Brushing aside environmental costs

ISRAEL'S citrus industry, part of its drive to "make the desert bloom", is a spectacular success story with export earnings in the US $150-250 million range, depending on the quality and quantity of the crop. But, increasingly, critics complain the citrus industry is exporting in effect the country's most precious natural resource -- subsidised water.

Not all of India's water supplies are as precarious as Israel's. But there is a similarity in the economic thinking of both countries that leads to the dollar and the yen justifying the means: If export earnings are big enough, don't worry about the costs, whether environmental, social or financial.

This thinking ignores the fact that although true costs can be concealed, ignored or itemised elsewhere, finally they have to be paid. Israel's parliamentary finance committee recently approved US $25 million in emergency aid to the citrus industry, which has suffered a 36 per cent drop in exports. In India, the horticulture, forest and agriculture departments of Himachal Pradesh and the state's Horticultural Produce Marketing and Processing Corp paid out Rs 89.8 crore to apple-growers, transporters and crate-makers between 1985 and 1991 to help finance expansion.

Large subsidies continue -- and the beneficiaries are invariably rich consumers at home and abroad, rather than the poor.

But as real a cost as the financial subsidies is the falling water table in many of India's fruit-growing areas. These bills might not arrive today, but arrive they will in the form of the extra cost of drilling ever deeper for water, or conveying water over longer distances, or artificially replenishing depleted groundwater reserves. These techniques are already in use and, as fruit production expands, encouraged by the drive for dollars and Deutschmarks, the cost of water use will only increase.

The prospects are the same for other environmental costs that stem from fruit production, such as deforestation to make way for orchards and the fashioning of stakes and packing cases, or soil deterioration and water pollution resulting from intensive pesticide applications. Some argue the fruit trade "exports" soil nutrients from one region to another and sometimes to areas where they become pollutants as waste products of the fruit industry.

The case is not that fruits are without benefit: They are nutritious, tasty and healthy and they provide jobs and high incomes. They can also have useful by-products. The problem, however, is the need to carry out a serious cost-benefit analysis that takes ecological costs into account. In the rush for a single objective, whether production target or foreign exchange, everything else is subordinated. As a result, when the costs become acute, it arouses public or official concern sometimes and action is taken, but by then the bill is far higher than would have been the case had the true advantages and disadvantages been weighed earlier.

It may be too simplistic to argue, as, for example, does Vir Singh of G B Pant University of Agriculture and Technology in Uttar Pradesh, that "apple cultivation is a stark example of how the poor man's land is managed by the policy-makers for the benefit of the rich, depriving the common people of their own natural resources" or that "apple is an integral part of the... Theory of Himalayan Degradation."

The point is the imperative need for informed debate about the pros and cons of fruits -- or any other panacea propagated by the policy-makers. If these are determined only by directives from the top, the environmental costs will be brushed aside or not even considered. Until they make themselves felt.

Related Stories

No stories found.
Down To Earth