Food Security and Ecology in India

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In India last year, there was an intense debate on the proposed Food Security Bill, centering mostly around the impact on the national budget and the mechanism of distributing extra supplies of food grains to consumers throughout the country. Parliament eventually passed the Bill but the question remains: is this really the food security initiative that will serve people best? For the rural population, which is primarily involved in agriculture, food security is not merely a matter of entitlement to a certain amount of cash or food grains; but is reflected in the existence of an available, accessible and assured source of food that will hold steady in the face of stresses and shocks to the food system. It is not just about hunger, it is about the ability to rely on a source of food in a stable way.

Traditionally, the food system for rural families comprises not only what they grow and the livestock they raise, but also what they extract from forests, streams and the surrounding landscape. The ecosystem can provide food directly (edible plants and animal and also medicinal plants), these can also be sold and the income used to purchase other food products; forests also provide firewood that is crucial for cooking (an adequate supply is required, for example, to cook proteins such as beans and meat which would help improve quality of diet). In terms of production, forests provide a habitat for pollinators, maintain/reduce soil erosion and fertility and mangroves and coastal forests reduce the impact of flooding to ensure stability in crop production and fish supply. Rural people, therefore, rely on the surrounding system for supplementing their diet as well as for their livestock and also to ensure that their crops can flourish. But this rural landscape and  the resources it offers also face degradation from overuse, pollution, deforestation all of which will be exacerbated by climate change. With the spread of urban living and tourism, rural populations without strong land rights are often shut out off lands to which they traditionally had access. It is in this context that a food security policy needs to be assessed. Can rural families count on an accessible, available and assured food supply?

On a broad scale, a balance has to be sought between conservation and production/consumption. Efforts at preserving and conserving the environment can sometimes lead to an artificial split in the landscape with certain areas marked for production and others for conservation. This negates the traditional integrated living patterns of rural people where forests and agricultural production coexist. By making an arbitrary divide in the environment, farmers are now excluded from access to resources that earlier supplemented their nutrition.

A recent World Bank report underlined that India would have to “value its natural resources, and ecosystems to better inform policy and decision-making.” This seems to be in accordance with what the Environmental Policy Report of 2006 which explained that “the dominant theme of this policy is that while conservation of environmental resources is necessary to secure livelihoods and well-being of all, the most secure basis for conservation is to ensure that people dependent on particular resources obtain better livelihoods from the fact of conservation, than from degradation of the resource.” How much of this translates into actual practice is another matter.

In terms of providing support to deal with stresses and shocks without further intensifying ecological degradation; the Food Security Act can be effective. If farmers could rely on this as a source of food, there would be less pressure to draw on an already threatened or depleted environment. This concern is brought into sharper focus as we face the challenge of climate change which would stress the ecosystem. All the effects of a policy that is blind to ecosystems will be further magnified by climate change. It has been estimated that there will a ten per cent extra increase in malnourished children world wide, as a result of climate change. India is particularly vulnerable, according to UNICEF, 1 in 3 malnourished children in the world live in India that makes future projections accounting for climate change of great concern. If food security policy assures them of at least a meal a day at school, that could have a big impact.

On the other hand, the Food Security Act is limited to a few crops and this has ecological implications as well. Due to the increased demand for these crops, farmers would find it profitable to opt for growing only a few major crops such as wheat or rice thus drawing more resources such as water to these two crops and reducing diversity in the production of food.

For an effective food security policy, ensuring access to ecosystem resources is crucial; it is not simply a matter of handing out grains/cash through a public system. An effective food security policy would view people and the ecosystem as integrated and design measures that work across sectors; so conservation/environmental policies would be devised in step with rural food security policy. It would recognize that food security also needs to be climate resilient and stresses brought on by climate change such as drought, and flood which impact access to food can be better managed by ensuring that production policies and conservation efforts are framed with the entire ecosystem in mind.

This post grew out of a Twitter discussion with @IndianBotanists and I thank them for their suggestion and appreciate their patience as this post came to fruition. (Image Courtesy:freedigitalphotos.net)

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One response to “Food Security and Ecology in India

  1. Pingback: The Conservation Question | Thought + Food

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