By arguing that GM crops are essential to food security, the Government seeks to conceal the underlying reality.

The recent affidavit filed by the Ministry of Agriculture in the Supreme Court arguing that if India does not walk the path of (genetically modified) GM food, then it will starve, gives a scary picture of how the highest court of the country can be misguided in order to protect global corporate interests.

This is a lie, because the situation of hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity of the people in the country is not due to inadequacy of production (we have had record production in the last three years), but due to distribution and purchasing power. The Indian Government is one of the world’s biggest hoarders of foodgrains, about 667 lakh tonnes as on January 1, 2013. This makes the current stock 2.5 times more than the Government’s own benchmark for buffer stocks. One wonders why our Government continues to insist that lack of food production is the cause for hunger in this country? The question to ask is, why are these mountains of foodgrains not being distributed to the people when a third of the children are born malnourished, half of children are underweight and a third of the adult population has a body mass index (BMI) of below 18.5, one of the worst in the world.

Corporate interests

The Planning Commission’s estimate of the required subsistence calorie intake for defining the poverty line is set at 2,400 calories per person per day in rural areas and 2,100 calories per person per day in urban areas. Going by that figure, at least 80 per cent of the population in rural areas and 50 per cent in urban areas fall below the required subsistence intake. We stand way down the Global hunger Index at 65th out of 88 nations, worse than many sub-Saharan African countries.

Despite repeated Supreme Court orders regarding distribution of foodgrains to the poor at Antyodaya prices, the Government does not comply and refuses to allow food to be distributed through the public distribution system (PDS), although clandestine ways are used to export the grain abroad. And now we have this attempt of the Agriculture Ministry with its GM promotion to push for global corporate interests by riding on the backs of our starving millions. It is important to ask whether GM crops are a solution much worse than the problem that is being sought to be addressed.

The decision of bringing in GM food may not only harm Indian agriculture overwhelmingly but also push a majority of people to the brink of starvation. GM crops are an extension of input-intensive and labour-displacing model of industrial agriculture. Hence, they would harm small and marginal farmers and farm labourers, majority of whom are women. It is important to observe that agriculture, unique among sectors of production, plays the dual role of providing an enormously important source of livelihood and of producing the means of life.

Mirage of increased output

To link GM to increased food production, and hence food security, is a fallacy. Evidence is emerging that food security indicators have not improved but only deteriorated in countries that have adopted GM crops elsewhere in substantial areas. A recent letter from hundreds of Indian scientists, sent to the Minister for Environment and Forests, presents clear and strong evidence on this.

From our experience with Bt cotton it is clear that cultivation of GM crops, though it failed to increase yields, definitely increases input costs because of the royalty attached to seeds. It also includes increased irrigation and agrochemical requirements. Food security also means availability of safe food. There is growing scientific evidence questioning the safety of GM food. This shows the irresponsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture towards the people of this country, in advocating the introduction of yet-to-be-proven-safe technologies with several potential hazards as a part of our food systems.

Comprehensive provisions must

Hunger and malnutrition are the greatest threat to India’s national security. The National Food Security Bill is a crucial opportunity to address this. We hope that this will not be missed when Parliament deliberates the report of the Standing Committee on Food and Consumer Affairs on the National Food Security Bill 2011. The present Bill and the Standing Committee recommendations have undermined the issues of farmers and consumers, by not recommending measures to ensure sustainable food production, guaranteeing MSP at real input costs, or providing safe food which is free of contamination from GMOs or agrochemicals. Instead, the committee has recommended the provisioning of fortified foodgrains and atta (flour) under the PDS which opens the door for commercialisation of both agriculture and the food system; fortification of food grains could also open the doors for GM technologies.

The committee’s recommendations have also undermined the right to food of children, by provisioning maternal entitlements for only the first two children, thus denying the exclusive breast feeding rights of subsequent children born to the family and also not providing legal cover to the Anganwadis. It has undermined the vulnerable people’s right to food by not bringing Community Kitchens under the law, and undermined nutritional security by only talking of distribution of cereals. Further, it falls far short of providing adequate food to all (universal) through the PDS, by only covering 67 per cent of the population with as little as 5 kg of cereals per head per month. It, finally, has not provided for criminal penalties or independent grievance redressal systems, essentially diluting the legal guarantees given by the Supreme Court in the “right to food” case. We hope that Parliament will undo what the Ministry of Agriculture is trying to do through the courts and bring in the wisdom that food security must address issues related to access to resources (land, forests and water), provide for revival of agriculture, protect livelihoods of food producers and preserve local food systems.

In order to ensure that we are a society free of malnutrition and hunger, the need of the hour is to immediately legislate a truly comprehensive food security Bill rather than the myopic one that is being proposed.

(The author is Convenor, Right to Food Campaign, and National Secretary, People’s Union for Civil Liberties.)

(This article was published on February 19, 2013)
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