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Editorial – Regional Food systems

The food production system is under intense pressure. Ecological degradation, population growth, food shortages, climate change, declining productivity, commodity and commercial approach, changing consumption patterns etc., have all resulted in a change, not only in terms of what we produce but also the way we produce food. The warning signs are clear – stagnant food production, growing food insecurity, rising food prices, increased vulnerability of the poor, growing malnutrition among the poor, especially the women and children.

Around 80 percent of hungry people are thought to live in rural areas, where most of them work as small-scale food producers: farmers, herders, fishers, or labourers. The food insecurity in India is at an alarming situation reflected by a recent study by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). India is among 29 countries with the highest levels of hunger, stunted children and poorly fed women, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)’s “Global Hunger Index 2010”. Despite a strong economy, India ranked 67th among 85 countries in terms of access to food. The report points to widespread hunger in a country that is the world’s largest producer of milk and edible oils, and the second-largest producer of wheat and sugar. The country has a high “hunger score” of 24.1. Even economically developed states like Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka find themselves in the category of high food insecurity. This reflects the enormity of the agrarian crisis and its consequent negative impact on the health and well-being of the rural communities.

Need for local food systems

Traditionally, Indian farmers have been growing food that is locally acceptable, adopting a system which relied on local resources. Much of this food was consumed at the household level and small surpluses sold in the local markets. The systems represented economies which were local, robust and self sufficient which evolved over generations.

In such local systems, each link in the food chain offers economic niches for many more people – as millers, carpenters, iron workers and mechanics, local milk processors, bakers, small shopkeepers and owners of food outlets, for example. The livelihoods and incomes of a huge number of rural and urban dwellers are thus dependent on the local manufacture of farm inputs and on the local storage, processing, distribution, sale and preparation of food. Even in affluent Western countries such as the USA and the UK, there is strong evidence that localized food systems generate many jobs and help sustain small and medium sized enterprises.

But today, the situation is different. Farming is no longer a family pursuit. It has become more and more dependent on external inputs. Farmers no longer use the seed they produce and the manure they prepare. Corporations exercise enormous power at the ‘input’ end of the food chain: the production of seeds and agrochemicals.

Globally, four firms – Dupont, Monsanto, Syngenta, and Limagrain – dominate over 50 per cent of seed industry sales, while six firms control 75 per cent of agrochemicals. Small-scale farmers’ technology needs are ignored, despite the fact that they represent the biggest opportunity to increase production and combat hunger.

But, there is huge untapped potential for improved crop production in small-scale agriculture. With the right kind of investment this potential can be realized. We have several such examples in this issue, which showcase that local systems are sustainable providing multiple benefits to the people and the planet.

Adaptive ecosystem management for meeting food demands

Agriculture faces a daunting challenge. It must dramatically increase food production and most of it has to come from the rainfed regions which occupy around 60% of the cultivated area and have received little attention from development view point. It is a well known fact that increasing fertilizer use offers ever diminishing returns leading to serious environmental consequences. The results are already evident for us to see. Therefore, food increases should come along with a transformation in the way in which food is produced.

Farmers have creative ways to adapt to given situations. Pressures on land and water can be reduced through new practices and techniques that boost yields, use soils and water more sensibly, and reduce their reliance on inputs – techniques such as drip-feed irrigation, water harvesting, agroforestry, intercropping, and the use of organic manures. Many use intercropping methods that combine trees and other plants in a manner that takes advantage of natural ecological niches. Others apply brilliantly simple low-tech solutions reducing drudgery as well as the carbon footprint of agriculture.

Many farmers have totally “brought back” the traditional farming systems and are offering live labs for others to observe. Tribal farmers in Orissa (Seema Prasanth, p.16) started cultivating different crop varieties on a single land adopting mixed cropping and rotational cropping methods. For instance, one farmer in the Kusumi block managed to grow 92 varieties of crops on his 1.5 acres of land!

Agricultural biodiversity for sustainable food systems

Nurturing agricultural biodiversity by farmers and their communities is increasingly seen as a prerequisite for sustaining food systems, livelihoods and environments. Farm biodiversity not only provides an insurance against risk. It is also essential in providing adequate, nutritious and culturally appropriate food, as people cannot live healthy, eating only a few types of cereals. It is genetic diversity that allows regional food systems to be productive, even in times of ecological stress. The richness in the genetic diversity of crops means an agro-ecosystem that is hardier and more resilient to biotic and abiotic stresses such as pests or climate variation.(Suman Sahai, p.19 )

According to UNDP Human Development Report, 2002,“global corporations can have enormous impact on human rights – in their employment practices, in their environmental impact, in their support for corrupt regimes or in their advocacy for policy changes”. Today, the top 200 corporations control around a quarter of the world’s total productive assets. Many TNCs have revenues far exceeding the revenues of the Governments of the countries in which they are operating. Concentration has produced huge transnational corporations that monopolize the whole food distribution chain, narrowing choices for farmers and consumers. Just 10 corporations (which include Aventis, Monsanto, Pioneer and Syngenta) control one-third of the US$ 23 billion commercial seed market and 80 per cent of the US$ 28 billion global pesticide market. Monsanto alone controls 91 per cent of the global market for genetically modified seed. Another 10 corporations, including Cargill, control 57 per cent of the total sales of the world’s leading 30 retailers and account for 37 per cent of the revenues earned by the world’s top 100 food and beverage companies.

Source: United Nations Economic and Social Council, Jean Ziegler, “The right to food”, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, 2006.

Shrinking seed diversity has been an issue of concern as it forms the foundation for the farm biodiversity. Small scale farmers who have been the custodians of the seed wealth of the nation, over years, lost access to this diversity. For instance, the women in Zaheerabad in Andhra Pradesh were using over 100 varieties of various seeds [millets, pulses, oilseeds] in mid ‘60s. But by mid ‘80s this number had shrunk to less than 25 varieties.(P V Satheesh, p.7)

Nurturing biodiversity in farming
Nurturing biodiversity in farming

Local communities have been multiplying the seeds of their choice to increase the stock of seeds with the desirable qualities. Communities select the seeds through participatory exercises like seed mapping and seed selection (Biswamohan, p.34). These exercises have resulted in bringing back a number of traditional varieties back into cultivation. For instance, through these efforts, around 155 farmers in Orissa started cultivating several varieties of millets like Jowar, Khado, Gundulu, Mandia, and Kheri that had not been cultivated for over 20 years. (Seema Prasanth, p.16)

Setting up seed – grain banks at the village level has been one of the important methods adopted by communities to overcome the problem of seed and grain shortages when they are required. Such decentralized system where villagers themselves plan, manage and undertake all stages of food production, storage, distribution and management are found to be more sustainable in providing food security at local level. For instance, DDS sanghams started a Community Gene Fund in 1997. The tribal farmers in Koraput region also started a village level seed-grain-gene bank with the support of MSSRF and were recognized for their efforts through the Equator Initiative Award which they received at World Summit on Sustainable Development in August 2002.

Facilitating knowledge exchanges

Building sustainable local food systems is not easy. There are no easy and simple solutions that can be provided from outside. Local knowledge on seed, production methods, processing and food preparation can be strengthened when farmers and consumers have enough opportunities to interact and learn from each other. It is important that the change agents play a facilitative role in enabling this to happen. Seed melas, seed campaigns and food festivals are some of them.

Vanastree an NGO in Malnad region in Karnataka has been organising seed melas, roughly every two years for the past decade. Around 400 women farmers exchange seeds and display the diversity of crop resources they have. (Tuula Rebhahn, p.21)

Exchanges are necessary for building up demand for the local food. Growing local food addresses only the supply side of the problem. To be sustainable, it is necessary that it is matched with the consumer demand too. Demand for local food can come only when people are aware, not only about the nutritional aspect of the food but also as to how to process and prepare tasty cuisines from them. As local communities have lost the knowledge on local foods, it is necessary that opportunities are created for building awareness as well as developing skills in food preparation. DULAL, an NGO, in Orissa has facilitated celebrating food festivals. A farmer getting a good harvest of millets organises a food festival in which many different dishes made from millets are prepared and served to the villagers. The food festivals have revived the celebrations of these customs with new vigour in these tribal villages.(Seema Prasanth, p.16)

People-friendly policies

In India, government support for food security is broad. The national government has about 20 schemes in place to tackle food insecurity and malnutrition. They include longstanding schemes such as the Integrated Child Development Service (ICDS), which has been in place since 1975 and recent initiatives such as the National Food Security Mission, launched in 2007, which aims to increase crop productivity, and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) of 2005, which offers rural households a minimum of 100 days of guaranteed employment per year. There is critical attention to food access in all three cases, particularly through in-kind and in-cash transfers, as well as public works. However, in the absence of formal national food security strategy these programmes and actions exist in various public sectors limiting their effectiveness. According to ACTION AID’s Hunger Report Card, ‘Effective implementation of these interventions, holds the key to reducing hunger’.

Policies have a profound influence on the livelihoods security, agricultural biodiversity and the very fabric of local food systems and economies. Small farmers and rural people harbor considerable concerns over the possible impacts and it is important that they be involved in shaping up policies. ‘Prajateerpu’ is a fine example to show as to how it was devised as a means of allowing those people most likely to be affected by Vision 2020 to shape a vision of their own. Vision 2020 is a document prepared by Andhra Pradesh government which proposed to consolidate small farms and rapidly increase mechanisation and modernisation, introduce enhancing technologies such as genetic modification in farming and food processing and reducing the number of people on the land from 70% to 40% by 2020. (Pimbert, p.12)

Building local food systems

It’s time to rethink, reeducate, and regrow our food system. There are many ways in which the broken local food systems can be rebuilt. Encourage farms that are small, diverse and committed to growing foods for the local market like grains, millets and legumes. Reduce commodity crop approach for small farms. Implement farmer supportive policies that encourage local food production. Educate the urban consumers about what healthy food actually is, and how to prepare it. Educate the rich to stop food wastage.

There are already groups of people at the grass roots, empowering people to make agriculture less environmentally harmful and to take back control over the food they produce. The field experiences indicate that the system of small-scale traditional farming is remarkably stable. This food system may not be perfect, but it’s almost completely local. As a result, it’s also much more sustainable than the globalized, nutrition-poor diet that is prevalent and promoted by extravagant publicity and support.

Practical solutions are many and available. They are good for people and to the planet. Their benefits can be shared by the many, not just the few. They are built to be resilient in the long run.


Oxfam International, Growing a Better Future, Food Justice in a Resource Constrained World, June 2011, www.oxfam.org/grow.

Darana Souza, Danuta Chmielewska, Public Support to Food Security in India, Brazil and South Africa: Elements for a Policy Dialogue, International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth, Working Paper number 80 April, 2011