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Mapping food insecurity

By Laxmi Murthy

The shift from a food deficient economy to a food surplus one has been cause for complacence in official circles. Yet, the absolute number of people living in impoverishment and the number of hungry and malnourished are on the rise

India 's foodgrain production has risen four-fold in the last 50 years, from 51 m tonnes in 1950 to 210 m tonnes in 2000. The present concern however is: how sustainable is the rise in food production levels. Intensive farming, degradation of natural resources and overexploitation of surface and groundwater have affected soil fertility and yields. The Atlas of Sustainability of Food Security in India , published by the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) and the World Food Programme (WFP), warns: "Depletion of natural resources will lead to loss of livelihood for millions and impede long-term food security."

This atlas is the third in a series, after The Food Insecurity Atlas of Rural India (2001) and The Food Insecurity Atlas of Urban India (2002).

While the atlas cautions against present intensive farming practices and calls for a "sustainable livelihood approach" which caters to the needs of people today without compromising the food security of future generations, it fixes a disproportionate blame on population growth. The atlas quotes I = PAT, an algebraic equation put forward in the 1970s by Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren that measures the impact of humans on the environment (I) as the product of the number of people (P), affluence/the amount of goods consumed per person (A), and the pollution generated by technology per good consumed (T).

This simplistic analysis fails to account for the complexities behind who among the monolithic P is responsible for what , and the how and why behind pollution -- such as the military, trade imbalances and debt, and the subordination of women. In India , consumption by the highest income group (1.44% of the population) of electricity, petroleum products and machine-based household appliances -- products that have environmental impact -- is about 75% of the total consumption of these commodities. It is the 'luxury' emissions of the rich that generate almost 90% of ozone-depleting fluorocarbons (CFCs) and two-thirds of carbon dioxide emissions, rather than the 'survival' emissions of the poor. The 'consumption explosion', however, with its disastrous implications appears to engender less fear in the public consciousness.

According to the atlas, while India has 2.4% of the world's geographical area, Indians constitute 16% of the world's population. With just 5% of the world's grazing area, India supports over 18% of the world's cattle population. In the last five decades, the area under agriculture has almost doubled while forest cover has reduced to less than half and large tracts of lands have been diverted towards urbanisation and human settlement.

While Punjab and Haryana may be doing well in terms of present food security, their extremely low forest cover and high percentage of net area sown (84 and 81%) is cause for worry as their land use pattern may not be sustainable.

The atlas highlights the fact that sustainability of agriculture is linked to the functionality of watersheds that are, in turn, preserved by healthy dense forests. Over half of India 's geographical area is susceptible to soil erosion and nearly 80% is drought-prone. While India has enough water for now, it will be unable to withstand future increases in demand.

While India has 22.5% of its land under forests, the atlas recommends at least 33% forest cover. Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra and West Bengal have forest cover below the all-India average. According to National Remote Sensing Agency (NRSA) data, forest cover increased from 63.92 m ha to 67.55 m ha in the '90s. However, it is unclear how much of this is dense monoculture, which is functionally inferior.

For tribal populations living in and around forests, livelihood security largely depends on the health of forest ecosystems that cater to their edible and non-edible needs. Ironically, forests, poverty and livelihood insecurity co-exist in the thickly forested areas of India . While 0.47 ha of forest per capita is ideal, India has a dismal 0.06 ha per capita.

The atlas warns that a shift to rice and wheat from coarse cereals and minor millets threatens sustainable food security in two ways. The mono-cultivation of paddy/wheat results in the depletion of organic content and micronutrients in the soil. Chemical fertilisers and other inputs are required to offset diminishing returns and achieve the same production levels. Also, coarse cereals have a higher nutritive value than rice and wheat and a decline in their intake (they are mostly consumed by the poor) means a decline in the quality of nutrition.

Alarmingly, the area under coarse cereals has fallen from 30% in 1960 to 16% in 2000. Moreover, only 12% of the area under coarse cereals enjoy irrigation facilities, as against 86% for wheat, 93% for sugarcane and 51% for rice. A shift from coarse cereals to rice and sugarcane, which consume more water, will quicken the process of desertification in semi-arid regions, the atlas cautions.

Higher levels of crop diversity contribute to a balance in utilisation of soil nutrients. It is also important to include leguminous crops in the cropping cycle as they replenish soil fertility through nitrogen fixation. The northeastern states, Punjab and Kerala are most unsustainable as they have less than 1.37% of their gross cropped area under legumes. Crop diversity is also likely to promote more rational water use and reduce production risks (crop failure due to pest attack, for instance).

The atlas warns that "several events taking place simultaneously are contributing to the unsustainability of the fisheries resources, both marine and inland". Referring to "indiscriminate" exploitation, the atlas says: "The advent of motorised boats has seen uncontrolled fishing even in shallow regions of the sea where they compete with smaller fishermen. The use of small meshed nets traps several juvenile and non-targeted species, and has rapidly depleted the fish population."

While some states show very little pressure on natural resources, and better livelihood access of the rural poor, there are others with large chunks of their population living below the poverty line and exerting excessive pressure on existing natural resources. Combined poverty was highest in Orissa (47%), followed by Bihar (43%). Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and most northeastern states show a combined poverty of 30-35%. States within single-digit poverty include Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab, Goa , Himachal Pradesh and Haryana. The all-India poverty rate is 26.10%. The atlas recommends providing non-farm employment to rural populations to relieve the pressure on natural resources. Significantly, it also calls for strict controls on commercial activities like mining, felling of trees, submerging of forests by dams, etc.

Describing the path of sustainable food production and sustainable livelihood access as an "evergreen revolution," the atlas predicts that states with a better natural resource base, such as the northeastern states, will be able to provide sustainable food production even though they may not be producing sufficient food at present. On the other hand, states like Punjab and Haryana, which are high on food production and low on sustainability, will need to change their cropping patterns and water utilisation to remain sustainable.

The Food Insecurity Atlas of Rural India , released in 2001, revealed that the Punjab-Haryana region, today India's 'bread basket', could lose its production potential within a few decades if current patterns of groundwater extraction and pollution, soil salinisation and rice and wheat monoculture persist. Yet, extensive and indiscriminate pesticide use, particularly in Punjab and Haryana, which has entered the foodchain causing life-threatening diseases and mutagenic distortions, has come in for little criticism. Nor is there any recommendation of alternatives to chemical pesticides and fertilisers.

Significantly, the atlas points out: "Globally, agriculture is being increasingly dominated by transnational corporations like Monsanto and Cargill, which are controlling markets through vertical and horizontal integration. It critiques the vested commercial interests that play a role in determining the use of natural resources, and goes on to say that "the private sector has not been able to provide the required production and other extension services to the farmers".

The atlas also points out that not enough attention has been given to women's concerns in government policies related to environment and livelihoods. Highlighting the fact that women's ownership and control over agricultural land is limited, the atlas declares: "Women's control and access to land holds the key to the procurement of other necessary resources like raw materials, and, most importantly, credit."

The problem of chronic food insecurity is primarily associated with poverty. Some 200 million people in India are still denied access to sufficient quantities of food. Hunger is not a result of shortage of food, but lack of economic access. The strategy to overcome this problem includes short-term interventions to raise the purchasing power of the poor through endowments of land and non-land assets, by generating employment opportunities and long-term growth-mediated interventions to improve food availability and raise incomes. Advocating the motto 'Think, plan and act locally, and support at the state and national levels', the atlas advocates a systems approach to the goal of a hunger-free India by 2007.

(Laxmi Murthy is a Delhi-based journalist)

(InfoChange News and Features, February 2004)