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Issue 9
January , 2009
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' We need to look at technological,social and political factors while addressing food safety and security issues '

Source: Toxic Alert, Date: January , 2009

Pankaj H Gupta , noted environmental filmmaker and sustainability researcher believes entitlement and not one's economic status  determines one's food security. He recommends that it is upto the stakeholders like state,industry,consumer groups,pressure lobbies, socially conscious people and farmers themselves to ensure food safety.

pankajIs this entire debate on food safety and security more of a socio-political issue

than an environmental one?

Food Safety and food security are different, though somewhat vaguely connected issues,
assuming that by food safety you are referring to the use of pesticides in food production, and the consequent toxicity in the food chain.

Food security is, of course, a highly contentious socio-political issue as it is directly concerned with hunger, poverty, social and distributive justice. The issue is of relevance to those who are either poor or on the borderline of poverty: all those who have a fragile material existence.

But it’s not true that one’s economic status determines the level of food security: as Amartya Sen has theorized, ‘entitlements’ determine food security. In a third world context, a vast proportion of rural populations (farmers, both land-owning and wage labour) depend on their food on what they themselves grow, and not on trade of food. The moment a food producer (like a marginal farmer) becomes a food trader, he becomes dependent on market conditions.

This can be fraught with huge risks. The recent upsurge in food prices demonstrated that: a marginal commodity farmer or industrial worker, who spent nearly 50 to 70% of his cash income on food, suddenly became ‘food insecure’ as his wages did not keep pace with the 100% rise in food prices. Thus, food security as a concept needs to be redefined in the light of these recent events, taking into account the difference between food that is purchased, and food that is produced for one’s own consumption. It should now be accepted that those who produce their own food are more food secure than those who are dependent on purchasing it.

Food safety, on the other hand, is largely a middle class worry. The focus of the debate on GM foods centering around safety aspects is one example of that: the poor, who are on the verge of hunger, would surely prefer to risk consuming pesticide laced or GM food than to starve! That’s the reason why farmers rarely support safety issues in food production. But safety is also a socio-political issue in an obtuse way, though it is not often explained as such. It so happens that all unsafe foods – GM or pesticide produced – are produced with forms of industrial agriculture, with huge stakes of large monopolistic corporations. Thus, food safety on the face of it an environmental issue - becomes a proxy for the ongoing battle between these large corporations that profit from industrial agriculture, and food safety activists.

In a democracy like India how far is the concept of Food Democracy that is the right of all people to an adequate, safe, nutritious, sustainable food supply in existence?

If you are talking about food – that too, adequate, safe, nutritious, sustainable - as a legal right, it is a good idea in principle, just like the right to employment or the right to education. To a very small extent, there have been some moves towards this direction (like the mid-day meal scheme for children, or the subsidized food rations for people below poverty line). It may even be worth it, despite the inefficiencies associated with these large, centrally conceptualized schemes. At the same time, there is a need to reform policies that work against food security, like free global trade and the push for industrial forms of agriculture. There is now enough evidence to prove that the two are contradictory. There is an emerging consensus – of activists and academics alike – that localization of food trade and production is more likely to ensure food security than any other measure.

Is the conflict between food safety and security more of a notional than real? Is it possible for a developing country like India with a huge population to accomplish both without hurting the economic independence?

By conflict between food security and food safety, I imagine, you imply that safe food production can be achieved only by sacrificing productivity. This is not a valid assumption. The point about the criticism of pesticide use is not that we should do away with it altogether or convert all food production to organic. This is an unrealistic scenario. As the Director of IFAD stated recently, we need both forms of food production - we need industrial agriculture to supply food to our cities, as well as traditional, organic farming by small farm holders for local, rural consumption This dual model has several advantages for a country like India: industrial farming can be regulated more easily, can institutionalize scientific, minimalistic pesticide use. Farming in the industrialized west is a good example of that – most of which now employs IPM (integrated pest management). Simultaneously, the marginal farmers (either landowning or workers) – who make up 50% of our population – need to be encouraged by state policy to use ‘organic’ production systems, as techniques like IPM don’t work in situations which are not institutionally governed. Also, more and more empirical studies are
now concluding that productivity, in real terms, does not reduce with organic production, especially in small, family run farms. So, there is no conflict in achieving both food security and food safety. They can be both achieved, at least conceptually!

Just a few months back China was making international headlines for milk contamination. In India too due to rampant and mindless use of pesticide hundreds suffer from terminal diseases. Do we see ineffective media coverage to bring forth such issues to general public?

Perhaps the media has not taken enough interest in the issue or run campaigns on it. But there are several stakeholders in the food safety issue: the state (the regulator), pressure groups and members of the civil society (like Toxics Link), the farmers themselves, consumer groups, and of course, industry that has an interest in selling pesticides. All have a role to play in ensuring
safer food production. Media can do only so much – more importantly, we need good governance, research based policy, and a more participatory consumer.

Is the concept of seed bank getting popular in India? Can seed banks really bring about food sovereignty we are aspiring to have? Can small farmers get benefited by such movements?

Seed banks are a way to institutionalize seed exchange. Seed exchange, historically, happened more democratically and was part of the local culture. Those local practices have now disappeared, and now a number of grassroots organizations are trying to revive it in the form of seed banks. I can’t say if they are getting popular – the concept will work only if there is demand from farmers for indigenous seeds. Right now, this is very limited – most farmers are seeking hybrid seeds and as you know those seeds have no use for seed banks.

Biopiracy is a raging topic of concern for quite sometime and India has often been subject of discussion and debate so far as TRIPS agreement is concerned. What else as per you needs to be done to take control?

The whole debate about payment for ‘ecosystem services’ (that includes rights of communities over landraces) assumes that products of nature can be privately owned. This, to my mind, is a highly objectionable concept, and is an extreme form of commodification. So, I believe that no patents on nature should be allowed. If we start preventing some people to take away some genes that grow on our lands, then we are actually preventing exchange of ideas and experiments – something that has been happening for millennia without being called bio-piracy! Most of the food we eat today was brought from exotic places by our forefathers – should we be paying royalties to African and Latin American farmers for every kilogram of potato we eat?

It is often said that good governance is food governance. With the focus of all governments internationally fixed on issues of climate change do you think globally food safety is not a top priority?

Well, global issues have a way of changing their focus every few years. It was pollution in the 80s, followed by conservation in the 90s and now its climate change. These issues always reflect the concerns of the North: food safety too has had its share of global limelight with the mad cow disease and bird flu. At the moment, the North believes it has solved its food safety problems, so food safety is not a global governance issue.

Do we need have a relook at our traditional methods of irrigation to blur the line between food safety and security?

As I said before, we need to look at a number of factors – not just technological ones, but social and political too – if we are to address the food security and safety issues. Just reviving some traditional methods of irrigation will not by itself address these, though irrigation may be a very important factor.

Tell us some of your experience as a filmmaker in addressing this issue.

The biggest challenge of making “Apna Aloo Bazaar Becha” was in adapting the personal, social and ecological complexities of an agro-pastoral mountain community, to a popular medium like film, without over-simplifying the issues, and without losing viewer interest. When one lands up in a village, then pre-conceived categories like food security, livelihoods, globalization become meaningless words in the face of the real energies of people, processes and places…

(Pankaj H Gupta is also Visiting Fellow at Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Environment & Development (CISED) Bangalore)