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April 17 in Pakistan Heed the producers of our food

17 April 2008

Food riots, or at least long queues of poor people lining up to purchase essential food items, are an all too common occurrence in many parts of the world. The fact that vast areas in several African and Asian countries remain severely affected by chronic hunger, poverty and misery is also well known. It therefore does not seem unreasonable to state that economic development in its current form is hardly effective in resolving depravations of the masses. Or else, a country like India, which is experiencing rampant economic growth, should have been able to prevent thousands of its peasants from committing suicide out of sheer despair. This rural disgruntlement is not confined to India either. Many young peasants – in Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and beyond, in Indonesia, Philippine, Thailand – also seem to have no other choice but to leave their family and migrate in the hope of securing a better future.

Given the widespread prevalence of this problem, international civil society groups have marked the 17th of April as a day to show their solidarity with what is considered an ongoing peasant struggle around the developing world. The theme set for commemorating this event in 2008 draws specific attention to the impact of transnational agribusiness corporations on food security and peasant rights. In Pakistan, the Kissan Rabita Committee, an alliance of 23 peasants’ organizations had organized a similar event last year in February at Minar-e-Pakisan, which almost 6000 people attended. It would be encouraging to see even more people present during this year’s event given that our small farmers are also considered to be under visible threat from corporate farming. Agribusiness concerns are feared to sideline local agricultural practices and to impose new technologies and agricultural inputs on indigenous farming communities that in turn increase their dependence on the cash economy. Motivated primarily by the need to make greater profits, it is not surprising how agribusinesses are increasingly keen to avail the opportunity to begin harvesting food for fuel, which can hardly do much to promote food security.

Yet food is needed for human survival, and lack of adequate nutrition handicaps people for life. Hungry children cannot concentrate at school and hunger also reduces workers’ productivity. Poverty may lead to under-nutrition, but under-nutrition itself deepens poverty. The basic human right to adequate food is thus instrumental in securing other rights including health, education and productivity. The Millennium Development Goals aim to halve the proportion of people who suffer from hunger within the next seven years.

However, assuring sustainable accessibility of food in sufficient quantity and quality to satisfy the dietary needs of all individuals – including the vulnerable such as women, children, the elderly, the sick, and people with physical disabilities – is not easy. This accessibility is based on the implicit principle that that personal or household costs associated with the acquisition of food for an adequate diet should be at such a level that the satisfaction of other basic needs is not compromised. This right to adequate food also encompasses the concept of food safety and food security. Food safety requires that food should be free from adverse substances and from adulteration. Food security, on the other hand, implies the absence of vulnerability to hunger. People can thus only be food secure if they are able to afford and get uninterrupted access to adequate food at all times.

An effective strategy for realizing the right to adequate food will certainly require going beyond elite dominated and environmentally unsustainable agricultural revolutions, so eagerly adopted by developing countries in the past, to instead focus on the all too easily neglected smaller farmers, who actually produce a major proportion of food in the world. To bolster the position of small farmers some basic measures will have to be adopted which include developing an effective land registration system. Once comprehensive land records have been developed, they should not only be used to encourage ‘robust land markets’ like the World Bank advocates, but also be placed in the public domain so that powerful members of the elite cannot continue to easily usurp the lands of the poor with impunity. Governments in countries with uneven land holdings must muster up the courage to legislate for, and protect the rights of, small tenant farmers. If outright redistribution is not possible then at least measures should be adopted to ensure fair division of the produce between the tenant and the landlord.

Similar measures that may be adopted to ensure greater food security include promoting competition among private dealers in food and agricultural inputs, and introducing regulatory mechanisms to prevent monopolistic intermediaries from squeezing small food producers and poor consumers. Wherever the market fails to serve poor farmers and consumers, the government can also step in to provide the necessary services to the extent possible in view of its overall fiscal space. The government itself must also refrain from forcing small agricultural producers to sell their products to government procurement agencies at less than market prices in normal times. The new government in Pakistan is raising the price it pays to farmers for wheat, which is a positive step if it leads to increasing the income of small farmers instead of the landlords alone. A crop insurance scheme for farmers is also meant to be introduced in Pakistan, but whether it will succeed in reaching out to smaller and tenant farmers still also remains to be seen.

Furthermore, it is important that regulatory mechanisms should be put in place to ensure not only fair pricing and undisturbed supply by the suppliers and distributors of food, but also for maintaining the required standards of food safety. On the other hand, attention is needed to improve existing relief systems to increase the efficiency of food distribution, cash transfers, or food for works programmes. It is even possible to include an early warning system to signal impending threats to food security emanating from production shocks or instability in domestic or world markets.

In tandem, these suggested measures can help boost livelihoods of small and subsistence farmers, as well as improve the overall food security of any developing country, including our own.

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17 April 2008
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