Security begins in the stomach

  • 14/06/1994

LITTLE attention has been paid to the effects of current and emerging trade arrangements, vis-a-vis GATT, on Indian food security issues. A number of related issues have been given more serious pondering: negative impact on the economic status of food producers and processors; minus marks for the state of the environment, and so on. Information from these analyses sheds some smattering of light on the food security implications of these mega-deals, but a comprehensive picture is wanting.

By definition, food security is the availability to everyone of an adequate amount of culturally appropriate food, and the means and ability to prepare it for every member of the community (from breastfeeding to special diets for culturally and physically diverse communities).

India is already becoming increasingly dependent on world trade in agricultural products; which is why playing-to-the-gallery measures like actually withdrawing from GATT are out of the question.

A sizeable section of Indian farmers are of the opinion that the GATT deal will provide them with positive opportunities through the freer import of technologies -- particularly hybrid seeds -- as well as the assurance of new markets for their products. This optimism reigns supreme in that gung-ho, backslapping, small section of Indian farmers which has already derived considerable benefits from the green revolution. But to dismiss their feelings because they were fortunate enough to have fat harvests -- as several armchair critics of GATT are prone to do -- amounts to trivialising the grounds on which differences exist among Indian farmers over the trade deal.

Only in the cold, mathematical terms of percentages are the big Indian farmers a small bunch. In real terms, their numbers are substantial in almost every state. Their contribution as players of a major role in the growth and expansion of Indian agriculture has been even more significant. And very often they have a decisive political as well as strict professional influence on the so-called middle and small farmers.

However, rallying behind GATT in no way means overlooking its essential weaknesses. It is becoming increasingly crucial to understand how GATT affects these vast dimensions of food vulnerability. The availability of food, that is more often than not unsuitable for reasons of health or culture, is certainly part of GATT's headache: simply put, as part of the process of adopting GATT in its entirety, there is enormous international pressure to bracket together standards of health and environmental. This approach invites considerable scepticism from many environmental and health specialists, who see "harmonisation" as part of a global nexus to weaken pesticide and food safety regulations -- thus permitting food to move around with considerably less scrutiny. Harmonisation will also help to create more food, food that can be produced almost anywhere in the world and then shipped across the globe.

In this environment, how can the needs of minority food consumers be respected? First, with the lowering of standards, vulnerable populations will be increasingly exposed to foods that compromise their health. Significantly, looking at the trade from India, the interesting feature is that the export of animal foodstuff jumped by 13 times from 1987 to 1992, while the import of cereals increased 3 times over.

The second problem is inadequate income with which to purchase an adequate supply of food. India has a very skewed pattern of wealth and control of financial resources. The bottom 40 per cent of Indians do not have enough money to purchase their basic daily needs. Now, compounding the problems of increasingly topsy-turvy wealth generation, is the "responsible" public sector. It will rapidly lose control to the poised and ready corporate sector -- control over matters like the policy and financial tools to generate and/or distribute wealth equitably.

Much of this loss of control is also associated with international trade arrangements, which are restricting the ability of all levels of government to provide a support structure to domestic enterprise. The international community perceives this tight government control as favouring domestic over international firms. Included in this are export and import controls and programmes designed to redress regional economic development imbalances.

The globalisation of capital investment opportunities and the weakening of national investment rules are seriously limiting the ability of public authorities to invest in activities that do not conform to global competitiveness criteria (that is, public infrastructure, social programmes including food, programmes to promote smallscale industry); which is why the poor, who lack financial resources, cannot, with these trade agreements in place, hope for public policy changes to redress the inequities that make life such a misery.

To prevent GATT from aggravating an already intolerable situation where the ranks of the poor and hungry keep swelling, India must make Herculean efforts to temper its bias towards industrialised countries. It should firmly support democratisation and the true multilateralisation of global regulations -- aimed not to strengthen the already powerful economic sectors but for socially accountable, economically-equitable and environmentally-sustainable world trade.