Playing With Food

Dasu Krishnamoorty

The Hindu (Oct.26) reported of a monstrous rise in food prices. The report said that on Saturday, tur dal was selling at an average official rate of Rs.178 per kg and urad dal at Rs.154 per kg in retail markets in Andhra Pradesh.

Dasu Krishnamoorty

Dasu Krishnamoorty

Economic romanticism argues that price rise is good for economy. Such glamorous theories obliterate the truth that price rise is a silent killer, claiming people who cannot cope with it to die of slow starvation that in the long run dissipates public memory, saving the food culprits from public ire. When we attribute price rise to short supply we are only creating an argument in favor of hoarding and black market. Does price rise result in increased supply? Why should the consumer pay a penalty for somebody else’s act of inhumanity?  In the economic environment that pervades us it is moral, when there is a price slide due to a glut in production, to destroy the product rather than sell it at a lower price.

The Hindu (Aug.12, 2015) reported: Tomato cultivators of Kolar are back in a familiar situation as a steep fall in prices is forcing some to abandon the harvest. In the APMC market on Monday, a kilo of tomato was going for as low as Rs. 2 as against around Rs. 10 a week ago. The best quality of tomato is fetching a farmer a mere Rs. 8 a kilo.

With market prices far less than the cost of production, farmers have either stopped harvesting or dumping their crop on the roadside. In 2013 vegetable growers near Bowen in north Queensland destroyed large quantities of vegetables, including tomatoes and capsicums, because of bad prices. Such wanton destruction of food with an intention to create an artificial scarcity is not new.

Government too is to blame for this paradox in plenty. At a time when the country ranks 67th among 81 countries in the 2011 Global Hunger Index prepared by the International Food Policy Research Institute, mountains of grain continue to rot in silos while more recently, angry farmers paved the streets in Punjab with tonnes of potatoes. Some months ago, it was tomato farmers in Jharkhand, and then it was the turn of onion growers in Rajasthan. And if you think this is a recent phenomenon, you are mistaken. People have seen this happen for nearly 25 years now across the country at regular intervals.

News media encourage reporters to report on their own initiative matters of public concern. This initiative is usually squandered on reporting how frequently the stars change their lingerie or partisan politics. Soaring prices, especially of food, deny a square meal to the majority of a country’s population and, besides checking growth, lead to social unrest and crime. Even when the media report the phenomenon they barely analyze what is pushing up prices except in terms that go above the head of the common man or in terms defending the market. The Hyderabad reporter could have ascertained the price that the farmer gets and the price the retailer sells the food item. There was a time when Andhra Pradesh rice millers determined the price of rice. The men behind excessive prices are the same men you see crowding the ministerial corridors.

Pulses are a vital part of our meal because they provide protein, complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber, vitamins and dietary minerals; Like other plant-based foods, pulses contain no cholesterol and little fat or sodium. There is evidence that a portion of pulses (roughly one cup daily) in a diet may help lower blood pressure and reduce LDL cholesterol levels. The absence of these nutrients is a health hazard.

The right to food is a fundamental human right because it guarantees freedom from hunger and access to safe and nutritious food. Those human rights angels, who are not tired of highlighting social discord, would do well for the present to focus on the imminence of a man-made food scarcity and plead for the starving millions. A famine does not cease to exist because the columnists do not write about it.

See how acres of news space were donated to highlight a Sahitya Akademi fiasco. Pamela Philipose of The Indian Express should have ascertained if those writers who “relinquished” their awards had also retuned the cash that came with the awards. Remember, high food prices create a famine where there is none, help the culprits to breakfast at a five star hotel while the common man waits outside for the leftovers. ‘In his book The Geography of Famine, William A. Dando shows that famines are, in general, man-made, not acts of god.’

Pictures of grain rotting in poorly structured storage facilities refuse to disappear from the minds of many people. At the end of last year, while the underclasses were starving, tonnes of grain went to waste because facilities for crop surplus storage are inadequate. However, a recent Dutch initiative in Mumbai is likely to address this problem. It is called the Food Tech Holland Initiative, a consortium of Dutch companies, specializing in food production and logistics.

According to the Initiative’s project manager Eric Oving : “All companies connected to the Food Tech Holland initiative offer an efficient way to produce and process food. Their solutions effectively reduce the cost of the end product. They have already proven themselves in Europe.” At present about 40 per cent of the country’s food goes to waste during storage or transport. In comparison to Europe, where waste is only minimal, there is a lot of room for improvement. The recent rise in the price of onions could be traced to poor vegetable storage. Onions are mostly stored in open air in India. Due to the humid climate, almost 40 per cent of the yield is lost every year. When the supply gets smaller at the end of the season, the prices rise.

It looks as if both nature and man are joining to punish the common man with the government not doing enough to protect the consumer from the vagaries of the market.

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