I would like to share with you all the interview I had with Devinder Sharma. According to the Huffington Post,
“Sharma is a distinguished food and trade policy analyst. An award-winning Indian journalist, writer, thinker, and researcher well-known and respected for his views on food and trade policy. Trained as an agricultural scientist (he holds a Master’s in Plant Breeding & Genetics), Sharma has been with the Indian Express, amongst the largest selling English language dailies in India. And then quit active journalism to research on policy issues concerning sustainable agriculture, biodiversity and intellectual property rights, environment and development, food security and poverty, biotechnology and hunger, and the implications of the free trade paradigm for developing countries.
In his own unique way, he analyses the international developments with local interpretation. Many regard him as singularly responsible for deciphering the complex global treaties and agreements and what it means for the developing countries in a simple and understandable manner.”
He keeps a fantastic blog called Ground Reality (http://devinder-sharma.blogspot.com/) about the politics and economics of agriculture and hunger, usually within an Indian context. He’s a prolific writer, extremely articulate and intelligent, and it was another celebrity moment for me in India. I tried to meet Devinder in Punjab, as he is currently based in the capital city of Chandigarh, but unfortunately, we missed each other. He was nice enough, however, to give me almost an hour of his personal time on a Saturday morning for a Skype interview :D Below is a transcript with my own emphasis added.
Can you tell me about the role of the government in farming and food security in India?
Devinder Sharma: “The government has the responsibility to ensure a) food self-sufficiency to the country; b) food-security at the household level; and c) to ensure that the agriculture is sustainable and economically viable.”
Do you think the government has been successful given the inherent paradox of a large percentage of India’s population still being hungry alongside rotting stockpiles?
Devinder Sharma: “That’s what democracy is all about – you shouldn’t see hungry people in democracies. Democracy is all over the world, not just in India, and there are still hunger problems. Hunger is not a priority of democracy; if you look globally, how should it be going with such high level of wastage? E.g. in America, which champions itself as a democracy but there are still hungry people and why should China see diminishing hunger as a socialist country? It really shows that there is something wrong with the way we have been placing democracy as the answer. China followed by Vietnam are both not democracies but hunger is reduced here. Something wrong with the design and performance of democracy.”
What do you think about the National Food Security Act of 2013? According to some, “India has become the first nation in the world to make access to food a legal right” in which self-reliance and food self-sufficiency has allowed for sovereignty and also power in foreign policy for India.
Devinder Sharma: “The Food Security Act is most stupid. After 66 years of independence, we have brought in nothing different from what we could have done in the very first year after independence. I think we have refugee sentiment. Whenever they come in, you feed them the essentials. It’s okay to give 5 kilos to the poor or 7 kilos to the ultra-poor but how long can they go on giving this? If you want to feed a man for a day, give him a fish; if you want to feed a man for a lifetime, teach him how to fish. I am appalled at the lack of common sense; the failure of the national advisory council to the government that first started this idiotic bill. And even civil society has done a shoddy job. This is not a way to end hunger.”
Should India continue to amass stockpiles of food or improve waste management and distribution?
Devinder Sharma: “This is one thing that should have been a hallmark of the Food Security Bill. Household food security needs. The bill should have cut across different sectors to draw out a bigger picture that would have involved the other framework. For one time, we could have set the house in order. But that failed miserably, so we will have to continue with the same model we’ve dealt with. Instead, if we had a bill designed to prioritize local, sustainable production that is also economically viable (e.g. local procurement). We have around 650,000 villages in this country and 550,000 villages produce food on average – why is it that people can live in hunger in these same villages that produce surplus? Why can’t we address the hunger issue at the village, block/cluster, or district levels? This should have been taken care of and is linked with many other policies (e.g. international trade policies) – if you lower your duties to almost 0%, then cheap imports keep coming in and farmers are driven out of agriculture. Then food security becomes another problem. So I think what should have been done: international trade policies, science and technology policy, water resources policy, rural development policy, etc. because agriculture (a combined program or act) should reflect all of these. The other issue is that India should keep on stockpiling food, but it is very unfortunate that they are not distributing food to the poor people. The difference between America and India is that America also produces a lot of food but first feeds its own population (350 million people) and its cats and dogs (168 million). And after, food is made available for export. In India, it’s the opposite, we don’t feed the population, what we collect is basically hunger surplus, which is stockpiled and exported, a completely wrong policy.”
Should agriculture become larger scale? Are small farms less productive, impractical for mechanization, etc.? Should we have fewer farmers with larger land holdings (easier to mechanize) and capital/resource intensive (large loans, fossil fuels) agriculture?
Devinder Sharma: “This is the modern economic thinking taught by textbooks. The tragedy is that if you look at India (1.25 billion people) and I remember in 1996, I was attending a conference at the Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai and the Vice President was affiliated with the World Bank and the CGIAR, which made the statement that “the number of people that the World Bank estimates will be migrating to urban areas from rural areas by 2005 would be equal to twice the combined population of England, France and Germany (200 million).” It was estimated that 400 million Indians would be migrating to cities. This wasn’t a warning, the World Bank was actually telling us to do this. If you read the 2008 World Development Report, it says we have to hasten the migration process and transform into land rental scheme since small farmers are unproductive. Farmers should be trained as industrial workers. In the next budget, I found that the last minister had free education for training institutes across the country. So it’s clear that we have been following the suggestions of the World Bank. Many people say that modern economics lacks common sense – if 400 million people (more than the whole population of the US) is to move towards urban areas, is this a sound model of development? The cities are collapsing, urbanization is both a push and pull effect (pushing farmers out of agriculture as large-estate farmers replace small). I don’t understand how economists say this is the answer to the crisis – there is something really wrong with economic and politics. I find American economists arguing with me that the U.S. and EU did it like this, thus, so should India. And then if you look at China, if China was such a wonderful model, look at the land rights and acts: 250 bloody protests happening and populations exploding in urban areas. And China is the biggest land grabber in the world and bringing resources back to feed their population. This model of growth is totally nonsensical.”
Can you tell me about the role and inherent paradox of mechanization in agricultural development? I.e. Mechanization is paradoxical because it both displaces small farmers (adding to unemployment in the cities) and also has the potential to reduce drudgery of agriculture, incentivizing youth to farm. Appropriate versus modern technology. Should widespread mechanization be implemented and if so, how? E.g. private companies or leasing agencies that contract/hire out machines?
Devinder Sharma: “If you leave mechanization to the corporations, they will destroy farming as well as urban areas because they want to make more profits and see crop prices go up; they’re not concerned with what happens to farmers. Tractor companies have to show rates of growth, otherwise they get the boot. Let’s not use this argument to support what you are saying. I don’t think mechanization is the solution to what you are proposing. If you leave a society on its own, it will never happen. But the society and governance. Mechanization has its role but let’s look at Punjab – when it introduced machines during the Green Revolution, 30 HP tractors came into Punjab, which came in a package with subsidies, credit, inputs etc. I remember that images of Punjabi farmers with turbans on tractors became a symbol of progress. But today, that symbol of progress (tractor) has become a symbol of suicide – a tractor needs 10 acres but the average is 2-3 acres, so it is a curse on farmers – they are drawn in by media and still want to go into tractors. In the 1980s, I was in Cambodia and I remember that the farmers had huge Russian tractors and I came back and wrote that it needs is smaller tractors like India. But today, smaller tractors can be found in Cambodia and now in Punjab 90-95 HP tractors in Punjab. Tractor companies are pushing this. The role of the civil society, government, etc. come in to tell us that this is not the right model. So what we require is companies that rent out machines. Now machines are subsidized by the government but there are still expenses. He employs 80 drivers that are driving tractors, combines etc. – why can’t we have this kind of system for every farmer? Mechanization can be the answer to help farmers make agriculture more profitable, viable, cooperative etc. but not in the current debate. These initiatives are not being pushed, but this could make the sale of tractors come down.”
What do you think about the role of agricultural cooperatives (e.g. for access to inputs, credit, shared labor/inputs, and marketing) in Indian farming?
Devinder Sharma: “It’s all there and we know they can play a role. Cooperatives could do the same job [as the private hire companies] but the corporate/capitalistic model discourages cooperatives and instead promotes private enterprise. So I don’t think they will thrive because the government and MNCs are killing cooperatives. Even the dairy coop in Gujarat is suffering. Why can’t we encourage our own entrepreneurs come up alone like in Fazula in Punjab?
So do you think that increased private capital and entrepreneurship are a solution?
Devinder Sharma: “It is not a solution but these are the options available so we must adopt whatever is good for us. We cannot go blindly forward, especially in Punjab where every second household has a tractor. We could call these cooperatives as an enterprise to encourage youth (expensive machines could be shared rather than bought by each and every one) – so you have to draw your own strategies and map for this, rather than going by what the industry says.”
Do you think that post-harvest processing and value addition will be able to help farmers overcome poverty?
Devinder Sharma: “Value addition and post-harvest processing – I don’t think this can work or help the farmers to overcome poverty. Those who are into value addition will make profit. If you look at this globally: there are two kinds of agriculture – the kind of existed in developed countries (highly subsidized and mechanized and productive) – if productivity was actually a sign of economic growth, then I don’t think there would be much need for the subsidies. The high productivity in Europe in America – this model is completely uneconomical, which is why the governments are providing direct income subsidy support. Other model is that which exists in India – subsistence farming. On one hand you have subsistence and the other is subsidized. And have the farmers benefited from value addition in the West? No. Subsidies in America – studies show that if you remove these, agriculture collapses. Value addition only benefits middle men that make the money and farmers will stay poor. [But what about cooperatives doing value addition themselves and direct self-marketing, eliminating the middle men?] This cannot happen at a large-scale, maybe a farmer here and there. It has no happened in EU where farmers are more alert, resourceful, educated, etc., so it is unlikely to happen in India.”
There are farmers in Punjab who want to diversify and shift to organic, integrated farming, but claim it’s not viable because of a lack of assured markets and lower yields. So they feel that they’re not in a position to farm organically. How do we overcome these limitations?
Devinder Sharma: “I don’t think marketing is important here. Policy is important. We must understand that the Green Revolution wouldn’t have succeeded if the government had not supported farmers with subsidies and marketing (e.g. seed, machines, fertilizer, pesticides), the GR would have collapsed. Again these things always come with a package, which has been developed with Minimum Support Price (MSP) and assured markets to cope with excess harvest (government produces surplus so there is no glut in market) – then highly subsidized technology (e.g. fertilizer, so it’s cheaper than organic systems and encourages chemical farming). With this model (dependent on subsidies) – how do you compare a non-subsidized model (natural)? Subsidies need to be provided to encourage organic farming (not just doling out money, but designing policies so that there is a booster given to farmers) – needs to be a shift to organic and this is the state’s job, but the state isn’t doing it because the corporations don’t want this (and whatever the corporations want happens); e.g. rice and wheat in Punjab – government has been told to give MSP to farmers (e.g. rice, wheat and maize). Why can’t we support organic producers with MSP, which would give a boost to organic farmers? There needs to be the right kind of policies.”
Do you think the Minimum Support Price structure is sustainable? Farmers are claiming that the MSP is too low and that they need higher prices, whereas others claim that the MSP is too high and is driving up the cost of food, making it too expensive for consumers.
Devinder Sharma: “Some years back when Norman Bourlaug was alive, I would travel with him because I was a journalist with The Indian Express. He told me a story, which I wrote about. An anecdote about investigating whether a man in Poland deserved the Nobel Peace Prize – Bourlaug found out that this man was asking for cheaper food for the workers but he wasn’t talking about what would happen to the millions of food producers – so how do you expect farmers to survive if consumers want cheap food? So Bourlaug said that he didn’t deserve the prize. So what the economists today are telling us is that if they are giving farmers a higher price for their produce (so consumers get higher price too), so the state should go market friendly with agriculture prices – in this chart, states like Bihar, Uttarakhand and eastern Uttar Pradesh are high – getting more money than farmers in Punjab and states at the bottom of the chart: market economy depends on exploiting the farmers. Farmer is also a consumer. If farmers don’t earn anything, what do you expect them to consume? Commission agents and middle men need to be totally removed. Direct income support to farmers is much better – India should provide an assured monthly income to farmers based on their yield and the area/location of the farm. Each state should work out the average income for a farmer monthly. The average income of a farming family (5 people) is Rs 2,115 per month ($36) – below the poverty line. Government is Rs 15,000 ($250). So young people don’t want to go into farming. So farming needs to become as respectable as government jobs. India has a lot of money and involves corporations, so we definitely have the money. If 60% of the population (farmers) had this money in their hands, this would boost the economy. Why don’t we pump money into this sector instead of depriving it and pushing farmers out of agriculture in urban areas? This is completely flawed thinking.”
So do you think that subsistence agriculture is preferable over commercial production?
Devinder Sharma: “No, I’m not saying subsistence, but why can’t we make this subsistence agriculture economically viable? Because policy deliberately keeps the agriculture sector starved of money. 2/3 of the population of India relies on agricultural sector. Farmers should not be forced to stay in subsistence position; they should make just as much as government. Then there will be migration back to the countryside.”
In an ideal world, if the government was supporting natural farming in the same way as chemical agriculture, how do we scale up organic farming? (e.g. overcoming issues of insufficient volumes of manure, labor intensive, decreased yield etc.)
Devinder Sharma: “All of these things can be worked out if the intention is there. We just need to understand the prices of India and what particular sectors we need to focus on. The moment you focus on organic, these problems will disappear and become high yielding (number of studies show that organic systems are more productive) – so this will all happen because the effort will be in sustainable, not chemical breeding. Trying to involve high yielding varieties – should shift focus to organic breeding in relation to organic conditions/inputs. We just need a shift in policy focus.”
Do you think that this would necessitate a better organic certification or labeling system?
Devinder Sharma: “I’m not at all for organic certification – this is only what the west wants and I don’t give a damn about western consumers. We need to bring about a lifestyle change. The labeling should be “Chemical” and the rest should be organic (default). Labeling would add on to the cost of organic production.”
Post –harvest processing may not be the best route to take, but it may have the potential to address the issue of 30-40% of food on Earth being wasted. What do you think?
Devinder Sharma: “I don’t think so. In India, people are saying that 40% of fruits and vegetables rot. But I disagree; on what studies are you basing this? We went on saying this again and again but the fact is that we have a study done by the Central Institute For Post-Harvest Technology based in Punjab, which shows that wastage in agriculture (e.g. in cereals is less than 6% and in the highest in vegetables is tomatoes in 20%; guava is around 24%) – this shows that wastage is much less, even when no processing. In America, with processing – waste is 40-50% less. If after processing, there is still wastage, what is the point? Both are not correlated. Post-harvest processing should not be associated with reducing waste. Processing is also harmful for human health. If America had gone into reducing dependence on processed foods and instead focused on raw foods – sickest population – we should not follow this model. Why do we always follow the systems that have been promoted by Western countries? I am not defending wastage, it should not happen, but we need to go to the grassroots level and see the reality. E.g. if you go to an Indian marriage, you find that leftovers are all consumed by dogs and birds – there isn’t much wastage. Yes, processing has a role, but to process everything with no need for it is flawed.”
Regarding seeds, which do you think is better: traditional seed, open pollinated varieties, hybrid, GMOs etc.? Some people truly believe that GMOs are the future for their ability to be high yielding, resist pests and disease, and feed the world’s growing population in the context of climate change.
Devinder Sharma: “I have been answering this question at various platforms across the globe and in India. Those people who support GMOs are basically being supported by institutions and universities funded by MNCs and state. In 2012, according to the USDA, the total production of food globally is enough to feed 14 billion people (currently population is 7.2 billion, so we are producing food for 2x the population) – if we reduce wastage (which is now estimated at 40%), we could meet the food requirements until the next half century (9 billion by 2050). We produce food for next century now, so why do we need to raise food production? People have to shift the focus to reducing food loss but not through just marketing and value addition. There is no GM crop in the world, after ~25 years research, which increases production – so it’s a myth. So if you speak a lie 100 times, it becomes a truth. MNCs are going on lying and lying and scientists today are no different from politicians. Scientists are much more dangerous than politicians are, propped up by the GM industry through all these years. Politicians have to respond to society through reelection but scientists are salaried by MNCs and GM industry etc. – so who is advocating for the farmer? I don’t blame the politicians. This is where the monopolization of seed is coming from with technology. I once sat on a CGIAR board for intellectual property rights, and I know what has been going on here. We want to institute stricter intellectual property right laws and need to go back to seed so that it is not controlled by a few seed companies (those who control seed control entire food chain). Fortunately, in India, we are very slowly being taken over, compared to other countries, which have been taken over in a much smaller way (e.g. Colombia demanded that farmers destroy their saved seeds). Luckily, we [India] have been able to resist pressure of WTO. Seed is still an emotive and sentimental issue in India. Gradually it is coming in and I think it will take many years for I the complete take over of the Indian seed industry. Seed Satyagraha takes place and this could empower other people to stand up, but my worry is that by this time, the traditional seed will have have been destroyed. For a country like India, there is a need to preserve and conserve and at the same time utilize traditional seeds where possible.”
I agree with you that issues of productivity and yield should not be the focus because we produce enough food for everyone, but having conversations with farmers, it is very difficult for them to change their mentality since higher productivity will give them more profit. There is a large disconnect, so how do we reconcile this within the farming population?
Devinder Sharma: “So far the entire propaganda is on increase of productivity, so the farmer will buy into this. So if there was a policy shift that provided a Minimum Support Price that concerns not just productivity/yield but also environmental benefits and to the society and human health at large, then the focus would shift. Propaganda needs to shift from productivity to the other side. Let me give you one example: before dwarf, short duration wheat varieties, the traditional/normal wheat varieties did not have high yield but had high nutrition (e.g. minerals). What happened then, cross breeding led to increased yield but nutrition went down in an inverse relationship (a 30-40% drop in nutrition). The one particular trace mineral in the wheat variety was copper and the drop was 80% (very significant, rather than 40-50% in other minerals). If you map today the growth of the cholesterol problem in the world and map the consumption of high yielding varieties after the Green Revolution you find a correlation. Because there was a higher copper content in traditional varieties, the cholesterol problem was much less. But now copper has almost disappeared and the cholesterol problem has boomed. The point I’m trying to make is that, copper plays a role in cholesterol control and tomorrow, if we tell farmers that lifestyle diseases are so common that they need to shift wheat varieties, even if yield is not high but the nutrition will be higher and fix cholesterol problem, they will move towards traditional varieties. This is what we need to sell, and there will be a shift in productivity with government support and propaganda. There are hundreds of such examples; we need to move away from productivity jargon because there is no need to produce that much, as we all know that we grow food for 13.5 billion people (2x population). We could have a number of such examples, but we need a good leader or a sensible statesman to set the house in order.”