Interview with Devinder Sharma
The politics of food and agriculture
Part 1 -
From British Colonialism to WTO Rules and Privatization
New Delhi, India
Devinder Sharma is an award-winning journalist, writer, and researcher on food and trade policy. He is the author of "GATT and India -- Politics of Agriculture" (1994) and "In the Famine Trap" (1997). He chairs the New Delhi-based Forum for Biotechnology & Food Security.This interview was conducted August 25, 2003 by Nic Paget-Clarke for In Motion Magazine in New Delhi, India.
In Motion Magazine: Could you please tell me a little about your background and how you came to focus on hunger and food?
Devinder Sharma: I started off my career as an agricultural scientist. I did my masters in plant breeding and genetics and then did not take up a research assignment. The first job I landed immediately after my university was with the Indian Express in India. The Indian Express at that time, even now, was the largest selling newspaper in India a multi-region paper. It is published from about 14 places in the country.
When I joined the Indian Express, in 1981, it was a paper which was anti-establishment. It was a paper which for quite some time brought down government after government. It was a paper which gave me training, if you put it like that, to understand the politics of food and agriculture.
I joined as an agriculture writer of the paper and the advantage I had, compared to others, was that I was given the task to look into the entire country, not one region. As an agriculture editor, I had the privilege to travel through the length and breadth of the country and then write my reports -- unlike the other reporters who would be covering one beat and one area, and so on. That gave me a tremendous learning experience. Nothing else could have given me that kind of exposure.
Then, I thought, I will take a sabbatical. It was a time when the Dunkel Draft was very popular. Dunkel was the first director-general of the WTO (World Trade Organization), at that time it was called GATT (General Agreement of Tariffs and Trade). I thought people would be on the streets here but nobody understood what the implications of WTO and agriculture were. So I thought, I will take a sabbatical, do a book, and then come back to journalism.
I took one year off, and did my book, which is in your hands, the first book. But I never came back to journalism or what you call active journalism. From one to another, I realized the realities are much different and much in contrast in what you are doing. Hunger in India is at a level today that it very shameful. We have this hunger existing at a time when we have a mounting food surplus. We have an unmanageable food surplus, which is a record in history, and we also have a record number of hungry with us today.
This paradox forced me to get into this issue of hunger. There are two ways of looking at it. One, of course, is the grassroots effort that one can do to bring people out of hunger. The other, to my understanding, is that hunger is the result of policies, national and international. The basic idea, or the basic focus, today, is to keep one half of the world hungry, because you can only exploit the hungry stomach. You cannot exploit a full stomach, somebody who is very happy and fed. That is the worlds effort. And that is very shocking and demeaning, shameful.
That is the focus of my work.
In Motion Magazine: One of the things you mentioned in one of your essays is the double standard that the corporate world has in the way it treats the West and the way it treats the developing world. Could you talk about that, perhaps in light of the Coke/Pepsi scandal, and also the questions of grain to India and GMOs?
In the recent cola controversy in India, the companies are saying that, Your groundwater is polluted so therefore you cant blame us that the cola is also contaminated. This argument has gone on for some time on the television and in print media.
In one of the shows, though, I came out and said, This is not the issue. If you look at the groundwater in Europe and America, it is much more contaminated than in India. How come in those countries they sell colas which are without any pesticides? They are following double standards.
If you look back, if you remember the Union Carbide accident that happened in India, the tragedy of Bhopal, the Bhopal plant had lax safety standards, but the same plant in America, they had very tight safety standards there. The double standard was apparent after the Bhopal disaster struck.
In India, the average pesticide consumption per hectare is 450 grams per hectare. If you look at Holland, the per hectare pesticide usage or consumption is 11,000 grams per hectare. In Japan it is 12,000 grams. In the U.S. it is 3,000 grams. And 99.9% of the pesticides go into the environment, whether they leech into the water or they go into the air. Only 0.01% hits at the target everyone knows that. (This is a study done by David Pimentel of Cornell University. ) And they use 700 different kinds of pesticides. In India, we use 160 different kinds of pesticides.
But now we have reached a stage that we are being told that, Your water is contaminated. And fertilizer, the fertilizer intake in Holland is 495 kg per hectare. In India it is 99 kg per hectare. In America it is 110 kg per hectare. If you look at Japan it is about 350 per hectare. If you look at the European Union as a block then the pesticide usage is 500 grams per hectare. Im not trying to say that our water is not polluted, Im not trying to defend that, but the double standard is very clear. In those countries they follow strict health and safety norms, whereas in India they know you can get away with murder -- as in the classic example of Union Carbide.
If you look at the grains, we are being told that whatever we export from our country is not of good quality so, therefore, You need to have quality norms. You can go up to .0001 parts per million for looking at toxin level in grains. And so on. Its interesting. And, yes, we all agree that quality is important, but lets look at double standards here. What is going from India meets the quality of the Western countries, but what comes from the Western countries to India has to be cattle feed. So we are given to understand that, You are very comfortable with cattle feed so why this problem?
Now, when I say cattle feed I will give you one example. In 1996, the last time we imported wheat, we imported one million tons from Australia. That wheat, when it came to India, it was cattle feed quality. What they exported to us was rubbish. It came with forty-two weed plants, seven of them new to India. And they didnt even clean it on the high seas when India said, You should clean this grain.
Look at America. At the time that Dan Glickman was the Agriculture Secretary he came to India. He went around and met Indias Agriculture Minister and he asked him, Why did you reject American wheat? because when we selected Australian wheat, which in any case was cattle feed, it was after we rejected the American wheat. He was told that the wheat from America doesnt conform to the quality standards. The wheat from America actually had a downy mildew, a disease. The incidence of downy mildew was more than .001 parts per million. And you know what he said? He said, Where in the world can you find wheat of that quality? Im glad our Agricultural Minister stood up and said, Sir, this is what you had asked the Codex Alimentarius to follow. (editor: a Rome-based organization, The Codex Alimentarius Commission was created in 1963 by FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization] and WHO [World Health Organization] to develop food standards). And subsequently, it is also being reported, the Secretary finally told our Agriculture Minister that, If you could import all the cattle feed that we exported at the time of PL480 (U.S. food aid in the 50s and 60s) when India was importing wheat from America, what is the problem now?
Soybeans. Now they are trying to export soybeans to us, and those soybeans come with several viral diseases and five pests. America is forcing India to accept this saying that, These pests are not harmful for you. If we were to export the same soybean back to America, they would reject it. So the double standards are very clearly apparent.
And it is not only foodstuffs. If you look at the entire WTO paradigm, the genetic engineering paradigm, the technology, what is being developed, today it is the opposite of technology, which is being dumped on to us.
Let us take the example of automobiles. The automobiles that are being manufactured in India conform to Euro 1, Euro 2 emission standards. In Europe they follow Euro 4. Because that (Euro 1, Euro 2) technology has become obsolete they must find a market for it. So they dump it on to countries like us.
Look at America, since a few years back they have had a wonderful way of recycling the plastic bottles in which Pepsi is sold in America, or in India, for that matter. You cant recycle that in America because of the strict human safety norms. So what they are doing is shipping the plastic bottles to Madras in India, recycling in Madras and taking it back and selling it for the colas in America. As if the humans here dont matter.
One can go on and on with these kinds of examples where the West has demonstrated that it doesnt give a damn.
And the worst now is we are always taken as the children of a lesser god, for all these years, but the worst is now apparent and happening. One of the institutes in New Zealand has clearly said that they are going to develop a genetically-modified vaccine for treating tuberculosis in cows, which is good news of course. But they are saying the same vaccine would be applicable for human beings in the Third World countries. What the rich countries need is a different vaccine, is a better vaccine. Which means they are treating animals and human beings in this part of the world as the same.
What more do we need as an example for double standards?
In Motion Magazine: How is globalization accelerating the process of marginalization of farmers in the Third World?
Devinder Sharma: Im sure, Nic, you have seen a movie called The Great Train Robbery, way back. To me, this is a new edition of the same movie. It can be called The Great Trade Robbery. This is a wonderful way of exploiting the Third World countries.
I remember once I had the privilege of sitting with Nelson Mandela. He was chairing one of my talks and he said, They follow a triple-M approach. He said, First, they sent the missionaries. It didnt work. Then they sent the military. It didnt work. Now they are sending money it will work.
Basically, if you look at the world today, the West has got so used to being a parasite on the Third World that they cannot imagine they do not do this harm to us. Under one pretext or the other, they are going to exploit us. They are going to suck the blood of this part of the world -- in the name of trade, in the name of growth, in the name of development, in the name of millennium goals, and so on, and so forth.
Im not being cynical, but let me explain. India is a country, which is one sixth of humanity, and I think can be taken as a symbol or representative of the developing world in many ways. India is a country, which has about 1,000 million plus people today. Out of it, 320 million people still go to bed hungry every night. Thats a shameful paradox.
Now having said that, the reality is that American agriculture is of course in the hands of the industry, but the American economy is so dependent upon agriculture and is so weighed down by the artificial subsidy support that American agriculture has been providing to its agriculture that there is no market for your produce, the economy collapses under the artificial weight of subsidies that America has created all these years. They have to find a market for it.
The second block is the European Union. They, too, are overburdened with food stocks, especially after the Common Agriculture Policy came in. They, too, face the same problem that America faces. So they join hands. What can you do both of you? Both of the blocks could not dump food into the sea now because international treaties do not allow you to do that. You cant burn it because again the international treaties do not allow you to do that. So you have to find a market. What better way than to force open the developing countries to ensure that this kind of produce goes into them?
When the WTO came into effect, first the GATT then the WTO, they laid it down very clearly, based on three pillars - market access, domestic support, and domestic subsidies. These are the three pillars of the WTO Agriculture Agreement. But, at that time, the developing countries didnt even understand what all it meant. So they accepted, signed, and so on. The West, though, was very clear and very sure about what it was doing. They came out with all these parameters, which actually supported or protected their agriculture at the cost of the developing countries farmers. Everything was put into place and we were supposed to sign -- take it or leave it. And we were also given this promise that if you dont enter into the WTO it is very difficult to trade bilaterally, and so and so forth. Our political leadership accepted that dogma.
Now eight years later, we find that the negative impacts have been so large and so huge it has begun to show. If you look at the world, today, the American farmers, or lets us say the OECD countries, (the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), the richest trading bloc, which is 24 countries, annually provides subsidies to agriculture to the tune of U.S. $360 billion, which means one billion dollars a day. In India, we provide subsidies to our 557 million farmers and the total subsidy is one billion dollars a year.
In the OECD the subsidies are direct. And can you imagine who are the beneficiaries of these subsidies? Ted Turner receives subsidies for agriculture in America. David Rockefeller receives subsidies for agriculture in America. These are the people who get subsidies. They dont farm. Just because they own land they get subsidies.
If you look at India, all the subsidies that we provide are indirect -- by way of cheaper fertilizer, cheaper electricity, cheaper seed, cheaper water. There are no direct subsidies in India. But the World Bank and the IMF (International Monetary Fund) have asked us to remove subsidies because they are too distorting. The poor should not get subsidies, whereas the rich should get subsidies.
It should be noted, though, that a major percentage of farmers in the U.S. get no subsidy at all because 70% of U.S. subsidies go to 10% of the recipients who are the largest farmers and corporations. In addition, U.S. family farmers usually sell their products below their cost of production while corporations sell their meats in the store and their grain for higher prices through processing and export.
Faced with this situation, U.S. family farmers maximize production in order to survive and the excess production is then many times dumped around the world where it isnt needed thanks to bad trade policy from the WTO.
No matter the falling global prices, the corporations continue to benefit. The corporations take their agricultural subsidies and trade incentives while they argue against subsidies in the Third World, then, with their increasing level of control, they pump into agriculture such new problems as genetically-modified seeds.
Look at the inequalities. We are being told that there is a clash of civilizations but the biggest clash of civilizations that I see is when we compare the situation in which the farmer in this part of the world, in the South, exists and the cows in the North. Every cow in America, Europe, Australia, Canada, all OECD countries, needs a shower, needs a fan, needs a tube light, needs centrally-heated conditions. You will agree all these are luxuries to farmers in this part of the world.
And whenever the cow goes to milk -- milking is done of course by machines, we all know -- I have seen that every cow wears a strap around its neck. The strap has a chip, computer chip so the moment the cow goes for the feeding bin when it is getting milked that chip matches with a chip on the wall and it tells what exactly is the weight of the cow, what exactly are the protein requirements at that time of the cow, and only that quantity comes out. In a way, the cow is the most food secure animal on this earth today.
We all know, at least in India, that 320 million people go to bed hungry every night, and 50% percent of the farming population elsewhere in the world goes to bed hungry every night. A farming family in India, or in developing countries, survives on less than 1.4 hectares. But if you are rearing one cow you need an average of 10 hectares of land for the feed and everything that you feed that cow. This means for each cow you require about 10 hectares of land. On that 10 hectares five farming families can survive. And the inequalities dont end there.
The first time I wrote about this was in an article in The Ecologist a few years back, and I am glad everyone is talking about this, but I did an analysis of the cow and of the human being, of a farmer in a developing country, and I worked it out that every cow gets a subsidy of two dollars a day whereas fifty percent of our farming population and the developing world lives on less than one dollar a day. Such is the quantum of subsidies that you give for cows that you can put every cow into business class and take it on a round-the-world trip. Thats the kind of subsidies you provide.
Yet we are being told, You open up (your markets) and you get tremendous opportunity to export and youll gain, and so forth. Unfortunately, developing countries didnt realize what this meant then, but Im sure now that the shoe is pinching, people are beginning to realize and that is what is now getting reflected in the WTO.
In Motion Magazine: Why are there seemingly permanent negotiations at the WTO? Ever since GATT and the WTO started it has all been about the negotiations. Can you explain that?
Devinder Sharma: What happened at the WTO was they laid out a phase-out program where you have to take stock of certain things after a few years. There is a review of the WTO Agriculture Agreement -- it is going on at the moment. There is a review of the WTO TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) Agreement also going on. But at the same time, the world realized that they havent had enough. They needed to exploit the Third World more. They have to bring in new issues. So what are the new issues? The new issues cropped up at Singapore sometime back and they are called the Singapore Issues: transparency in government procurements, trade facilitation, investments, and competition policy. These new issues have to be taken on board now.
The new round of negotiations at Cancun will be negotiating these four Singapore Issues. We are transgressing from the issue of agriculture, patents and so on, into the investment issues and where they want to move in the services sector, the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). Now you want education to be privatized. Now you want water to be privatized. Now you want health services to be privatized. All these things -- because the economic interest of the corporations in the West is so dominant now that they are finding all kinds of areas where they can exert influence and exploit the developing countries.
In Motion Magazine: From reading some of the more recent essays that you have written, globalization has had various definitions over the years, even over the centuries. But it seems the current definition is liberalization -- privatizing the planet?
Devinder Sharma: It is in fact happening. If you look at the recent phenomenon of privatization, which actually the European Union, America, Japan, and countries like Australia or Switzerland are a party to, it is because of the dominance of the multinational corporations coming up or the private companies coming up and occupying almost every sphere of activity.
So much so the politics. There was a time, if you remember, when Abraham Lincoln gave his famous quote to all of us saying that democracy is of the people, by the people, and for the people. If you look at today, Im sure Abraham Lincoln is turning in his grave because democracy has changed, because democracys definition has changed. Democracy is of the industry, by the industry, for the industry. Whether it is (U.S. President) George Bush, whether it is (U.K. Prime Minister) Tony Blair, whether is (Indian Prime Minister) Atal Bihari Vajpayee, all that they have been doing is to represent industry. If you look at WTO, or NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), the entire focus has been to promote the interests of industry, multinational corporations and so on.
President Bill Clinton has gone on record, when he was the president, saying that Monsanto is the company which will take us into the 21st century. So we know what is happening. We know the Iraq war, why it happened -- the oil corporations wanted more oil. That kind of thing is happening and theres always justification. The kind of education that is being forced onto us in India is privatized and then goes into corporate hands. Specifically, it is all a game for control. It is a game for control and monopoly.
Earlier, when we were faced with the colonialization era, it was the governments which were in controlling, but today control is in the hands of corporates and they are trying to extract as much as possible.
There was a time, and Im sure you remember, when the sun would never set on the British Empire. When you talk of globalization today, I think one indicator is the sun never sets on the multinational corporations. That gives an indication of how globalized the corporations are, of the phenomenon which is the using of democratic institutions, so called democratic institutions, like WTO, or the financial institutions, to force the banks of multinational corporations or the private corporations onto us. It is an issue of control and dominance. A few people are controlling the entire global wealth and that control comes through corporations.
Devinder Sharma: Nobody wants to talk about it now. Maybe it is politically incorrect. But what the British did to India is very apparent. There was a time, if you remember, when Columbus sailed to look for India and landed in America, 500 years back. Then came Vasco da Gama who landed in India, eventually, from Europe and the world became exposed to India. That was a time when India was called, if you look at Indian literature, we were called a golden bird. Thats why all these fellows were looking for India. Not searching for America or anybody else.
Then, the British stepped in to India and when they left India was a poverty-stricken country. That is the legacy of Britain.
If you look at Europe, Europe survives today because of their colonial past. Nobody wants to talk about it now because nobody wants to rake up those memories, but if you look at India and if you look at Indian history, youll find ample examples of how they looted India.
In fact the viceroys, the people who were appointed viceroys, would advance based on how much they looted. There was an era in Indian history when you find that the one who gave the best or highest booty to the emperor became the viceroy.
They followed the divide and rule policy. One of the British legacies is the divide and rule policy, which they did remarkably well in India. They took almost all of India as their colony because of the divide and rule policy, which is now being followed exactly by the WTO.
If you look at global politics now they are actually following divide and rule. Why are developing countries not there as a block, it is because now the divide and rule policy says you should be having issue-based coalitions. What is an issue-based coalition? It is that on agriculture I dont agree with Malaysia but on investment use I would agree with Malaysia. So India and Malaysia would go together on the issues of investment but not go together on agriculture. So we are divided, you know.
The West has been very clearly using the same kind of legacy of divide and rule in commercial terms or economic terms, and doing it very effectively. Developing countries stand isolated, or lets say separate and not as a bloc ,as the E.U. (European Union) would be, or for that matter as the U.S. and E.U. together. Developing countries do not bloc because we have been put against the same formula of divide and rule and we havent learned our lesson.
Another part of the legacy is in India, the British, whatever they left us with, unfortunately, the same system prevails in India. We follow the same systems, political, bureaucratic, constitutional, all the same systems the British left us with. The British left us with more problems but we continue with them. We havent tried to set our house in order the way Mahatma Gandhi would have liked the house to be. But that is the way people want it, or whatever you can say.
But going back to your question of the British legacy, I just have to give you one example. In 1943, the year when the world was shocked by the Bengal famine, the Bengal famine killed about three million people. It was a time when India was under British dominance and there was enough food, but food was diverted by the British to the armies which were fighting the Second World War. People died in Bengal, but not because of the loss of production, because there was the loss of production in 1941, that was a bad year, and there was no famine. 1943 was a better year but there was a famine in 1943. And the interesting part is the then-viceroy of India gave a report to the Emperor, (and we all know of Amartya Sens Theory of Entitlement which talks about the Bengal Famine), but what is not known is that letter actually said that concerning the three million people who died, those are the people who in any case would have died. They were of the lowest strata of life -- urchins and so on. Laborers, poor, beggars, they should have in any case died. So, we should not have any regret.
Look at the way they have treated us. And when I say us I mean the Third World and the First World. Ireland was also under British governance. Ireland had the infamous Irish Potato Famine in the nineteenth century. Tony Blair went and apologized for the Irish Potato Famine. Yet, he has come to India a number of times, and so has the Queen, and they have never apologized for the 28 famines that occurred during the British rule in India. And 28 were man-made famines. That is the way they have treated us.
But I think we have to blame ourselves, also.
In Motion Magazine: You wrote an article about the famines in Kalahandi and Koraput. What sort of system allows for massive crop production, even export, while the people living around the food are dying? How is that structured?
Devinder Sharma: This is the greatest tragedy I would say in this century. The stark reality of India. You talk about Kalahandi but let me first give you a little picture of the India scenario.
We today have 50 million tons of food surplus, wheat and rice stocked in the open. You can go around the country and see it stocked in the open. I think at least 50 percent of it has already turned into cattle feed. It cannot be consumed by human beings. And there are 320 million people who go to bed hungry every night in India. One third of the worlds 800,000 people who go to bed hungry every night are in India.
But it is not that only Indias political masters or Indian elite is unconcerned or criminally apathetic to the realities of hunger. The international community is equally to blame. They are talking about removing half the worlds hunger by the year 2015 and they are talking about the 800 million people who go to bed hungry, so we should be moving at least, but all they have done is to say that we will remove half the worlds hunger by 2015. If they were really honest, the international community, they could have focused on a country like India, because we have food, we have hungry, why should we wait to the year 2015? Theres no explanation for this. Im sure you will agree.
And not only India. Until recently Pakistan was overflowing with food grains. Bangladesh has been overflowing with food grains. If you put the population of these three countries together, roughly 42-43% of the worlds hungry are in these three countries. If the world was serious, they could have used international political will to force these developing countries, these three countries, to feed the hungry. But it never happened. Economics doesnt want to talk about the hungry. Economics is like the pigeon. Pigeons keep their eyes closed when the cat comes, feeling that the world is now safe. Economists do the same. They feel that if you dont talk about the hungry, you know, they dont have to worry about the hungry.
But, to your question, if you look at realities -- Kalahandi is a stark reality. Kalahandi is as well known as Mumbai or Chennai. People havent been to Kalahandi but they all know Kalahandi because whenever there is a report of hunger and starvation, Kalahandi will always figure. (It is in western Orissa in India.)
When I did my book In the Famine Trap, working in Kalahandi, I came out with this conclusion or terminology, which is now popularly used of Kalahandi Syndrome. I was shocked myself to see that Kalahandi was not a food-deficit area. It was not an infertile area. It was as good or as bad as the rest of the country. Rainfall was as normal as the rest of the country. It was always green, as you could expect. In fact, when the Bengal famine happened in 1943, the first shipload of rice went from Kalahandi. But today the tragedy is that Kalahandi people die of hunger and starvation. For the last five years, Kalahandi has produced on average surplus of 50,000 tons of rice, year after year. And those people who produce cannot buy that rice. The problem is that there is food, but people do not have the purchasing power to buy that food. That is why we have 50 million tons rotting in the country. People cant buy it.
Multinational companies and WTO, they are using this promise, Look, these people cant afford that food. When we bring the subsidized food it becomes cheaper. But this is untrue. Untrue because the price at which that food is being made available in this country, no multinational company can provide food at that level. They will not survive. Economically they will all collapse.
Rice is available at 4 rupees/kg. Wheat is also available at 5 rupees/kg, or 4 rupees/kg. For the poor, this would mean it would come down to less than 10 cents, 10 American cents/kg. Please tell me where in America can you find wheat or rice at less than 10 cents a kg.
At those kinds of low prices, people cant even buy that food. Basically they have lost their capacity. And that is because of the globalization process. Why? Because when the cheaper food comes into the country, actually it means we are importing unemployment. When the people give up agriculture, what do they do? Not that this wasnt happening earlier, but the process has been accelerated by globalization coming into India from 1991 onwards. We are becoming a victim of globalization.
And this is a phenomenon not only confined to India. This Kalahandi Syndrome extends all over the world. The world today has more food than the hungry need. The tragedy is that they cant buy it. If you look at the world supply of food today, if you were to distribute whatever is available today, we, according to the norms laid out by the WHO, by the minimum calorie requirement, we would have food left for 800 million people, a surplus left for 800 million people -- after feeding everybody. But why we have 800 million people hungry today is because they cant buy that food.
These are the inequalities and to us globalization will further accentuate that crisis because it is not only not providing the poor food, it is taking away their jobs. How do you expect them to buy their food, even if it is cheaper?
This kind of Catch 22 situation has never been explained by the economists, has never been asked and understood by the economists. And because the poor and hungry have no voice, nobody is talking about them. Thats the biggest tragedy. To me, this is the greatest challenge for us in the country and that is why a few of us have got together to set up a small center we are calling the World Hunger Institute. We think we are technically qualified to call it the World Hunger Institute because we have the largest number of hungry in the world with us and we want to launch a direct assault on feeding the hungry. Not as charity but as something that can build up their capacity to be food secure for the years to come.
Please click forward to Part 2 From Secured-Cash Crops to Village Republics
Published in In Motion Magazine November 6, 2003
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