'India should lead the campaign against farm subsidies in the West'

Published : Jan 03, 2003 00:00 IST

Interview with Dr. Joseph Hulse.

"With an increasing urban population that has to be fed and fewer people on land producing food, India faces a problem. The solution lies in helping farmers get out of subsistence farming into producing crops that they can sell and that can be processed locally. This would take care of the whole food chain from producing and processing to marketing and consuming," says Dr. Joseph H. Hulse, food technology and development expert and president, Siemen-Hulse International Development Associates, Ottawa, Canada.

A former vice-president of the International Development Research Centre in Canada and a visiting professor at the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai and at the International Food Training Centre of the Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI), Mysore, Dr. Hulse has over the past five decades helped set up research and development systems in the food industry in the corporate, private and public sectors all over the world. A former Assistant Director-General of the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), Dr. Hulse helped establish the advanced training facility at the CFTRI. He is associated with several international scientific institutions and research projects such as the International Union of Scientific Unions (president), Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (founding member) and the World Food Prize.

Dr. Hulse had been an adviser to the U.N. Secretary-General on the state of global nutrition. He has authored several books on nutrition and food security.

In an interview to Asha Krishnakumar in Chennai, Dr. Hulse spoke on the major issues concerning India's food security, the constraints faced by developing countries' agriculture in participating in international trade and the impact of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on food security systems.


What is the state of food security in India? What are the major issues that have to be dealt with while dealing with food security?

There are some serious issues that have a profound impact on India's long-term food security, but they are not fully recognised. About 30 years ago, in most developing countries, particularly of Africa and Asia, 80 per cent of the population was rural mostly subsistence farmers. Today, the urban population in Africa is rising by 4.5 per cent a year and in Asia by 3.5 per cent. India already has four cities with over 10 million inhabitants. The U.N. Population Council forecasts that India's urban population of 255 million will go up to 650 million in the next 15 years.

Further, a great deal of farmland is lost owing to urban spread, various forms of erosion, salination, contamination and over-cultivation. India has lost a substantial area of arable land. You are going to have a large urban population, which is not going to produce food but has to be fed. There is going to be fewer people on the land, producing food.

Also, with increasing urban population density, it is going to take longer for food to reach the urban areas. In India, reliable government statistics indicate that 30 per cent of fruits and vegetables are lost after harvest. That is, for every 10 per cent rise in urban population, there is a need to increase the production of fruits and vegetables by 15 per cent.

India has done remarkably well on several farm fronts. The grain harvest is 10 times higher than what it was in 1962, when I first came to India. But the basic issue is of feeding more people with fewer people producing food. The rate of increase of grain harvest is also falling.

Farm subsidies given in the United States, the European Union and Japan are enormous though developed countries push developing countries to reduce farm subsidies. They also have protective tariffs, which they want removed for their products in developing countries. In this unequal world, how do developing countries benefit from international trade?

Agricultural exports are hampered severely by the huge subsidies paid to agriculture in the U.S., the countries of the E.U. and Japan. Between the three of them they spend over $300 billion a year on subsidies $150 million in the E.U., $60 billion in the U.S. and the rest in Japan. This means that they are dumping grain by selling at prices far below the cost of production. This is exceedingly selfish and unfair to developing countries.

Is there any fair forum where this unfair international competition in agriculture can be represented by developing countries?

The only way for countries such as India to fight it is to join the Cairns Group, in which some 17 countries, including Australia and Canada, are members. All developing and emerging nations that are suffering owing to the excessive subsidies given by the U.S., the E.U. and Japan, have to join the Cairns Group and make a lot of noise internationally. India is a very influential country, being the world's largest democracy. India is the ideal country to lead Asia and Africa in a concerted campaign against the subsidies given to agriculture by the U.S., the E.U. and Japan. They will have the support of Australia, Canada and a number of other countries, including some wealthier ones.

I would like India to take a much more active role in opposing this at every opportunity it gets at the United Nations and so on. It should let the world know the iniquitous nature of subsidies and the damage they are doing. For example, the U.S. delivers maize to African countries at $30 a tonne lower than the cost at which it produces it. This is a clear case of dumping and has to be stopped. When Americans put tariffs on steel to protect themselves from dumping, why cannot other countries do it in agriculture?

In the 1960s, there was a movement to help the poor countries. We set a standard of 0.7 per cent of GNP (Gross National Product) to be set aside to help developing countries. That has fallen by the wayside. Now the U.S. spends less than 0.2 per cent of GNP to help the poor countries, most of it as armaments to their favourite allies.

There is a two-way problem of falling supply and inadequate demand. While the rate of rise in the grain harvest is declining, the recent government policies of liberlisation and structural adjustments are leading to a fall in jobs and incomes and, consequently, demand. How do you think India can address this dual problem?

There are no easy solutions. But one important development is the setting up of the Indian Association of Agribusiness Development with which Dr. M.S. Swaminathan and I have been involved from the beginning. Its purpose is to bring a much more coordinated and integrated programme of delivering food safely from the rural areas to the processing industry and into the urban markets.

The processing industry needs to be developed as, according to statistics, more and more Indians buy processed foods. The rupee value of processed foods in India has increased over a thousand times in 40 years. But, except in the dairy industry, in all other farm sectors there is a huge gap between the rural producer and the processing industry. This has to change. Most Indian farmers still think in terms of subsistence farming. I cannot think of a farmer who would want to be a cash farmer as they need money for several other thins marriages, clothes, and to improve the standard of living.

There are enormous opportunities to increase the supply of food for the processing industry and to start primary processing units in the rural areas. Mobile primary processing units of fruits and vegetables in the rural areas can cut market losses by over 20 per cent before it reaches the final processing units. This can be done with several other products. It would be good for rural development, serve to ensure food security and provide employment to a huge section of the rural population, which is right now jobless for various reasons.

What is the role of the government in this?

The government must give priority to establishing small industries in the rural areas. All crops are perishable, particularly fruits, vegetables, fish, meat and livestock products. If you apply preservation process soon after harvest, losses can be reduced. And, therefore, I suggest that simple, inexpensive preservation systems be developed.

I believe that the establishment of small rural industries, self-contained with their own power and under contract or in a close, defined relation with the larger processors by which they can deliver more reliable raw materials to the large processors, would benefit the large processors, the rural industry and the public at large. This, I believe, would be the answer for providing food security in the future.

Is the opposition to genetically modified organisms justified? What does it mean to the food security of developing countries?

Farm science experts who met recently in Brazil felt that the African, Asian and Latin American countries need to make use of every opportunity to increase crop production. And if that included genetically modified organisms, that had to be. The GMOs got off to an unfortunate start in Asia when some international scientists developed rice that transferred resistance genes from some of the 22 wild species into one or two edible species. When you introduce pest resistance you change the biochemistry by introducing substances that were not there before. Those substances are either repellent or toxic to particular pests. If they are toxic to the pests, what do they do to the human being? We have sufficient scientific capability to know that the substances are and at what level of intake they are safe.

Rice, which provides 70 to 80 per cent of the calories of most Asians, must have been the first crop the scientists should have been very sure about. Producing spices and hormones for medicines from GMOs is done under strict laboratory control. The WHO and some other organisations have developed protocols by which by you determine if the GMOs or genetically modified (GM) crops are safe.

Most of the objection to GM crops is because of the fear of the unknown. You may let out into the environment or into the food chain toxic substances about which you cannot do anything later. Also, a technology like `Terminator' can sound the death-knell of poor farmers in developing countries. We also know about the tract record of some of the multinational corporations (MNCs) that market the GMOs. Do you not perceive a real risk here that justifies all objections?

Interestingly, objections have been raised mostly by the Europeans and the North Americans, whose lives are not at risk. We do not need GMOs in North America, except that companies such as Monsanto need to make money. It is unfortunate that such companies dived in and did all the wrong things such as developing herbicide resistance. The problem about herbicide resistance now is that the pollen from the plants has blown out into farms it should not have. That is unfortunate.

However, I do believe that GMOs can be beneficial. Given the scarcity of land, if you induce into the rice crop, for instance, genes from salt-tolerant plants such as mangroves, you can grow rice in areas where it would not grow now. Two hundred million people in India suffer from blindness or some other eye impairment because of Vitamin A deficiency. But if you can induce Vitamin A precursor into rice, you can improve the amino acid balance in cereals. GMOs are bringing about immense improvement in medicine. Genetically modified micro-organisms, insect cells and viral cells can produce new diagnostics and therapeutics that can be extremely valuable.

Genetic modification, like any other scientific development, has to be applied where it will produce a real benefit. To damn all genetic modifications is as silly as saying that there should be no plant breeding or science. Certainly, every form of advance brings with it certain risks. But risk assessment and control are the basis of good science. India has more PhDs than Canada has people. India is not short of competent scientists. You have the means to use GMOs safely for the benefit of the people.

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