India’s homemade food crisis

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India’s homemade food crisis

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Asit K. Biswas and Cecilia Tortajada

SINGAPORE - According to current estimates, India’s total population will reach 1.45 billion by 2028, similar to China’s, and 1.7 billion by 2050, equivalent to nearly the combined population of China and the United States today. Given that India is already struggling to feed its population, its current food crisis could worsen significantly in the coming decades.

According to the 2013 Global Hunger Index (GHI), India ranks 63rd out of the 78 hungriest countries, significantly worse than neighboring Sri Lanka (43rd), Nepal (49th), Pakistan (57th) and Bangladesh (58th). Despite India’s considerable improvement over the past quarter-century - its GHI rating has risen from 32.6 in 1990 to 21.3 in 2013, with zero being the best possible score - the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization believes that 17 percent of Indians are still too undernourished to lead a productive life. In fact, one quarter of the world’s undernourished people live in India, more than in all of Sub-Saharan Africa.

More distressing, one third of the world’s malnourished children live in India. According to Unicef, 47 percent of Indian children are underweight and 46 percent of those under three years old are too small for their age. Indeed, almost half of all childhood deaths can be attributed to malnutrition - a state of affairs that former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called a “national shame.”

What accounts for India’s chronic food insecurity? Farm output has been setting new records in recent years, having increased output from 208 million tons in 2005-6 to an estimated 263 million tons in 2013-2014. India needs 225-230 million tons of food per year; so, even accounting for recent population growth, food production is clearly not the main issue.

The most significant factor - one that policy makers have long ignored - is that a high proportion of the food that India produces never reaches consumers. Sharad Pawar, a former agriculture minister, has noted that food worth $8.3 billion, or nearly 40 percent of the total value of annual production, is wasted.

This does not capture the full picture: for example, meat accounts for about 4 percent of food wastage but 20 percent of the costs, while 70 percent of fruit and vegetable output is wasted, accounting for 40 percent of the total cost. India may be the world’s largest milk producer and grow the second largest quantity of fruits and vegetables (after China), but it is also the world’s biggest waster of food. As a result, fruit and vegetable prices are twice what they would be otherwise, and milk costs 50 percent more than it should.

It is not only perishable food that is squandered. An estimated 21 million tons of wheat - equivalent to Australia’s entire annual crop - rots or is eaten by insects, owing to inadequate storage and poor management at the government-run Food Corporation of India (FCI). Food price inflation since 2008-2009 has been consistently above 10 percent, (except for 2010-11, when it was “only” 6.2 percent); the poor, whose grocery bills typically account for 31 percent of the household budget, have suffered the most.

There are several reasons why so much perishable food is lost, including the absence of modern food distribution chains, too few cold storage centers and refrigerated trucks, poor transportation facilities, erratic electricity supply and the lack of incentives to invest in the sector. The Indian Institute of Management in Kolkata estimates that cold storage facilities are available for only 10 percent of perishable food products, leaving around 370 million tons of perishable products at risk.

The FCI was established in 1964 primarily to implement price support systems, facilitate nationwide distribution and maintain buffer stocks of staples like wheat and rice. But mismanagement, poor oversight and rampant corruption means that the FCI, which gobbles up 1 percent of GDP, is now part of the problem. Former Food Minister K. V. Thomas called it a “white elephant” that needs to be revamped “from top to bottom.” But the government has instead tried to end shortages by increasing production, without considering that up to half of the food will be lost.

India will not have enough arable land, irrigation or energy to provide enough nutritious food to India’s future 1.7 billion people if 35 to 40 percent of food output is left to rot. The new Modi government should therefore consider alternative ways to solve India’s food crisis.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.

*Asit K. Biswas is distinguished visiting professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore and co-founder of the Third World Center for Water Management. Cecilia Tortajada is president and co-founder of the Third World Center for Water Management.

BY Asit K. Biswas and Cecilia Tortajada

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