Let Them Eat Rice

The world took umbrage at the US President's recent remark that increased consumption by the prospering Indian middle class, as well as other developing countries, is responsible for the emerging global food crisis. The Indian minister of state for commerce pointed out that the President is not known for his knowledge of economics, to which one may add that he is not acquainted with the art of diplomacy either. However tempting (and visceral) it may be to criticise the misguided attempt to impugn a sovereign nation, let us take a closer look at the statement and separate the wheat from the chaff.

It cannot be denied that the economies of India and China have been growing by leaps and bounds and one of the main beneficiaries of this upturn is the huge middle class, but this decade-long trend can hardly be held liable for the recent spike in food prices. Economists agree that a change in consumption pattern, particularly transitioning from a vegetarian diet to a meat-based diet, is not without consequences since it takes about 6 kilogrammes of grain to produce a kilogramme of meat. However, this changed behaviour of edible grain being diverted for fodder is more of a phenomenon in today's China (where increased wealth has made meat affordable to many people), than India where religion and not wealth (or health) influences eating habits. To digress onto a subject that deserves its own essay, it is interesting that the religions native to India placed importance on the sanctity of animals that were needed to irrigate the land in an (historically) agrarian nation.

Similarly, the argument that globalisation has benefited Indian farmers goes completely against the grain of ground reality. Dictates from the WTO have in fact forced India to import wheat and soya at inflated prices despite a surplus of produce in the country. While this has resulted in the loss of livelihood for millions of coconut, mustard, sesame, linseed and groundnut farmers, it also replaced India's traditional edible oils with unhealthy and genetically engineered oils like palm and soya oil. In addition, deplorable arm-twisting tactics by biotech companies like Monsanto (which developed a GM strain called Terminator that sterilises natural seeds in plants making farmers dependent on the company for seeds) has bankrupted farmers who cannot afford the cost of seeds each year and is culpable for a string of suicides across southern India.

There are three undisputed reasons for the rise of food prices in the United States. The first is the myth of biofuel as an energy policy-- with increased government subsidy for corn-based ethanol, it is in the short-term interest of farmers to raise cash crops, rather than food crops, especially in the face of soaring gas prices. This folly was pointed out in the World Economic Outlook by the International Monetary Fund: "Although biofuels still account for only 1.5% of the global liquid fuel supply, they accounted for almost half of the increase in consumption of major food crops in 2006-07, mostly because of corn-based ethanol produced in the US." The second reason is the weakening US dollar in the international market, which is a poor bargaining chip for the many grains that are imported into the country. The decision by some countries, including India, to raise customs duty on food exports in anticipation of hoarding also hit the Americans. Finally, the meteoric rise of gas prices (diesel is hovering around $5/gallon), in a country with an under-developed electric railway network, meant that the end-consumer had to foot the bill for hauling food items in trucks from one state to another.

What usually remains unsaid in food debates is the tragic effect of the West's successful export of its fast-food culture as a desirable ritual, despite dubious nutritional value and its fait accompli in the rise of obesity. Unfortunately, underfunded government health agencies are no match for the muscle of marketing dollars, with the result that India and China now present a strange dichotomy-- the poor are worse off because of lower agricultural produce, while the middle-class are worse off because of increasing quantities of processed and junk-food.

There is a sufficiency in the world for every man's need, but not for every man's greed.
Mohandas Gandhi

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