Examining the Farmer Protests in India through the lens of Food Regimes and the Hunger Crisis

Randeep Maddoke; randeepphotoartist@gmail.com, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Introduction

Buzz Aldrin once optimistically remarked, “If we can conquer space, we can conquer childhood hunger.” Yet like the civil rights protestors on the ground at the time of Apollo 11, calling attention to the ironic sinking ship of America in the face of global hunger and poverty, decades later we are still eluded by the hunger crisis. Hunger remains unconquered. 

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, 7 million people across the US have enrolled in the federal food stamp program. While the pandemic has exacerbated food insecurity, the hunger crisis in America was growing well before the pandemic. In 2019, 690 million people in the US were undernourished and this number was projected to grow to 840 million people by 2030. Global hunger is on the rise as well. According to the 2020 Global Hunger Index, as of October 2020, thirty-one of 132 countries evaluated are at “serious risk of hunger”– a multi-dimensional classification based on aggregated scores out of 100 measuring variables such as undernourishment, child wasting, child stunting, and child mortality. Despite numbers being down from the previous year, in which 43 out of 117 countries were at serious risk of hunger, this data threatens to undermine the Sustainable Development Goals set by the UN in 2015, among which was a pledge to end world hunger by 2030. Hunger remains a persistent problem globally and this bears major implications.

Accessed via World Economic Forum, Original Source: Food and Agriculture Organization

For one, hunger deeply affects the state of security globally. David Beasley, the executive director of the World Food Programme, underscores, “without food security, you will have no other security.” Food insecurity is intimately linked to conflict and social unrest. In the Arab Spring, bread prices rose 37 percent between 2008 and 2010 in Egypt, fueling protests against the government in Tahrir Square in Egypt demanding food and justice. Hunger also perpetuates the cycle of poverty. According to the World Food Programme, children, who live with chronic malnutrition, are “less likely to go to school” and “earn less than their well-fed contemporaries.”  Not to mention hunger directly affects the dissolution of families and communities, exponentially increasing the number of orphans globally as parents struggle to provide for their children. It is simply crucial to establish a permanent solution to hunger and fast.

Food Regimes and The History of Hunger

Hunger as defined by the UN Hunger Report describes periods when populations are experiencing severe food insecurity. According to the Borgen Project, world hunger has evolved alongside the development of new food systems. When humans cultivated their own crops and hunted their meat, food travelled a short distance, directly from “source to stomach.” Over the course of established trade chains like the spice trade and the adoption of colonialism, a “mercantile food system” was developed. This was transformed through the adoption of the settler-colonialism model, where crops exploited from colonies in the Americas were exchanged by colonists for European manufactured goods. Following the Second World War, American and European countries catalyzed the development of food industries, paving the way for Western hegemony in the food chain. Yet this period was undercut through the emergence of climate change, the oil crisis, and the onset of globalization, which yielded a world hunger crisis with famines emerging across Africa and Asia. 

The Current System: The Neoliberal Food Regime

The current food system, termed the neoliberal food regime, emerged after 1980 and represents the globalization of agriculture, food production, and consumption. The neoliberal regime is marked by corporate power, privatization of farming, and a global diet, high in sugar and fats. Yet in spite of rapid industrialization and greater food output, the neoliberal food regime has failed to address global hunger. For instance, despite the proliferation of food banks over the past few decades in the US, the privatization of the food system has coincided with withdrawal from federal food assistance programs. The current regime has also been linked to greater inequality in resource distribution and destruction of the environment as corporations pursue unsustainable farming and crop production methods that drain both land and other natural resources, evident in rising rates of environmental pollution and climate change attributed to agri-business.

Food Insecurity on the Rise

Unequal resource distribution, land degradation, increased meat production, violent conflict, climate change, and increases in food prices are all drivers of the vulnerability in the food supply. Today skyrocketing rates of food insecurity are fundamentally reflective of the larger phenomenon of global inequality–something especially evident in the paradoxical coexistence of chronic hunger and the highest rates of obesity. Additionally, climate change is a significant contributor to food insecurity. According to World Hunger, “weather events can affect the prevalence of hunger by altering agricultural productivity, food availability, food pricing, and food access.” For instance, in recent years, “reductions in water availability and increased heat spells” have lowered crop productivity globally. Ironically, it is often agribusiness that perpetuates the cycle of food insecurity, through exploitive farming tactics, which deplete the soil and rely heavily on GMOs and chemical fertilizers, and meat production, which is linked to greater greenhouse gas emissions.

 According to the World Food Programme, the world has actually “produced more than enough food to feed itself since the 1960s.” We have a surplus of food. The issue lies in distribution. While farmers are producing stockpiles of food that eventually rot and go to waste, millions of people go hungry. We consistently overproduce industrial commodities like corn and soybeans for biofuels when we would instead be better suited to a more holistic, nutrient-rich diet, consisting of less sugar and fat. 

Rising biofuel production over the course of the neoliberal regime

Farmers’ Protests in India

Most recently, the pushback against the neoliberal regime has manifested in the current protests led by farmers from the Indian states of Haryana, Rajasthan, and Punjab, often collectively referred to as India’s breadbasket, against the Modi led government’s farm reform bills, which deregulate the agricultural market and allow private corporations to directly buy crops from farmers as opposed to an exchange mediated by a middleman. Farmers fear the bills will leave them vulnerable to exploitation as corporations deny them the minimum prices they had under the previous system. These bills are but the most recent push for corporate strongholds in the agriculture sector, which have been on the rise since the 1960s Green Revolution in India. Despite increasing agricultural productivity in India, the Green Revolution infamously ushered in Western corporate control of India’s agricultural sector and contributed to greater environmental pollution–what journalist P. Sainath terms the “hijack of agriculture by corporations.” The current growth of agri-business in India is reflective of the perils of the current food regime and its exploitation of workers and the environment. It also threatens to escalate the hunger crisis.

Former Minister of Local Government Navjot Singh Sidhu, a supporter of the farmers’ protests, cautions about rising hunger in India

In India, 190.7 million people are undernourished and a quarter of all children experience hunger. Non-profit Action against Hunger attributes the hunger crisis in India to many factors, including severe poverty, “non-availability of food in markets,” and reliance on international markets for “all or part of their food supply.” Farmers in India currently sell most of their produce in mandis or federally owned wholesale markets. Yet as Akshaya Patra, a not-for-profit school meal program based in India, reports in rural areas, “markers are not easily accessible and often have limited availability.” The current farm bills, totally three pieces of legislation, threaten to escalate this inaccessibility. 

One of the bills, the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, allows for farmers to directly engage with private corporations and conduct business outside of the mandis; in doing so, the bill also gets rid of the minimum prices held under a system with middlemen. Mandis are a fundamentally important access point for food; in fact, at mandis, food is directly relayed to public distribution ration shops. Political activist Aruna Roy in her article for the Times of India warns that without the mandi system, “corporate agro-business will determine the de facto price, and control purchase and storage.” In weakening the current public distribution system and eliminating minimum support prices, the farm bills could thus accelerate food inaccessibility for vulnerable populations by rendering market products too expensive. The final of the newly introduced changes, an amendment to the 1955 Essential Commodities Bill, reduces the production of “commodities like cereals, pulses, oilseeds, edible oils, onion and potatoes” and removes limits on stockpiling. This not only threatens to reduce India’s food diversity, accelerating current rates of malnutrition nationally, but also gives way to hoarding, which could further drive up market food prices. Ultimately, apart from intensifying the inaccessibility of markets, the new bills enlarge the power of agribusiness at the expense of poor farmers, paving the way for class inequities that fundamentally hinder access to food.

Solving Global Hunger and Dismantling the Neoliberal Food Regime

In the 1990s, the growing campaigns around hunger were working, incentivizing the UN’s bold declaration to end hunger by 2030. But since the 90s, there has been an observable decline in progress, alongside growing trends like climate change and wealth inequality. This problem requires major policy change, a paradigm shift in current food systems and resource distribution, increasing taxes on the rich and bolstering government programs for hunger and income support. Without tactile reinvention, hunger will grow and with growing hunger, it’s women, children, people of color that will be the most burdened. In lieu of the pandemic, which threatens to render millions more people food insecure, we must pursue these changes.