For a world free of hunger

Published : Aug 04, 2001 00:00 IST

An Asia-Pacific Consultation in Chennai comes out with a 10-point scientific and public policy agenda on eliminating hunger.

IN 1974, the World Food Conference in Rome resolved that by 1984 "no child, woman or man should go to bed hungry and no human being's physical or mental potential should be stunted by malnutrition." Twenty-two years later, and 12 years after the deadline, the World Food Summit was convened again in Rome in 1996 and it reaffirmed "the fundamental right of every human to be free from hunger." But at that point in time over 700 million people the world over were going to bed hungry, 800 million suffered from chronic under-nutrition in the less developed countries and 200 million children under the age of five were suffering from malnutrition in the 88 low-income countries. So it diluted the goal set in 1974 and set a less ambitious goal of halving the number of undernourished people by 2015. Five years have passed and hardly any progress has been made towards solving the problem. As against the required quantum of reduction of 200 million every year if the 1996 goal of halving the number of malnourished people is to be met, the decline has been hardly of the order of 8 million.

In order to review the situation and to reset targets, heads and Ministers of governments are to meet again in Rome, in November this year. To assess the progress in achieving the goals set during the 1996 World Food Summit and to work out a strategy to provide sustainable food security and nutritional adequacy to the poor, the Chennai-based M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) organised a four-day Asia-Pacific Consultation in June. The consultation came out with a document, the Chennai Declaration, which, with its 10-point scientific and public policy agenda, should constitute an important input for the Rome meeting.

Food stocks are piling up in India, and yet the country remains home to a fourth of the world's poor and hungry - 208 million undernourished and 250 million poor people. In the light of this paradoxical situation, the participants discussed the issue of access to foodgrains for the poor.

While matching the demand for grain with supply is a major issue in Asia, and India in particular, the participants felt that sustaining foodgrain supply itself is emerging as a critical issue. The task has become especially daunting in Asia, which has 57 per cent of the world's population and only 33 per cent of the world's arable land. With the available arable land itself shrinking rapidly and reaching the limits of its carrying capacity, the continent in general, and India in particular, is on the verge of a serious crisis. The reason for this is the over-exploitation of natural resources, which has led to the degradation of land, deforestation, water depletion and contamination, and loss of biodiversity - that is, a major drain on the resource base. The picture is made more dismal by the looming threats of global warming and climate change, which will impact particularly severely on farm productivity and production.

In this context, the solution may lie with science, or specifically farm research. Important areas are biotechnology, integrated natural resource management and effective linkages among research, extension and market. But a link between science and policy formulation, particularly in the context of globalisation and liberalisation, is crucial. Some key policy areas that need immediate attention are sanitary and phytosanitary regulations, food quality and safety standards, intellectual property and farmers' rights, regulation of biotechnology and its products, and the management of marine exclusive economic zones.

The Chennai Declaration's 10-point programme which provides a framework for scientific policy-making to reduce hunger and poverty and also a basis for discussion at the coming World Trade Agreement on Agriculture at Doha in November are:

* Shifting from a commodity-centred approach, the basis of the Green Revolution of the 1960s, to a farming systems-based approach built on the foundation of integrated natural resource management to produce more from every unit of water, land and other inputs on a sustainable basis.

* Stressing environmentally sustainable technologies by blending traditional wisdom and practices with frontier science. Not only quantity but quality should be a crucial factor in designing and popularising technologies. Improving post-harvest technologies would go a long way in improving quality, which is particularly relevant with the removal of quantitative restrictions (Q.Rs) on imports. According to Dr. Suman Sahai of the Gene Campaign, the Codex Alimentarius food standards, to promote food safety, is tending to become a mechanism to impose protectionist measures in foreign trade, particularly in discriminating against food imports from developing countries. This trend, the participants of the Consultation felt, should be opposed by developing countries at Doha.

* The Asia-Pacific region is characterised by small farm holdings. The per capita availability of arable land and irrigation water is diminishing rapidly with intensive cultivation and increased biotic and abiotic stresses. In order to combat the problems associated with the scale of production and input-use, the Chennai Declaration recommends cooperative farming with stress on agri-clinics (to provide services such as soil health-care, water conservation and integrated nutrient management and to disseminate principles of eco- and precision-farming) and agribusiness (to provide at the farmgate value adding processes and marketing services).

* Widening the narrow food security basket to include local cereals, millets, grain legumes, tubercrops and vegetables could be an effective strategy to combat hunger. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the Chennai Declaration insists, should classify millets as 'nutritious cereals' instead of 'coarse cereals' and should increase the economic stake in the conservation and cultivation of such crops.

* The case for the rights of conservers of agrobiodiversity and holders of traditional knowledge should be highlighted. This should be recognised both in accordance with the Global Convention on Biological Diversity and the FAO's revised International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources. Hence, agrobiodiversity-rich developing countries should build a case for the FAO adopting a universal declaration on 'Plant Genome and Farmers' Rights' on the lines of UNESCO's Human Genome and Human Rights. A fair and transparent reward and recognition system should be introduced.

* Reaching the unreached and including the excluded in terms of technology dissemination is important. Modern biotechnological innovations such as vermiculture, biopesticide, bioindicators and bioremediation agents provide uncommon opportunities to enhance productivity, profitability and sustainability of farming systems. International organisations such as the FAO and the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) should be forced to take the benefits of functional genomics, proteomics, DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) microchips and microarrays, as well as the advantages of modern information and communication technologies to the rural poor.

* Synergy between technology and public policy is crucial if the benefits of innovations in science are to reach everyone. In this context, every country should establish an empowered National Commission on Food and Livelihood Security.

* Food security is best defined in terms of million person years of jobs rather than in million tonnes of grain. Unfortunately, the World Trade Agreement on Agriculture could destroy livelihood opportunities in poor countries as it is designed to favour 'factory farming' and not 'farmer farming'. Therefore, the FAO should introduce a 'Livelihood Security Box' in the revised Agreement on Agriculture. To retain, and attract, farmers in agriculture, it is important for governments to work out strategies to provide assured and remunerative marketing of their produce.

* Climate change has serious implications for food and livelihood security, particularly in the tropical and sub-tropical regions. For instance, a recent study by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) shows that a one-degree-Celsius rise in temperature reduces the duration of a wheat crop by a week and yields by 500-600 kg a hectare. International organisations such as the FAO should convince the industrialised countries, which are responsible for over 80 per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions leading to global warming, to take actions that would mitigate the effect it has on poor countries.

Said Dr. M.S. Swaminathan: "So far, the Agreement on Agriculture has been adverse to poor nations, their people in particular. It is important for less developed countries to articulate their position unanimously at the Doha meeting." According to Kerala State Planning Commission member Dr. K.N.N.S. Nair, the real failure is that we have not used properly the opportunity provided during earlier WTA negotiations. This needs to be rectified.

N. Ram, Editor, Frontline, said during a media workshop on "Impact of the World Trade Agreement on Agriculture in India": "Lack of preparedness by the less developed countries and India, in particular, has accentuated the unequal global trade bargain between the developed and less developed countries." He said there was a need for the less developed countries to campaign for the inclusion of a "Livelihood Box", an exemption like the "Blue Box" and the "Green Box" introduced by developed countries in the Agreement on Agriculture.

According to Suman Sahai, it is important for countries such as India to introduce special safeguard mechanisms as an alternative to Q.Rs. The developed countries, which already have high levels of farm subsidies, have introduced safeguards into agriculture and food security and are restricting the entry of farm products into their countries by resorting to non-transparent technical barriers. India should, therefore, get into the standard- setting process at the WTA discussion at Doha, Suman Sahai said.

The developed countries have an obligation to help the less developed countries with both funds and technology. Most of the centres of origin of the 30 crops that provide humans 95 per cent of the dietary energy and proteins are in the less developed countries. Another aspect is the inequitable pattern of economic growth and the unsustainable pattern of consumption, which impact on access to food. Developed countries, which account for less than 25 per cent of the world's population, consume 80 per cent of the resources. Unless these disparities are narrowed, if not removed, there cannot be sustained development. In the context of globalisation and the opening up of the farm sector, the inequities between the developed and less developed countries are increasingly being used by the former in farm trade. If, as former U.S. President Bill Clinton said, "trade and not aid is important in poverty alleviation", then economic inequity becomes a crucial issue. The basic inequities in the system has to be narrowed and there should be a serious indictment of the developed countries for using various means, such as food standards and sanitary and phytosanitary measures, to restrict imports from developing countries.

According to Dr. Swaminathan, India has a unique opportunity to achieve the World Food Summit's goal of freedom from endemic, hidden and transient hunger by utilising the 60 million tonnes of grain stockpiled in government godowns. A World Bank report states that half the stock with the Food Corporation of India (FCI) is at least two years old, 30 per cent up to four years old and the rest, about 16 years old. This calls for immediate disbursal of grain to achieve the twin goals of preventing its wastage and feeding the millions who do not have access to food.

The Chennai Declaration suggests a decentralised community grain banking system, which would ensure local-level food security. The structure of the grain bank, which would involve all irrespective of religion, caste, age and gender, can be as follows:

Every village or a cluster with a population of 2,000 to 5,000 can set up a community grain bank. This can function under the overall guidance of a society or a council, which would have as its members three groups of people - the entitlement group that benefits from government schemes such as the targeted public distribution system, the Integrated Community Development Scheme, and so on; the ecology group, which would consist of those desirous of joining the food-for-work programme; and the ethics group - including pregnant and nursing mothers, infants and children and the old and the infirm - which is entitled to free access to foodgrains. All the three groups can be managed by self-help groups, supported by revolving food stocks including grain from the local areas. This, the participants at the Consultation felt, would have low transaction costs and also be self-perpetuating. It recommends that the Central government allocate five million tonnes of foodgrains for this.

While most of these issues and solutions have been discussed at various international conventions, there has been no political will to implement them. All the ills of India's farm sector are conveniently attributed to the inherent biases in the World Trade Agreement on Agriculture and the unfair practices of developed countries, but the government cannot shrug off its responsibility. Ultimately, the success of the Food Summit will depend to a large extent on the political commitment of the governments of the participating countries.

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