The Hindu Business Line, New Delhi/Chennai/Mumbai/Bangalore
The genetic engineering industry has been claiming that at a time when more than 800 million people go to bed hungry, and their number is likely to swell to over 1.5 billion in the next ten years, biotechnology provides the only hope to feed 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 is to be evenly distributed among the 6.4 billion people on the planet (providing each individual with a minimum intake of 2,500 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.
More than a third of the world's 800 million hungry live in India. How grim is the poverty scenario is clearly evident from 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 (after 1991). The number of the hungry and malnourished in India alone have been steadily rising. In the rural areas, from 224 million in the early 1990's to 250 million in the mid 1990's. 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 is once again faced with an unmanageable food glut. From a foodgrain surplus of ten million tonnes in 1999, the stocks have multiplied to 44 million tonnes of wheat and rice this year, some 20 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 in the open market (read the 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 will it 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 what 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 had allowed the surplus stocks to be exported.
Although the country is "self-sufficient" in foodgrain 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 been food surplus. So much so that in 1943, at the time of the great Bengal famine, Kalahandi had come to the rescue of the famine stricken Bengal.
Even in Kalahandi, the problem is not of production. What is not known is that 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 goes for the 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, which fails to find a solution of 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 over 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 go out of the reach of still more people. Biotechnology will ultimately subject more people to hunger and starvation.
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Last Updated on 7/23/00
By Dan Ellis