Sowing a loss

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Updated: Mar 13 2014, 08:51am hrs
Finally, we know why India is facing a spurt in diet-linked lifestyle disorders while it continues to struggle to feed the hungry. The paradox is seen in several developing economies, the answer is easily hazarded but now, for the first time, a formal study by the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) has established that the drive to feed the millions cheaply has attenuated the spectrum of foods globally. While magazine journalism celebrates the rise of world foodand indeed, it is common to find restaurants offering cuisines separated by thousands of miles located within metres of each other in big citiesthe sources from which those foods are made have dwindled. This has implications not only for health and nutrition but, more importantly, for the future of agriculture and for food security. The CIAT study authored by Colin Khoury and others, which appears in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has flagged several risks.

Just as the drive to eradicate polio in India may have had the unfortunate side effect of derailing other routine immunisation programmes, the urgent need to end world hunger appears to have promoted superfood crops at the expense of nutritional diversity. The use of wheat has grown at the expense of older grains like barley and millets. In Asia, the primacy of rice is receding as corn and wheat, which command larger markets internationally, become increasingly popular. Cooking media like soya oil and olive oil are gaining at the expense of old local favourites like coconut and mustard oil. This change is being driven by governments eager to achieve or support internationally agreed policy goals, and by the tendency of mass selling to seek larger volumes and revenues by standardisation.

The popularity of a food crop depends on two factorsthe efficiency with which they can be grown and consumed, and the variety of uses to which they can be put. Apart from sheer productivity, wheat has trumped other grains because it generates a wide variety of product, from bread to beer. Besides, if uses are standardised and mechanised on a mass scale, as in the potato chips industry, crops play much better in the international distribution system. Economies of scale produce cheap convenience food suitable for urban populations which cook less and need energy foods to go.

But these efficiencies come at the expense of nutritional diversity. Local produce used to fulfil nutritional needs that mainstream crops cannot. Since foods like wheat and soya are likely to remain globally mainstream for excellent economic reasons, they should now be fortified with a broader spectrum of vitamins and minerals. Re-engineering is an immediate challenge for the food industry.

While the risks of a dwindling crop basket to consumers are real but manageable, the risks to food security are incalculably scary. Excessive dependence on single crops has caused havoc in modern history, the greatest decimation being the Irish potato famine. The endemic poverty that Bihar is still trying to shake off may owe its roots to cash crop monoculture enforced by the East India Company. In our era, there is continuing concern over wheat, whose cultivars have been genetically similar since the Green Revolution. That standardisation has raised the danger that infestations like the leaf rust fungus can lay waste fields and farms globally. Farmers unaccustomed to raising other crops would not be able to learn new skills in time to avert economic disaster. The farm-factory complex which processes wheat into products fit for the shelves would not be able to adjust either. Making bread from barley and wheat require entirely different recipes and equipment. The apparatus for using barley no longer exists. If wheat fails, the global economy of bread cannot immediately default to barley, though it is a much older crop.

In addition, the standardisation of cultivars interferes with the process of hybridisation in the field. Should fresh vigour be sought only in the genetics lab Does that not imply an opportunity cost, represented by possible cultivars which could have been created by farmers or by nature itself, which will never find play

These questions are strategically important because crops are expected to come under pressure from climate change. It would be prudent to diversify investment in crops, just as a fund manager would spread portfolios wider when volatility is expected. If ever-larger populations come to depend on a small and dwindling basket of crops, a single failure could have catastrophic effects with unpleasant political and social effects.

The CIAT study suggests that diversification should be a political imperative. At the same time, it promotes the conservation of plant genetic resources from traditional farmers' stock and the wild, as insurance against future shock in accordance with the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. While the target to produce enough food for a global population of 9 billion by 2050 must be met, high-yield grains and oils must be supplemented by local and neglected produce which can be taken mainstream.