Eating right to save the planet

We need to re-invent sustainable agriculture so that it can meet the needs of millions, but does not cost us the Earth

By Sunita Narain
Published: Tuesday 04 June 2013

We need to re-invent sustainable agriculture, so that it can meet the needs of millions, but does not cost us the Earth

Think. Eat. Save. This is the theme of the World Environment Day 2013. What does this mean?

The contention is that huge amount of food is wasted from farm to fork. If we save this ‘waste’ then we reduce our footprint on the planet’s diminishing natural resources. Sounds good. But what should you and I do to be part of this global mission?

Bulk of food is lost at the farm itself, says UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). It estimates that 30-50 per cent of the food production never reaches our plate. It is wasted because farmers have to destroy food that they cannot sell or store. All this then implies that the only way ahead is to build infrastructure of cold storage and transportation along with value addition through processing of food. The logical action then is to incentivise large food processing industries to do this, all in the name of ‘saving the planet’.

Subsidy fallout
But this is where the problem starts, nor ends. The problem with food is that it is no longer a matter of livelihood or nutrition for millions of people. It is simply a matter of business. This is what we need to correct.

The fact is that the agricultural model is failing because the cost of cultivation is high. It survives because of huge subsidies. It is fed huge amounts of chemicals, which, in turn, keeps the country on a toxic treadmill and keeps costs of regulation high. Worse, it thrives on the promotion of industrial food, which is kept cheap and is low on nutrition and so compromises on health.

Today, the US, Europe, Japan and all who preach good farming practice pay obscene amounts as subsidy to underwrite the costs of growing food. The European Union spends close to half its massive annual budget on direct payment to farmers. Its sugar farmers—whose produce our government imports often—are paid four times the world market price. The situation in the corporate-run US farms is similar. Farmers in poor India or poor Africa are asked to compete with this heavily distorted market. They lose.

The ultimate loser is the environment: where prices are depressed, natural resources are discounted—water and land is over-extracted and depleted.

But the subsidies given by the rich countries are a reminder that in the current industrial-agricultural system of the world, growing food is expensive. It requires investment to increase productivity and then it requires investment to sustain productivity and invest in sustainable farm practices. It is no wonder that organic food, grown in the rich world, is unaffordable for most.

Think. How to re-invent affordable and sustainable agriculture, so that it can meet the needs of millions, but does not cost us the Earth. This is the challenge. It can be done.

Eat local

But it will involve you and me. First, we need to think about the cost of food and learn to pay more, not less for locally grown and nutritious food.

Second, this will require re-learning the culture of food. Today all across India, we eat uniform white, heavily polished rice or packaged wheat. But we do not realize that rice for many of us was not even part of our diet not too long ago. Rice was grown where there was sufficient water – which then provided for recharge of groundwater. Rice is grown in part of Punjab or Haryana, where water is scarce. We have lost the habit of eating local food, which has adapted to the environment. For instance, many of us had diets based on millets, a crop that needs little water. So, if we want farmers to save water, then do not think only of drip irrigation. Think about what you eat and what grows best in your region. 

But there is more to this question. Food has to be safe, but also nutritious. Today, the world’s panic button has been pressed on the matter of food that is junk—high on empty calories and bad for health. There is more than enough evidence that bad food is directly linked to the explosion of non-communicable diseases in the world. There is enough evidence to say that enough is enough.

So our food habits are part of the future solution. Think. Eat. Save. This motto will mean fixing the anti-farmer politics of food, eating local and saving the culture of food and so the future of our only one planet.


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