiative is in keeping with the saying “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Everyone in the community pitches in to tend the communal vegetable garden. After each family takes what they need for their tables, the leftovers are sold thus bringing in much needed revenue as well as food security to the community. Such initiatives in rural India,with an emphasis on organic community gardens supplied with compost from urban households (e.g., flat associations or restaurant and hotel chains) which in turn could become direct consumers to the “leftovers”, could help increase profits to the food producers while reducing prices and encouraging recycling among urban consumers.
It’s a herculean task eliminating poverty and hunger, yet not impossible. To eliminate this hydra-like problem we need a multi-pronged approach and continual innovation. The know-how is there, all that’s lacking is the will to implement and cooperate!Raakhee has a Master’s degree in International Studies and a Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry but is passionate about writing and researching ideas that change the world for the better. She is in the process of launching a social enterprise SUNSHINE MILLENNIUM that aims to help India’s off-grid rural areas achieve the Millennium Development Goals by setting up of solar-powered millennium development centres. Her work has been widely published both in print and online media.