I just read two papers about the plight of farmers in India and nutrition. The first is in the magazine Down to Earth, called "Why Marathwada is becoming a graveyard for farmers". The second is not open access, but published in the journal Public Health. Its title is "Modern agriculture and food and nutrition insecurity: paradox in India". The second is scholarly, the first gives it a human face, starting by describing an indebted farmer who uses pesticide to commit suicide.
There are many interacting, interlocking factors, underlying India's poverty; some of them agricultural, some of them social. For example, the farmer who consumed the pesticide: "In 2011, he had borrowed Rs 60,000 from a government-owned bank and Rs 150,000 from a private moneylender. " The interest rate from the moneylender is likely to be usurious - even from microcredit schemes in India etc it is often very high .. so I think part of the problem is that the farmer was vulnerable - information asymmetry. The article would be strengthened by listing the interest rates.
It seems likely that this part of Maharashtra (which appears to rely mostly on rain) never has a particularly reliable rainfall ("Marathwada has been traditionally prone to droughts") - so another factor is population pressure, which forces people on to less agriculturally certain areas. Yet another factor is identified in the article: "They cannot take the humiliation of not being able to pay the debt or meet social obligations" - social pressure is important .. this is a cultural cause, not an agricultural cause.
Population pressure and a failure to protect the commons is also shown by the failure sufficient water. The dam water goes preferentially to industry. Water in upstream dams are not released - this is a significant failure of governance, and a good example of the "Matthew effect" ("he who has gets"). It's a good but sad analysis - and with another El Nino declared it looks like it will get worse, at least in the next year.
Problems with the Green Revolution
The second paper is a more formal documentation of the limited evidence in the first, from a poor part of Maharashtra. It shows how the "Green Revolution" (modern agricultural practices with high yielding seeds, intensive fertiliser and irrigation) has failed to deliver nutrition and other forms of security to the poor and vulnerable in India. The Green Revolution transformed India from a land of famines (including after it obtained freedom from British colonisation) to a net food exporter within 25 years, despite continued high population growth. However, the paradox is that a considerable proportion of the Indian population, especially in the North, remain undernourished: surveys conducted in 2005-06 found 38% of children less than five were stunted -- with consequent cognitive impairment.
The paper in fact argues that Indian inequality has increased. Though no convincing statistical evidence of this is provided it is a reasonable assertion; in any case poverty and undernutrition (which the authors correctly attribute in part to poor health services and poor hygiene) remain at levels that should be unacceptable in a society that is more or less well governed. India (at least in its north) clearly is still not well-governed.
The paper also argues that uncritical government advocacy favoured three major cereals (rice, wheat, maize), but neglected traditional and nutritionally valuable crops including sorghum, millets, and pulses. The reduction in pulse consumption places the poor at risk of critical amino acid scarcity.
Furthermore, the reduction in (nitrogen-fixing) legume crops (especially in rotation with the main grains) has increased the demand for nitrogenous fertiliser. A combination of factors has led to aquifer depletion and soil deterioration including salinity. To this must be added high population growth (especially in the north). These are exemplify the concept that what Hardin termed as a "tragedy of the commons". (For example, if the groundwater is dropping and I fear my neighbour is taking more than his or her share, and if there is no over-lying sanction or custom to reduce my own use of the groundwater then it seems in my interest to act the same as my neighbour.) What lies ahead for India?
The authors conclude that it is vital for the new agricultural paradigm to be made truly more pro-people, including by addressing issues of poverty, gender, livelihood and environment. This cannot happen automatically without supportive government policies.
I would add that it also requires policies and a mindset far broader than most people conceive as "agriculture" - such as rural education and greater fairness in the application of laws and rules, with less discrimination against minorities and the poor.
The World Scientist’s Warning to Humanity
I leave the last word to Norman Borlaug, awarded the 1970 Nobel Prize for his role in the delivering the Green Revolution. Unlike many agricultural economists, including those who framed various world hunger targets, Borlaug and many other Nobel Laureates (including over half of those then alive) who signed the World Scientist’s Warning to Humanity. The text of this warning, one of whose signatories was Norman Borlaug, expresses far less optimism about the future than cornucopians would like to believe.
By the way, if any readers want to support our development, pro-poor work in India, you can donate via PayPal - here is a link to the first page.
Above: Will Steffen
I just watched an excellent lecture by Prof Will Steffen on the Anthropocene.
But – despite his claim that the Earth system community now includes humans in it, I think the social science community can and should go much further to collaborate. He speaks of the War on Science. He also speaks strongly about rising inequality, including praising Picketty's book, Capital in the 21st Century. (See this excellent review by Paul Krugman.)
I would go further: rising human inequality is a response (and a cause) of the changing Earth System – albeit dysfunctional. It is a response because, as resources per person diminish, those with the greatest economic power claim more, in order to preserve their lifestyle. It is also a driver because elites fear that a more sustainable economy will harm their own lifestyle. Thus, elites maintain there are no "limits to growth", there is no planetary emergency, and act to undermine sustainable and equitable policies.
Disclosure: I have known Will for about ten years. He wrote the first chapter of my edited book Climate Change and Global Health; his chapter is called "Planet Under Pressure". I greatly admire him.
Apologies for no recent update - I have been very busy, including with travel. In March I was a keynote at a conference in Spain called the Impact of Environmental Changes on Infectious Diseases. My talk was called Poverty, demography and infectious disease: three warnings. The slides are here, the abstract here.
Essentially I argued that a bias to market-forces focussed economics has harmed health systems, in both rich and poor countries. I originally wanted to present three case studies, though in the end I mainly discussed Ebola and a bit on sanitation in India. A version of some of my ideas about Ebola (eg how deforestation is likely to have contributed to its emergence) has just been submitted to the website Croakey (co-written with Dr Rosalie Schultz).
In April I spoke at a conference in Delhi, organised by the Australian India Council, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, the NGO Pradan and the Ambedkar University of Delhi. That talk was called "Development, inequality and co-operation: reflections, including on climate change". I am converting my long abstract to a short paper, hopefully to become a book chapter. The slides are here, and the early (short) draft of the text is here.
I greatly enjoyed both meetings, and the invitation to speak in India was especially appreciated.
Other than that, I have been nominated as a co-ordinating lead author on health and the environment for the forthcoming (2017) Global Environmental Outlook Report 6 by the UN Environmental Programme. The title is "Healthy Planet Healthy People". My paper "Revised target makes the MDG hunger reduction goal within reach" should appear in the journal Global Food Security within a week. Unfortunately not open access. Also just in press: Climate change, food systems and population health risks in their eco-social context (Public Health).
We are preparing for the BODHI Australia AGM, to be held Sunday June 21, at the Australian National University. Quite a few people are stepping forward to help keep BODHI alive, both in the US and Australia - but we still greatly miss Susan, BODHI's co-founder. It was her birthday yesterday - a day after the full moon in May.