An unedifying prospect

A Srinivas | Updated on July 23, 2014

The proposed national food grid is bad energy economics

It is clear how the Government wants to see India 10-15 years from now: hundreds of ‘smart cities’ with a ‘national food grid’ of refrigerated trucks and trains reaching them ‘farm fresh’ food from hundreds, if not thousands of kilometres away. The dream is to ensure that ‘all types of food are available in every part of the country’ all through the year.

The idea is not new: It has been spelt out in this year’s Economic Survey and numerous policy documents and papers on how agriculture marketing needs to change. Yet, the eminent minds that have worked on this subject seem to have forgotten about the energy costs. Even as the world debates the need to reduce ‘food miles’, we seem to be going the other way.

Ashok Gulati, former chairman of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices, argues that India needs to shift its production focus from cereals to fruit and vegetables to keep pace with the changing food habits of a growing, urbanising India. Therefore, we also need a different distribution system for transporting larger quantities of perishables (see his book extract in Business Line, July 21); a shift away from a mandi-based model to a high-speed road and rail network where farmers can reach out quickly to ‘consumers’, through aggregators who work the proposed food grid. But what about the cost of refrigerated transport or increased the carbon footprint (diesel and electricity) from ‘farm to fork’?

Fruit and vegetable trains transporting peaches and plums can wait; rather, the focus should be on lowering the cost of local produce by reducing the distance travelled. However, the latest Economic Survey and the Twelfth Plan document have not thought about reducing food miles, when it is indeed possible to create an energy-efficient, horticulture-based economy. Cities can grow fruit and veggies on small patches of land in their midst or vicinity, instead of allowing buildings to come up everywhere. Green belts could be converted into vegetable patches. A local cooperative can manage the show, providing gainful employment. But all this calls for an alternate idea of urban spaces. That is nowhere in sight.

Senior Assistant Editor

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Published on July 23, 2014
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