Thursday, November 10, 2016

The bitter, untold and detrimental truth about the Agribusiness

This post is basically a summary of another chapter in the book that I am reading these days to understand world hunger and starvation. The name of the book is "How the other half dies" authored by Susan George. 

" Agribusiness was a term coined by Harvard Business School Professor Ray A. Goldberg. He defines it as "all production and distribution of farm supplies, production operations on farms and storage, processing and distribution of farm commodities and processed foods". Some examples would be Nestles, Uniliver, General Foods, Ralston Purnia, Quaker Oats, Swift & Armor etc. 

The agribusiness that concern us more in the context of the world hunger crisis are the ones that use a host country's land and labour for producing food - rarely to satisfy local needs, almost always for export to the developed countries' market that will pay the most for their produce. While investment in manufacturing abroad is gradually becoming less profitable, a new world food prices make investment in agriculture in the UDCs  (under developed countries) a very attractive proposition. Public opinion is much slower to smell the sweet odour of a new and relatively unexploited field for profits than the quivering and alert noses of the MNCs. As we have understood from previous posts that hunger and starvation is not a population problem, it is a social condition that comes due to lack of employment and increasing poverty. There is already plenty of evidence to suggest that agribusiness is capable of destroying everything it touches: local employment patterns, local food-crop production, consumer tastes, even village and traditional family structures. 

On the contrary, agribusiness see themselves as the world's salvation, capable of solving the problem of world hunger. And the heads of agribusiness though do admit that "private business can attack malnutrition, not starvation". While agribusiness is all for the profit motive, it is less enthusiastic about taking commercial risks in the 'most underdeveloped countries'. 

One of the important things to understand about agribusiness is their advertisement and promotion. In the agribusiness world they care very little what you eat so long as they can persuade you to buy it. R&D expenditures on food actually decrease proportionally to sales while advertising increases. If the most profitable foods agribusiness makes are the most highly processed, this is no accident. They have to be to sustain the vertical integration that includes nationwide distribution and long storage periods. Food industry spends more on advertising and less on research than any other industry in America. It seems fair to conclude that agribusiness is not the most thrifty and wholesome way that could be found to feed people, nor to protect the interests of the majority of small farmers- those who are left-against the interests of huge corporate processors. 

American consumers are considered to be the richest in the world, but if the quality of what they eat is any indication of wealth, then they are poor indeed. There has been marked evidence of milk consumption going down and that of soft drinks going up, less and less of fruits and vegetables and more and more of junk food. All this means profits for the agribusiness. It would be a mistake to assume that this phenomenon is unique only to US. Processed-food purveyors pick their markets carefully. They also invest in local production in countries with relatively high per capita incomes where consumers can be taught to pick convenience foods over raw foodstuff. 

Agribusiness is harmful to small, family-type farms and to consumers in the affluent countries.  Interviews of foreign food firm heads in India showed that their products were invariably aimed at upper-income-level consumers. It is a sad fact that the most nutritional food products marketed by commercial firms are aimed at the segment of society least in need of them. The poor buy the same because they are influenced by the companies' barrage of advertising. This has led to "Commerciogenic Malnutrition" : result of teaching the people that their traditional foods are somehow inferior ! 

Agribusiness is basically antagonistic to national control over local food production and marketing; thus governments that welcome it should do so in the full knowledge that what is raised will be largely exported to paying customers, with only a small residue left out for the local middle class. Rich sources of protein like fishmeal, which could perfectly well be used for human food are processed and exported by agribusinesses to feed America's 35 million dogs and its 30 million cats. any rich mongrel or pampered cat is a better customer for agribusiness than a poor human being. 

More and more land in the UDCs is devoted to greater and greater quantities of luxury food products that fewer and fewer people, proportionally, can afford. 

Most of the agribusiness companies promote food which is not healthy, highly processed and disguised to look healthier than natural alternatives. Take for example, Nestles baby food. Nestles as a company has been found to be encouraging African mothers to abandon breastfeeding of their children in favour of formulating milk feeding. A quarter or a third of husband's salary goes on just feeding this one infant with artificial milk. So in fact they buy still buy milk (their breast milk has dried up) but they don't buy adequate quantities. Their food promotion is a scandal!

However, there are positive stories also in which agribusiness has shown that business could make development if social goals, not merely profitability were present in the project from the drawing board to actual operation. The example is Mumias sugar complex in Western Kenya, we shall learn more about it in the next blog post. 

Agribusiness bears a special responsibility for the present food crisis. While food deficits and malnutrition have grown worse during the past ten years, the accelerated growth rate and prosperity of the MNCs during the same period has been inversely proportional to the increase of scarcity. 

This phenomenon is only paradoxical on the surface; the goal of agribusiness is not to increase food resources, not to contribute to their equitable distribution, nor yet to adapt existing technology to the conditions of particular countries. Their goal is first and foremost to increase their markets, and their commercial outlets, to realize maximum production-costs reduction and to increase their profits. This is a truism, but should be made clear. 

Food workers of developing countries have long and bitter experience of this capability. There are great numbers of agribusiness workers whose low salaries, substandard housing, poor health and squalid working conditions are such that hunger, malnutrition and under-nourishment for them and for their families are commonplace. If so many multinational firms do not even allow their own workers to feed themselves properly, then how can we imagine for a moment that they can bring a decent diet to everyone?  " (Entirely from book)

All this makes me wonder "what kind of world am I living in?".  A world in which profit making is acceptable at the cost health of its people and their loss of small employment. The advertisement for agribusiness has certainly spread insanity among people. As aware humans we must be conscious of our choices of purchase and from where to purchase. This chapter has led me to so many questions in side of me. Never had I wondered that the e-commerce way to order fruits and vegetables online is an anathema to local vegetable grocery store people. Never had I wondered that this "convenience" has actually led to "inconvenience" to so many other people and also to the consumers (from health point of view). Vegetables in market early morning are obviously fresh than the ones which are stored in halls cemented with all sort of chemicals to keep them fresh and edible. It has led to increased vehicles on roads, which use more and more fuel and lead to greater and greater pollution. No one seems to have time today to go out and buy vegetables, we are all living super-busy lives! In order to save time, we have allowed our health and local-business to be at stake. On the contrary, I also wonder that employment has increased ! Then is it some sort of trade-off? Certainly, then it is not a black and white situation. 

As I am growing in my life, I am increasingly discovering the contradictory nature of truths of life! It is unsettling to a mind which has not yet been polluted by the false air prevalent all around. It is imperative to be aware of our roots, from where we have come. This makes me so grateful for the way my parents have brought me up, in an environment of absolute, unbending strictness towards natural way to live and eat. I owe them my gratitude. I consider myself sometimes extremely fortunate to have seen and lived in both the worlds : in village and in city, and I think the village aspect is still very close to my heart. "simple living, high thinking" . 

God Bless You  All. 

Monday, November 7, 2016

Understanding Reason behind World's Hunger : Part Two

In this post we shall understand the implications Green Revolution had on the world hunger and its impacts over agriculture, farmers and Third World Economies. 
There is an entire chapter on "Green Revolution" in the book titled, "How the other half dies" by Susan George. However, in this blog we shall keep talking about Green Revolution later on from readings and works of Vandana Shiva also. 

For this series of posts, however we our focusing on the book by George. 

Green Revolution was started in Mexico, in 1943. Green Revolution (GR) was touted to be a road towards self sufficiency and eradication of hunger. Its role in increasing the marketable surplus, thus in helping to feed urban consumers has been very important. Having myself studied in school books about the boon that GR was or is (for few sections of society as we shall learn later), it was very difficult for me to understand and to be able to accept the picture that was not painted in the books. In fact, when Dr. Ravi Arole at Jamkhed was telling me more about it, I remember my eyes were wide open radiating disbelief; all of that had left me nonplussed. Like any normal student, I had wondered, "Why did the books did not tell us the complete story?" , "Why were all these aspects hidden from the future leaders of our country?" "What could be the reason?". But now that I am reading more in depth about this revolution I consider it my responsibility to share with others the knowledge that I have gained. But here is the thing with knowledge, it is contradictory because the world where we live in,  everyone is a lobbyist with an agenda. However, few texts on GR have compelled me to jot down for readers valuable insights. 

GR, technically speaking means breeding (producing) plants that will bear more edible grain, increasing yields without increasing cultivated crop areas. These are called as "High Yielding Varieties" (HYV) . Not only could the new HYVs produce more grain per acre - but they could do it with shorter growing cycle, allowing double or even triple cropping on the same land in a single year. But these seeds have a lot of requirements to be able to function: HYVs will not bear full fruit until heavy doses of fertilizers are applied. "Miracle" seeds must have plenty of water, plenty of nourishment, plenty of chemical protection - pesticides, fungicides against diseases; herbicides against weeds that also thrive on fertilizers. If single one of these elements is lacking, HYVs can sometimes produce less grain, than what could have been obtained from traditional varieties. 

GR is partly a complex system for foreign agribusiness domination of how, where and what Third World farmers will produce and at what cost. Such required inputs are not generally produced in Under developed Countries (UDCs), which can lead to total collapse of system. And once, it becomes profitable to use modern technology the demand for all kinds of farm inputs increases rapidly. Only agri-business firms can supply these new inputs efficiently, result of which is that MNC has a vested interest in agricultural revolution. As increases in farm production become more dependent on purchased inputs, and the proportion of farm production that is marketed rises, investment in agri-business becomes more important.  GR leaves a UDC with no freedom of choice in combining modern foreign supplied inputs with traditional, indigenous elements. 

Below is a conversation adapted from the book for better understanding of the haplessness of the poor farmers. The characters are landlord and tenant at the harvest time. The landlord might be a city man who rarely appears in the neighbourhood except to collect his rent (which may be paid in cash or kind) or he may farm a sizeable piece of land himself with the help of hired hands. The farmer might be a tenant or a sharecropper; he has only a small piece of land he has always thought of as "his". In any case, the landlord has bought the whole HYV package and has doubled his yield since last  year. The farmer could not afford the inputs- his harvest is the same. 

LANDLORD: You owe me a third more rent this year- I'll take it in wheat or in cash. 
TENANT: But I can't pay you any more - I didn't even feed my family all year on the harvest. 
LANDLORD: Just look at what my land has produced. You see that it can be done and you ought to be growing more yourself. Your land belongs to me and is not bringing in enough profit. 
TENANT: It's easy enough for you to talk. I know how you did it- you spread a hundred sacks of fertilizer on the soil and the well is on your property. How am I supposed to buy fertilizer when I already have to buy food? I can't even use the water I want to. 
LANDLORD: Tell you what. I'll give you this money right now and you get off that land. In the bargain, I'll even hire you next year at sowing and harvest time and may be in between. That's more than you would have got last year, but the land's valuable and I'm generous. 
TENANT: But I don't want to get off the land. My father and his father farmed it before me, for your father and his father. 
LANDLORD: In that case, I'll loan you the money to buy fertilizer and seeds. That way you can pay me a higher rent when the new crop comes in. The loan will only cost you 5 per cent a month. (Aside: heh heh, I get the money at 8 per cent from the bank in town).
TENANT: But I could never pay you back. I already own money for my daughter's wedding and for the money I had to borrow to buy food last year. 
LANDLORD: In that case, consider yourself evicted. I'll farm the land myself. By the way, I still may be needing your services, so stay around. Oc course, I won't be able to pay you much. Times aren't that good, and if you don't like your wages, there are plenty of others around who'll be glad of a job. Besides, I plan to buy a tractor. 
TENANT: But what about my wide and children? What are we to do? In your father;s time this could not have happened. He even gave food to tide us over the bad times. 
LANDLORD: Sorry about this. Business is business. You might try the city. 

If this sounds like melodrama, so be it. It is exactly the kind of conversation that has taken place and continues to, all over Asia and Latin America. 

Where nothing is done to alleviate inequalities, the GR is guaranteed to worsen them. GR is increasing the farmers' misery to what may nevertheless become an intolerable level. 

Understanding Reason behind World's Hunger : Part One

This series is taken up to augment my own understanding of the perpetuation of world hunger and starvation. Especially in India, where so many children under the age of five are malnourished, it is imperative that we understand the forces that lead to existence of such abhorring truth, in a world where there is absolutely no paucity of food! By that logic, it should be absolutely unacceptable that people die due to hunger or hunger related causes. Through this series of posts, myths will be debunked and Western beliefs broadcasted by media will be demystified. This is a personal journey to understand the reason behind "Hungry People Existence". The series will consist of huge amount of lessons from a book by Susan George, titled, "How the other half dies". 

In the first post, we shall basically try to understand the ground information about hunger and this is an introductory post. 

Hunger is not a scourge, it is a scandal. Hunger is caused by identifiable forces within the province of rational human control. World Food Conference held in 1974 in Rome, had focused on a very wrong idea: the idea of food production rather than equitable distribution. In a world where food has become a source of profit, tool of economic and political control and means of domination, it is inevitable that its availability or non-availability is used to exploit those who cannot afford it, or its selling is done only to those who have money to pay for it. 

Why do not people get enough to eat and who are they? 
Patterns of injustice and exploitation prevents people from feeding themselves. Today's world has all resources and technical skills necessary to feed present population or even a larger one, however food production market which is largely controlled by Developed countries (DC) is related to monetary market demand and not to the needs of humans. MNCs grow cheap and sell to rich, largely ignoring poor people who cannot become consumers. 

Poverty and hunger walk hand in hand. People who are poor with no means to make a living, not even a land are at cross-roads to feed themselves. The social inequities that they obtain in their own countries makes it impossible for them to make a living; the land which is equivalent of wealth in an Under Developed Country (UDC) is concentrated in so few hands. The poor have literally nothing to work with and most proclaimed land reforms exist chiefly on paper. In situations where poor are employed as farmers, they rarely control the processing technology or the distribution circuits which alone could add value to the food they produce. 

Another popular myth is that of population. The media often highlights that one of the biggest cause of hunger is population growth. Nothing could be further from the truth. World hunger is not caused by population pressures, although these do aggravate the situation. The structure of land holding has more to do with erasing hunger than the amount of total population. Both hunger and population growth reflect the same failure of a political and economic system. Hunger and population growth are both symptoms - one is not the cause of the other - and to single out population growth for direct attack is both a costly and a tragic illusion. 

Poor people do not deliberately give rise to more number of children. For them more children might mean more mouths to feed upto a certain age, but those mouths will have two hands which will contribute towards the livelihood of the family. Poverty thus leads poor people to have more children with a vision that somehow their penury will be addressed. Government idea to control population through family planning is a flawed approach. It does not attack the root of the problem: population problem is related to poverty, social injustice, ill-health, primary education and illiteracy. 

Thus, hunger we understand is one of the results of inequitable distribution of resources supported for political and economical reasons and that poverty is one of the main culprits for the perpetuation of hunger in the world! 

I would like to end this post with a quote from a powerful lady whom I am beginning to know, Aurde Lorde: 

The fact that we are here and that I speak these words is an attempt to break that silence and bridge some of those differences between us, for it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken."