The Way Forward

By Bhogtoram Mawroh

In their 2013 document, Food Security and Sovereignty (Base Document for Discussion), FAO stated, “Without the right to food one cannot guarantee life, dignity or the enjoyment of other human rights.”
The importance of food was brought out very starkly during the COVID-19 pandemic. India, one of the most affected nations, had to dip into its national food security apparatus to ensure that people had access to sufficient food during the lockdown. In spite of such measures, there were news that during the initial period of the lockdown, dozens of people had died due to exhaustion, hunger, denial of medical care, or suicides due to lack of food or livelihood.
Though no deaths due to starvation was reported in Meghalaya, interactions with the community revealed that food shortage was widespread. The difficulty was exacerbated by the fact that the period of the lockdown coincided with the planting season, also known as the ‘hunger season’. The stock from last year’s harvest had been disposed of (self-consumption or sale) with studies by NESFAS revealing that dependence on the market and the forest (for wild food) was the highest during this season. Though there were no reported cases of starvation, food insecurity (lack of adequate food) was rampant.
This lack of adequate food is problematic because weak immunity has been identified as an important factor for COVID-19 related mortality. Lack of a diversified diet (revealed from the participatory mapping done by NESFAS) meant that the local community’s immune system was already vulnerable to the virus; food shortage would only aggravate the situation.
India is self-sufficient in terms of stocks of major grains and theoretically no one in India should go hungry. It’s only an important matter of improving access (physical, social and economic). But for frontier places like Meghalaya, long supply chains could mean crucial delays (which happened when trucks to Meghalaya were stopped on the Assam border). Taken together, it creates a scenario where Meghalaya’s food security will always remain vulnerable to external shocks.
It is here that Meghalaya could learn from the insights brought out by Food Sovereignty instead of Food Security. Both concepts share similarities but differ greatly in certain aspects which have important repercussions for a state like Meghalaya, a large proportion of whose labour force is engaged in agriculture as small and marginal farmers.

In 1996, the World Food Summit took place in response to the persistence of widespread malnutrition and a growing concern regarding the ability of agriculture to meet future food needs. In this summit, food security was defined as, “Food security means that all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life”.
Not satisfied with the concept, NGO and Civil Society Organisations like La Via Campesina instead proposed the alternative concept of Food Sovereignty: “Food Sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.”
Both the concepts agree on four counts. Food security and food sovereignty agree that increase in food production is crucial if supply has to keep pace with increasing population; access to food is not just about physical access (achieved through improved transportation) but is also dependent on socio-economic factors; food is not just meant for sating hunger but is important for improved immunity; and during times of distress (such as the COVID-19 pandemic) social protection is necessary. After this the concepts diverge.
Food security makes no distinction regarding the source of the food, the producers or the conditions under such food are produced. Such omissions hide the power asymmetry between large and small producers and the sustainability of the model.
The largest exporter of food in the world is the US, followed by Germany and the UK. These are highly industrialised nations and the farming system practised is of a highly mechanised nature dominated by large-scale monoculture awash with the by-products of fossil fuels. The latter especially has a devastating impact on the human as well as natural environment.
A damning indictment of this model is Rachel Carson’s masterpiece The Silent Spring, a book which heralded the beginning of the environmental movement in the US and elsewhere. In spite of the book coming out in 1962, just over a decade after, Green Revolution, an imitation of the industrial farming models of the West, was introduced in India. Punjab, which is a poster child of Green Revolution’s success, is now ravaged by decline of the water table and high levels of rural cancer.
Globally, the model has allowed the first world nations to use the surplus from the excess stocks as a political weapon to impose a neo-colonial relationship on the third world countries.
Tony Weis’ book The Global Food Economy: The Battle for the Future of Farming says how the temperate grain livestock complex (farming system of the US and other industrialised nations) has resulted in an entrenchment of a dependency relationship of the Global South to the interest of, especially the US. In short, industrial farming is neither sustainable nor a just model, for those who practise it and for the planet.
Food sovereignty stands against this regime and believes that people who produce, distribute and consume food should control the mechanisms and policies of food production and distribution. Emerging from the work of La Via Campesina it has a very strong focus on small scale producers who produce more than 70 per cent of the food in the world.
In spite of this fact, small farmers are among the poorest and most marginalised in the food economy. One does not have to go far to see the evidence of such deprivations. This pandemic has hit people in rural Meghalaya the hardest. Because of its solidarity with those at the margins, food sovereignty does not consider food production to be just an economic activity geared for supplying cheap food to the middle and upper classes. Instead it believes that producers’ well-being has to be paramount and agriculture is a livelihood system that is dependent on the various capitals (human, social, financial, physical, and environmental) embedded in the local landscape.
For the indigenous people like the Khasis and the Garos, agriculture also derives from their cultural history and indigenous identity. Instead of imposing an industrial monoculture farming system, food sovereignty looks to combine traditional (indigenous) and modern knowledge in a manner which tries to mimic the natural environment. Environmental sustainability and not economic profits is the concern here.
Agroecology, which NESFAS promotes, is one such approach. The traditional farming systems found in Meghalaya and other parts of the North East are replete with such ecologically sustainable systems, the prime example of it being jhum/shifting cultivation/rep shyrtie.
Antagonistic to the behemoths (MNCs) who control the global market, instead emphasis is given to local markets rooted in the local society characterised by a short supply chain. Fossil fuel consumption being a prime driver for climate change, this also has huge climate change mitigation potential.
Food sovereignty gives power to the local community to decide on their food production and distribution system, something without which they will always be trapped in a dependency relationship. The Agriculture Census (2015-2016) revealed that almost 80 per cent of the landholdings in Meghalaya belong to the marginal (less than1 ha) and small (1 to 2 ha) farmers.
Apart from its hilly terrain, this is one of the reasons why Green Revolution technologies have not made major inroads into the state. As a result, indigenous farmers of the state still possess much of their local seeds. This gives Meghalaya an opportunity to build an agricultural system which empowers the local community as well as being economically viable, socially just and environmentally responsible. That can happen when it abandons the policy of food security and instead adopts that of food sovereignty.
Threats are already on the horizon. A recent article titled ‘From jhum to broom: Agricultural land-use change and food security implications on the Meghalaya Plateau, India’ by Rabi Narayan Behera has revealed that area under traditional and modern cash crops like arecanut, citrus, banana, ginger, turmeric, pineapple, black pepper, rubber, cashew nut, tea, coffee has increased over the years. Left unchecked, this could pose grave threats to the sustainability of the highly diverse indigenous food production system. Food sovereignty is the need of the hour and the COVID-19 pandemic has brought out this need more forcefully than ever.

(The author is a senior associate at NESFAS and can be reached at [email protected])

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