At the recieving end

  • 14/10/1997

At the recieving end a number of international organisations are working towards beefing up food security by creating awareness among consumers. "All future agricultural research, policies and trade opportunities must be anchored to the concepts of availability of quality and nutritious food at an affordable price to all," says a statement issued by Consumers International's ( ci 's) Asia Pacific office in Malaysia. The ci 's India Consumer Protection Programme has launched a campaign called the Consumer Action Plan to highlight consumer concerns and support initiatives like securing "access to food" as a basic right.

Although a majority of India's population is engaged in agriculture and allied activities, a sizeable chunk of it is still undernourished because of either inaccessibility to nutritious food or, more importantly, due to very low or sometimes the lack of purchasing power. In such a scenario, the responsibilities of the government at the Centre are far from over. More so in the current context, when sweeping economic changes are underway. Some governmental efforts like the setting up of the public distribution system have arrested the threat of widespread famine and death. But a lot remains to be done.

In fact, the emphasis should not only be on the people's right to affordable, safe and nutritious food but on a more integrated programme that would include access to safe drinking water, sanitation, basic health care and primary education. The Consumer Action Plan is expected to do just that. To increase consumer consciousness regarding, among other things, breastfeeding, infant health and the importance of fortified and formulated foods. Highlighting the needs of consumers would mean going beyond mere consumption descriptions, to venture into the management, conservation and regeneration of resource bases. Biodiversity must be seen as vital to the development of a sustainable and humane society.

A number of factors have made the attainment of food security for local communities difficult, if not impossible. The increased shift to cash crops headed for overseas markets has diverted prime agricultural land, capital and research and development away from staple food crops. The threat of turning such lands over to other uses such as the establishment of industrial estates, tourist and recreational facilities, commercial and residential properties and agroforestry jeopardises food security. Bio-prospecting, intellectual property rights and patents pose direct threats to the utilisation and development of seeds and genetic resources by farmers.

The pressing need for productivity and pest control is increasing reliance on chemical external inputs, which in turn threaten the health of farmers. In addition, toxic traces in the food chain can have grave economic consequences for consumers whose health could be impaired permanently.

Moreover, transnational corporations are penetrating local agricultural markets and governments can do little to discipline them. But active consumer support can effectively moderate their practices. Consumers could support agricultural produce obtained by employing sustainable agricultural technologies. They can lobby for organic agriculture. On the whole, a consumer shift to locally-produced food can strengthen food security.

While multilateral agreements are becoming universalised, consumers can locally try and reap the benefits of these arrangements. For instance, the Codex Alimentarium Commission - established by the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization in 1962 - to issue guidelines and formulate food standards, has 151 member countries worldwide and is an ideal forum for sharing concerns. The Consumer Action Plan too plans to seek the active involvement of the Indian government, the United Nations and other agencies in reducing hunger.

Autar Nehru is a freelance journalist based in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh

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