Give us this day our daily bread!

Give us this day our daily bread

Roopen Roy

(The views expressed are personal)

Engel’s Law of Consumption provides the insight that as a person’s income rises the proportion of income he spends on food declines. The law was enunciated by Ernst Engel, a German statistician –not to be confused with Marx’s comrade-in-arms: Friedrich Engels. According to Engel, poor people spend a very large part of their income on food. Thus, food inflation hurts the poor in a devastating way.

Will food prices see a steady reduction in the future? How will we deal with our food security? What strategies must be pursued for a hunger-free India? The good news is that our country’s leadership has acknowledged food security as an urgent issue. The bad news is: we are still grappling for a holistic solution and we have no silver bullet.

Food and Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar said last week that it would not be possible to implement the proposed National Food Security bill without increasing the country's agriculture production substantially. "If we have to honour the announcement of the President (to bring a new food security law), our requirement will be more than 65 million tonnes. Unless and until production and productivity improve, it will not be possible to do so.” he said in a rare straight talk. He has also re-ignited an old debate and thrown his weight behind genetically modified seeds to enhance farm productivity.

Some scary scenarios are emerging as well. What will be the impact of greenhouse gases on farm production? Climate change is the “threat multiplier” that could double grain prices by 2050 resulting in millions more children malnourished.

Beyond 2050, when climate scientists project temperatures might rise to as much as 6.4 degrees C (11.5 degrees F) over 20th century levels, the planet grows “gloomy” for agriculture, said senior research fellow Gerald Nelson of the International Food Policy Research Institute. ( The Washington-based IFPRI has declared that they have fed 15 scenarios of population and income growth into supercomputer models of climate and found that “climate change worsens future human well-being, especially among the world’s poorest people.”

The study concludes that prices will be driven up by a combination of factors: a slowdown in productivity in some places caused by warming and shifting rain patterns and an increase in demand because of population and income growth. There are some very insightful ideas that need to be discussed, debated and factored into our farm strategy.

One suggestion is to reshuffle our food basket and diversify out of our over-dependence on rice and wheat. We do not use minor millets like jowar, bajra and ragi. According to Dr. M.S. Swaminathan , we should enlarge our food basket and look at such grains which are more nutritious. “Unfortunately the British called these coarse cereals and created a caste system. They are more nutritious than wheat and rice,” he has pointed out. Why should we not use these cereals for the mid-day meal schemes? Why should we not ,through appropriate support pricing, encourage their cultivation?

The second step is to invest in post-harvest infrastructure i.e. storage facilities, cold chain, logistics and processing facilities. Currently a large part of our fresh fruits and vegetables perish before they have a chance to reach the consumer. That is a criminal waste in a country with under-nourished people. We must manage the plough-to-plate cycle much better.

A third suggestion is to look at genetically modified seeds with of course appropriate safeguards and environmental due diligence. China is not only a heavy user of genetically modified seeds, it has been investing hundreds of millions of dollars into transgenic crop research and development. They are developing plants, whose DNA is combined with genetic material that programs them with traits like pest and weed resistance. This is enabling farmers to produce more food and farm commodities at a lower cost — especially as farmland is being lost to development and drought.

The fourth issue is the conversion of acreage from food to cash crops. The invisible hand of the market is often distorting the cropping patterns. Farmers are o moving away from producing crops that feed hungry mouths to growing cash crops that the affluent are willing to pay a higher price for. Unless imported food is cheaper, the price support mechanism must be leveraged to ensure that we devote sufficient acreage to grains that we will need to fortify our food security.

The last suggestion is to go after hard options and not take short-cuts. If the public distribution system is inefficient or corrupt it must be fixed. Failure of governance cannot be solved merely by privatization or outsourcing. The soft option may be to import food and this may be necessary for overcoming temporary shortages. But it is not a smart strategy in the long run. The smart option is to improve, in a sustainable way, farm productivity and production and aim to become a major food exporter in the medium term.

Gandhiji once said, “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” India will not shine nor be proud of its growth if our fellow countrymen go hungry or our children suffer from malnutrition.