Tackling hunger through biodiversity

The failure of Parliament to pass the Food Security Bill in the recently concluded session is being projected as the apathy of opposition parties to deliver food to the needy. The debate was on providing cheap staple crop of rice and wheat to the needy. The highest edifice of democracy was busy exploiting the country’s rising hunger and malnutrition to meet its political ends.

The introduction of Public Distribution System (PDS) during seventies paved way for affirmative action to feed millions of poor people across the county. In order to implement this programme government launched procurement of food grains through Food Corporation of India. In 2011-12 the government procured 54 million tons of food grains to run the PDS. The system functions through procuring only two crops, wheat and rice from the intensively cropped regions in North India.

According to food policy analysts the procurement of grain under PDS has had adverse impact on cropping pattern. Instead of diversified cropping pattern the farmers are enticed to cultivate only rice and wheat. In drier regions of Deccan plateau farmers cultivated millets, in hill regions of Himalayas they had maize and diverse staple crops according to climatic zones.

Diet pattern

Obviously, the introduction of PDS changed the way people eat, undermining the local food systems that consisted of nutritious crops like millets and sorghum. In the process of feeding the hungry, it took away the right of communities of what to grow and eat. The change in the diet pattern is shocking as the area under millets declined by 50 per cent and the production plummeted to 52 per cent. The biodiverse farming systems known as Saat Dhan , seven crops in Rajasthan, or Navdanya, nine crops in the eastern parts of India  was the basis for growing nutritious crops, pulses and oilseeds on a single farm.
The overemphasis on growing rice and wheat with high chemical inputs has not only destroyed the crop diversity, it has also destroyed the diverse varieties of rice and wheat that were grown in the country. Indian sub continent is the centre of origin of rice and there were about 30,000 rice varieties grown in different ecological zones catering to the diverse soils and climate. With the introduction of high yielding and hybrid varieties we are left with only few hundred rice varieties.

The crumbling centralised system of procurement is dependent on growing monoculture crops of wheat and rice at the cost of other diverse crops. With heavy fertiliser and chemical inputs, this system is not sustainable in the long run. The conventional industrial mode of producing food will lead to more complications as the climate change and petroleum crisis looms large on the horizon. The accelerated agricultural crisis and increasing farmer suicides is indicator of the failed model.

The solution lies in decentralising the food production and procurement under PDS. Instead of growing food in Punjab and Haryana that has to travel at least 2000 km to reach the consumers at the additional cost of Rs 30 per kg for transportation, the local community should be encouraged to grow diverse crops of millets, oil seeds and pulses.
The revival of local food system and diverse food crops is not a dream. It has already been realised in the dry arid regions of Pasthapur in Medak district in Andhra Pradesh. Deccan Development Society, a mass community organisation has helped 5000 women, mainly from dalit communities to evolve a decentralised PDS system based on millets and cultivating 25 different crops in two acre plots.

After visiting this community, Frances Moore Lappe, the author of Diet for Small Planet said “I learned how the women enhance biodiversity by saving and sharing seeds; how they create common plots for medicinal plants and learn and teach the healing arts. They are farmers growing organic, diverse food crops and creating lives of courage, dignity, inclusion, and ongoing creativity.” Further she added “I realised that hunger is not caused by a scarcity of food but by a scarcity of democracy.”

It is the living democracies like the one in Pastapur where farmers make their own decision on what to grow and eat that leads to eradication of hunger. It enhances the dignity and confidence of local communities, and teaches not to become parasites on the subsidies.

Will our Parliament allow such living democracies to flower and function that can lead to practicing of real democracy and conserving and enhancing biodiversity?

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