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Fighting hunger: Know-how to do-how

The fact that India has not contributed to realising the World Food Summit goal of reducing the number of the hungry and malnourished is a matter of concern, as there are no political, economic or technological excuses for this, says eminent agricultural scientist Dr. M.S. SWAMINATHAN, who delivered the keynote address at the WFS held in Italy recently. He now proposes a five-step approach to ending hunger.

At work in Ha Toy province, Hanoi ... Vietnam has achieved some of the WFS' goals.

THE World Food Summit (WFS) convened by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Rome in 1996 resolved to bring down the number of hungry and malnourished from 816 million in 1990-92 to 408 million by 2015. This involves reducing the number of undernourished people by 22 million every year. This year, a meeting of Heads of States and Governments and Ministers for Agriculture was convened by the FAO in Rome from June 10-13, to review the progress made since 1996 in achieving the targets set at the WFS. The survey at the "WFS — Five Years Later" meeting in Rome indicated that the actual achievement in hunger reduction was only six million per year. Over 200 million people or 28 per cent of the entire population of Africa were found to be chronically hungry. And, 24,000 children, women and men die every day due to hunger related causes.

The world population will be over seven billion by 2015 and hence the estimates of WFS 1996 will have to be suitably adjusted upward, taking into account the increase in human numbers. The task before the "WFS — Five Years Later" meeting was to understand why the very modest target set in 1996 has not been achieved.

Both in 1996 and now, civil society organisations (CSO) held parallel conferences and issued separate declarations. In 1996 the CSO declaration was titled "Profit for Few or Food for All". The 2002 CSO Forum declaration stressed that food sovereignty, right to food and agro-ecological models for agriculture are the key elements for any strategy towards ending hunger and malnutrition. This declaration further pointed out that "genetically modified organisms (GMO's) represent a threat to family farmers, other food producers, the integrity of genetic resources and human and environment health. It will affect particularly the rural poor, who cannot afford this costly alternative".

The official WFS Plus Five declaration titled "International Alliance Against Hunger" urged concerted action to fulfil the 1996 commitments and stated, "we are committed to study, share and facilitate the responsible use of biotechnology in addressing development needs". The official participants in the Rome Plus Five meeting were largely Ministers of Food and Agriculture and senior government officials. The participating Heads of State or Government were mostly from countries in Africa. OECD countries were mostly represented at the level of Agriculture Ministers or Senior officials, excepting Spain as well as Italy whose Prime Minister served as the Chair of the Conference.

In addition to chronic protein-energy malnutrition caused by poverty, two billion people in the developing countries, many of them women and children, suffer from hidden hunger caused by one or more micronutrient deficiencies, like a lack of iron, iodine or Vitamin A. Currently 34 countries are experiencing severe food shortage, the most seriously affected being countries in Southern Africa as well as Afghanistan and North Korea. Developing countries are likely to spend over 23 billion this year for import of cereals, largely from rich nations.

Women and children are the worst sufferers. A special session dealing with this issue, stressed the need for implementing in letter and spirit the provisions of Article 14 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) adopted in 1979 by the United Nations General Assembly. This will involve providing equal access to and control of natural and productive resources and the full participation of rural women in policy making at all levels and throughout development activities.

Executive director of the World Food Programme James T. Morris ... ` ... 34 countries are experiencing severe food shortage.'

The African Heads of State or Government identified civil strife and ethnic wars, debt burden, trade barriers resulting in lack of market access, incidence of HIV/AIDS and drought as the principal causes for the widespread persistence of hunger. African leaders resolved to strengthen the recently formed "The New Partnership for Africa's Development" (NEPAD) in order to promote a Marshall Plan kind of revitalisation of African economies. How far their hope for substantial additional development assistance from rich nations will be forthcoming, remains to be seen. Between 1900 and 2000, concessional assistance from developed countries and loans from the international financing institutions fell by 50 per cent for agriculture. At the same time, the OECD countries increased farm subsidies to more than 300 billion, amounting to 12,000 (Rs. 5,88,000) per farmer per year. The assistance given by OECD countries to farmers in developing countries works out to 6 (Rs. 294) per farmer. The recently approved U.S. Farm Bill envisages a substantial increase in the subsidies given to U.S. farmers. Thus, agriculture in the rich nations is supported by heavy inputs of subsidy, capital and technology. There is, hence, no level playing field in global agricultural trade.

The President of the European Commission, Mr. Romano Prodi, announced that by the end of 2006, European Union (E.U.) official development aid will be raised to an overall rate of 0.39 per cent of GDP. This is in contrast to the target of 0.7 per cent set by the U.N. nearly two decades ago. He also announced that the E.U. will try to improve market access to the farm products of developing countries.

THE FAO has prepared a comprehensive Anti-Hunger Programme involving an additional investment of 24 billion annually. This amount is equivalent to 2.5 per cent of the subsidies paid to farmers in OECD countries. The FAO programme aims to address both hunger today as well as sustained progress in agricultural and rural development. The FAO also presented an analysis of the progress made by different developing countries in achieving the WFS goals. China led the countries which had achieved the largest reduction in the population of under-nourished between 1990-92 and 1997-99. Others in the category of achievers included Ghana, Kuwait, Mozambique, Peru, Thailand and Vietnam. The worst performing nations include Congo, Cuba, Guatemala, Iraq, North Korea, Somalia, Tanzania and Venezuela. Out of the 116 million children, women and men saved from the hunger trap between 1990-92 and 1997-99, 76 million are from China. Unfortunately, the number of undernourished increased by 11 million during the same period in India, inspite of substantial grain reserves with the Government of India. This should be a cause for alarm and serious introspection, since more attention is being given now to enhancing agricultural exports than to ending endemic hunger.

The policies adopted by China in achieving speedily the goal of food for all and for ever involved priority to rural and agricultural development and to on-farm and non-farm employment. China's policy of a rural and agricultural development based economic growth strategy has obviously paid rich dividends in terms of human nutrition and well being. The fact that India has not contributed to realising the WFS goal of reducing the number of persons going to bed hungry is a matter for national shame. There is no political, economic or technological excuse for this situation.

Our Prime Minister had announced last year that India should be hunger-free by August 15, 2007 which marks the 60th anniversary of our independence. In my view, this goal is achievable, if we take the following steps.

Africa's hunger ... man-made and natural problems are to blame.

I. A whole-life cycle approach to ending hunger:

We should provide immediately a horizontal dimension to the numerous vertically structured nutrition intervention programmes currently in operation by adopting a whole life cycle approach to nutrition security. The different steps in such a life cycle approach are the following.

  • a. Pregnant mothers:

    Overcoming maternal and foetal under- and mal-nutrition is an urgent task, since nearly 30 per cent of the children born in India are characterised by low birth weight (LBW), with the consequent risk of impaired brain development. LBW is a proxy indicator of the low status of women in society, particularly of their health and nutrition status during their entire lifecycle.

  • b. Nursing mothers:

    Appropriate schemes will be necessary to enable mothers to breast feed their babies for at least six months, as recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Policies at work places, including the provision of appropriate support services should be conducive to achieving this goal.

  • c. Infants (0-2 years)

    Special efforts will have to be made to reach this age group through their mothers, since they are the most unreached at present.

    Eighty per cent of brain development is completed before the age of two. The first four months in a child's life is particularly critical, since the child is totally dependent on its mother for food and survival.

  • d. Preschool children (2-6 years)

    The on-going integrated child development service, if implemented properly, will help to cater to the nutritional and health care needs of this age group.

  • e. Youth (6 to 20 years)

    A nutrition based Noon Meal programme in all schools (public and private and rural and urban) will help to improve the nutritional status of this group. However, a significant percentage of children belonging to this age group are not able to go to school due to economic reasons. Such school "push-outs" or child labourers need, special attention.

  • f. Adults (20 to 60 years)

    Apart from the sale of subsidised grain, the major approach has been Food for Work programme. In designing a Nutrition Compact for this age group, persons working in the organised and unorganised sectors will have to be dealt with separately. Also, the intervention programmes will have to be different for men and women taking into account the multiple burden on a woman's daily life.

  • g. Old and infirm persons:

    This group will have to be provided with appropriate nutritional support, as part of the ethical obligations of society towards the handicapped.

    The above whole-life cycle approach to Nutrition Security will help to ensure that the nutritional needs of everyone in the community and at every stage in an individual's life, are satisfied. Such an integrated approach is being introduced on a pilot basis in a few districts of Tamil Nadu, under the Malnutrition-free Tamil Nadu programme.

    II. Community Food Banks:

    Community Food Banks (CFB) can be started at the village level, with initial food supplies coming as a grant from Government and the World Food Programme. Later, such CFBs can be sustained through local purchases and from continued Government and international support for Food for Eco-development and Food for Nutrition programmes. The CFB can be the entry point to not only bridging the nutritional divide, but also for fostering social and gender equity, ecology and employment. They can also be equipped to cater to emergencies like cyclones, floods, drought and earthquakes. CFB's can be operated by self-help groups under the oversight of the Gram Sabha and can become powerful instruments of local level food security, involving low transaction and transport costs.

    III. National Food Guarantee Scheme:

    A Food Guarantee Scheme (FGS) needs to be introduced on a national scale on the model of the Employment Guarantee scheme of Maharashtra. It is unlikely that this will involve at present the allocation of more than 10 million tonnes of food grains per year. The Government of India is planning a Food for Greening India programme bearing the name of Jayaprakash Narain. This scheme can be developed on the model of a Food Guarantee Scheme, which can ensure the speedy end of chronic hunger.

    IV. Sustaining and strengthening agricultural progress:

    In a predominantly agricultural country like ours, agricultural progress serves as the most effective safety net against hunger and deprivation.

    There is need for intensifying our efforts to improve agricultural productivity, quality and income. An urgent need in this area is the strengthening of institutional structures which can help to confer on small and marginal farmers the ecological and economic benefits of scale at both the production and post-harvest phases of farming. The following are some of the institutional structures whose reach has to be extended. (See table)

    Without socially relevant and beneficial institutional structures, the extrapolation domain of successful experiences and development efforts will remain limited.

    V. Management of Change:

    Finally, we should set up without further delay so that the central and state levels Multi-Stakeholders' Consortia for the Management of Change in Agriculture. Such consortia should include representatives of CSOs, women's and consumer groups, farmers' associations, academia, business and industry and the mass media, in addition to the government departments concerned. The following changes need priority.

  • Technology with particular reference to the application of biotechnology and genetic modification

  • Ecology, with attention to land, water, biodiversity, forests and climate.

  • Trade with special reference to the World Trade Agreement in Agriculture, sanitary and phyto sanitary measures and food safety standards.

    Time is not in our favour. We cannot afford the luxury of never-ending debates, but should create institutional structures which can help to promote consensus in areas of vital concern to our agricultural future.

    Since the establishment of the FAO in 1945, billions of pages of analysis on hunger have been written. Every conference organised at a cost of millions of dollars ends with a plea for converting words into action. If we heed the advice given 2000 years ago by the Roman farmer Varro and the Roman philosopher Seneca, then we will not be discussing hunger but will be living in a hunger-free world.

    "Agriculture is a science which teaches us what crops should be planted in each kind of soil, and what operations are to be carried out, in order that the land may produce the highest yields in perpetuity." — Varro

    "A hungry person listens neither to reason nor cares for justice, nor is bent by any prayers."


    The writer is the chairman of the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation. He has worked for the past 45 years with scientists and policy makers on a wide range of problems in basic and applied plant genetics as well as in agricultural research and development.

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