Local food systems culturally integral to the local communities, enhances community health and nutrition while abolishing hunger. While doing so, it encourages ecological farming, conserving the local ecosystems. Most importantly, it helps the marginalized communities in rediscovering their lost dignity. One can get ample lessons about the inevitability of following local food systems in preference to global systems from the dalit women in Andhra Pradesh.
Year 1996. World Food Summit in Rome. The air was thick with hope. Especially among the food security activists who saw a great significance in the fact that 185 countries chose to send their delegations to the Summit and nearly 125 heads of government or their deputies attended the Conference. But when the summit closed, the world was in for a shock. The summit declared that “trade was a tool for food security”. It was immediately understood by everyone that food security would be another instrument to increase the corporate power over food production and consumption across the world. This global shock was articulated by the Cuban President Fidel Castro who made a scathing attack on the cabal of world leaders and walked out of the Summit. This situation also led to the new concept of Food Sovereignty evolved by the international peasant movement, Via Campasina, a concept that displaced the discourse of Food Security all over the world. Finally the power play behind hunger and food had been clearly located.
Not that this power was not evident before nor had it not been articulated earlier. As far back in 1970s, a former US Secretary for Agriculture, Mr. Butz had clearly said that “Agripower, is unquestionably, an even greater force than petropower in man’s survival in the future. Man can, and has survived without petroleum, but he cannot survive without food”.
This notion of agripower continued to dominate US global policies. Henry Kissinger the most infamous Secretary of State of the USA had also focused on this line of power when he stated that “If you control oil you are controlling a few governments. But when you control food, you control entire global population”.
Therefore, POWER should be at the centre of all discussions on our food systems. What would give control over us to a few powerful people: a global food system or local food system?
Back to the Food Summit. “We pledge our political will and our common and national commitment to achieving food security for all and to an ongoing effort to eradicate hunger in all countries, with an immediate view to reducing the number of undernourished people to half their present level no later than 2015”, the leaders had proclaimed. In actuality, the number of hungry people had increased in a decade and half since the summit to over a billion, 20% more than the numbers registered in 1996, compelling the Executive Director of the UN World Food Programme to term this phenomenon as “silent tsunami.”
In response to this food irresponsible global policy, civil society groups had started honing the concept of Food Sovereignty, into a far sharper argument since 1996. The latest of this was the meet held in Nyeline in Mali, West Africa in 2007. Attended by the Who’s Who of food activists across the globe, the Nyelini Conference issued a path breaking declaration. Some of the points in the Declaration were:
1.Focuses on food for people and right to food, rather than export commodities
2.Values food providers and respects their rights, rather than squeezing them off the land
3.Localises food systems, rather than promoting unfair global trade
4.Puts control locally, rather than with remote TNCs
5.Builds knowledge and skills, rather than depending on alien technologies such as GM
6.Works with nature, rather than using methods, such as energy intensive monocultures and livestock factories, that harm beneficial ecosystem functions.
Thus the major tenets of food sovereignty proclamations rested on issues of local food systems, local control and local knowledge.
Let us now land in India and rewind to 2003 when warehouses across the country were overflowing with grains. In contrast to the principles of Local Food Sovereignty, India had rested its faith in a strong National Food Security system. The country had seen a bumper stock of over 62 million tonnes lying with the Food Corporation of India. But at the same time the tribals in the Rayagadh region of Orissa had to forego a meal or two every day and stay hungry for weeks on end. Thus a food secure nation with stocks adequate to feed over 25 crore families for an entire year through PDS cards [In other words, all of the one billion population of India for a year] had abandoned a significant chunk of its vulnerable populations to hunger. This was the strongest indictment of the concept of National Food Security which, by its very nature, does not have the potential to eliminate hunger from its poorest households. In 2010, the Supreme Court of India had castigated the Government for having let precious food rot in its warehouses instead of using it to feed the poor. The Indian Government had its neoliberal answer ready: such an action would completely upset the economy of food production! In other words, the government was saying that letting food rot was serving the economy better than feeding it to the poor! An amazing heartlessness!
Therefore, where does one locate one’s hope in one’s mission of accomplishing food security for the poor and the vulnerable? Since 1990s, before the terms food security and food sovereignty came into wide global circulation, the Deccan Development Society (DDS) has been intuitively following these principles. Local Production, Local Storage and Local Distribution have been the cornerstones of our work which began within the framework of food security and then seamlessly moved onto embrace the concept of food sovereignty.
The road to food sovereignty
The road to food sovereignty for DDS came in four milestones.
1. From 1987-1997: Reclaiming poor people’s lands andenhancing household food security
DDS works in Medak District of Andhra Pradesh, India with over 5000 dalit women, most of who own very small pieces of degraded farmlands. These lands came to them as part of the feudal “INAM” land or they were assigned these lands as a part of Government’s Land Reform programme. The lands assigned were of very poor quality and very difficult to cultivate. Hence a majority of farmers had left them untended and fallow.
DDS helped over 2700 women farmers to reclaim these land through an Eco Employment programme in which it was envisaged to provide 100 days of employment to each one of its members. The employment was aimed at refertilising their soils through a series of activities such as bunding, trenching, top soil addition etc. Thus within ten years not only a million persondays of employment was generated in about 30 villages but it also led to nearly 300% increase in household food production. Now that the lands were turning productive, the farmers who had left these lands untended, started taking good care of them by installing ecological biodiverse farming systems on them. Millets, legumes, oilseeds, uncultivated greens grown on these lands not only offered a total household food security but also health. nutrition and fodder security. By ensuring biodiverse farming, farmers ensured risk insurance in their farms and accomplished an internalised input system.
2. Community cultivation of food crops for increased food access to the landless
From individual household food security to Sangham level Food Security was the next step that DDS took from late 1980s. Under this initiative, the women from DDS sanghams were helped to form themselves into groups of farming collectives [each group consisting of between 7-8 to 30-40] and took lands on lease from bigger farmers in their village and cultivated them collectively. It was invariably food crops that the women cultivated on these lands under ecological management conditions. They would offer a lump sum as lease amount to the landlord. Between 1990 and 2010 the lease amounts per acre varied from Rs.300/acre to Rs.6000/acre. And the size of the land taken on lease has varied between 2 acres [very rarely] to 10 acres [most of the time] to 50 acres [10 per cent of the time] Invariably lands selected for lease are rainfed lands since they have minimum management requirements, less expensive to manage and are conducive to a wide ranging food production. With this initiative, every participating farmer was able to access every season, about 100 kgs of foodgrains, 60 kgs of fodder, 30 kgs of pulses, ten kgs of assorted oilseeds and 50-70 kgs of green leafy vegetables. Together, these would help her family stay food, nutrition and fodder secure for over two months a year.
For many of the participating families this closed the food availability gap they were facing. From their own 1-2 acres of holding they would probably get about 8-10 months of food and fodder. Being a part of a lease group, they would be able to access two more months of food and fodder thereby closing the gap. Over a period of 20 years from 1988 till 2008, over 8,000 women enjoyed food access by leasing in nearly 10000 acres of land.
3. Community lead localised PDS system
But by far, the most seminal initiative of the DDS Food Sovereignty programme has been the community-led Alternative PDS (APDS). The thinking behind this programme was to reevaluate the need for local communities to depend on a highly centralised national PDS system in which local communities had no role to play. Some favoured states such as Punjab and Haryana produced food for the entire country, foods which may be totally alien to the rest of the country. For example, in Medak district of Andhra Pradesh where DDS works, people have been eating jowar[sorghum] and other millets as their staple food for hundreds of years. Why should they eat rice or wheat now? Secondly, travelling long distances, this grain uses up precious fossil fuels for their transportation. This is known as food miles in food security parlance. The higher the food miles [the distance traversed from the location of production to the location of consumption] the greater its ecological footprint. Thirdly PDS rice, as mentioned in the Indian Planning Commission reports are sometimes as old as 12 years, are invariably produced under the chemical intensive Green Revolution model. Therefore why should citizens of Medak eat this bad food while their own millets – pulses – oilseeds combination derived from their dryland farming is immensely superior in terms of nutrition and health?
This was the debate that took place among the sanghams of DDS for many months before the women decided to pilot their own model of PDS based on the principles of Local Production, Local Storage and Local Distribution. Thousands of hectares of local fallows were brought under the plough through an interest free loan to land owners [all of who were small and marginal farmers] ranging from Rs.2700/acre to Rs.4200/acre. In lieu of the loan, the farmers agreed to pay 850 kgs of jowar or any other local millet grown on their land over a period of 5 years.
Every village had a committee consisting of 3-5 women, who monitored the whole process, disbursed the loans, collected the repaid grains, stored them in their own houses through traditional storage systems.
Once this was done, the poorest in their communities were identified by the villagers through Participatory Poverty Assessment tools. Women prepared ration cards for the identified poor that would entitle each poor family a monthly ration of 25 kgs of jowar @ Rs 2/kg. The money collected from the grain sales would be invested in a Community Bank Account and would be withdrawn over time for investment into reclaiming more fallows so that the system turns into a self sustaining cycle.
Each village working with approximately 100 acres of cultivable fallows has not only been producing all the food needed by the poor, but also fodder for nearly 200 animals, health and nutrition that are hallmark of millets, livelihoods upto 5000 persondays and ecological security [because all farming under this initiative used completely ecological techniques]. But the most important feature of the initiative was that all the local people had participated in decision making at every level. Something that Dr De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur for Right to Food calls the hallmark of Food Sovereignty:
Building Food Sovereignty relies on the democratization of decision-making processes that affect the rural and smallholder-farming worlds.
[Olivier de Schutter, in his address to the FAO Committee on Food Security, November 2009]
This democratisation of the processes while establishing a local food system has been going on since 1996 and has been working for 15 years at various stages of success. There has been no new infusion of money into this system except for some nominal honorarium for the grassroots workers. Right now a Community Food Sovereignty Trust composed of 9 rural dalit women is managing the system in nearly 30 villages. A Medak Food Sovereignty Network working with 5 NGOs in the district, AP Alliance for Food Sovereingty [APAFS] working with 13 NGOs in 12 districts, Together all these efforts are leading to nearly three million extra kgs of grains being produced every year in 135 villages. Out of this grain nearly 1.2 million kgs are distributed to the people who have been issued a ration card benefiting close to 50000 hungry people in those villages.
Alliance for Food Sovereignty [AFSA] working with 8 NGOs in four states of Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa are experimenting with this model in their own states.
A defining moment for this process came in 2003, seven years after the APDS system started functioning. The DDS communities decided to do a reality check of the impact of their work on their communities. This was done through a series of hunger mapping exercises in their villages. At the end of this process, not more than 130 people in 32 communities [of a total population of more than 75000 persons of which nearly 50000 belong to the BPL sections] were identified as “hungry”. Once they completed the map, the sanghams in these villages started their own community kitchens contributing grain and labour from their own houses to feed the hungry. This was an amazing turn of events. Dalit women from the poorest families, who once waited for doles from outside to quench their hunger were today giving out food to the hungriest in their communities. This was the power transferred to the women by a local food production system controlled by them.
Seed Sovereignty, the first link in the food chain
While all this was happening, the issue of seeds and the shrinking seed diversity caught the attention of DDS women in mid 1990. They 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. This was a great concern for both food and farming. As the varieties of food they used to cook in their kitchens come down, so will their health and nutritional well being. Any nutritionist will attest to it. Similarly, if their farms start using less and less seeds and lose their diversity, the essential strength of their farming and its inherent risk insurance capabilities will be lost for ever. More than anything, the seed self sufficiency which is at the heart of the DDS communities would have been completely forsaken.
Keeping all this in view the DDS sanghams started a programme called Community Gene Fund in 1997. The essential objective of this was to reclaim all the lost seeds and make their communities seed sovereign. The women leaders travelled to all their relatives and their villages, scoured the presence of seeds in various households and brought fistful of seeds from all these places. Finally, they were able to build up a gene pool that had been lost in the previous 2-3 decades.
The seeds were brought to their communities and handed over to a couple of farmers in each of their villages for multiplication. In order to do so, they received financial help from their sanghams. Once they multiplied the seeds, the farmers would repay 25% of their loan every year in the form of seeds. Seeds were handed over to one or two women selected by their sangham for safe keeping and sharing with their community. These were the Community Gene Banks of DDS. Over the years, every single village where DDS works has come to have its own seed bank. Over 90 seed varieties have been stored in these banks. They are lent to any farmer who wants them on the local seed sharing principle that she will return it at 1:1.5 or 1:2 ratio after she plants and harvests her crops.
Over ten years, the number of women borrowing seeds from their Community Seed Banks started coming down. While we enquired the reason anxiously, the reply was heartening. It was simply that every woman had become a seed bank herself saving between 15-20 varieties of seeds in their own houses. Thus, DDS women have truly become seed sovereign. Now they don’t have to look out for seeds outside their communities. They have demonetized their seed transactions.
Compare this with the seed mayhem that goes on in Andhra Pradesh year after year. When the government announces that it will start distributing subsidised seeds, there will be virtual riots. Farmers start sitting on roads for days on end, trample each other [once, seven farmers got killed in trampling in Anantapur], have been fired upon by the police and have suffered untold indignities. Comparing their desperation with the quiet dignity of the dalit women of DDS, a dignity that comes of community control over seeds, one can get ample lessons about the inevitability of following local food systems in preference to global systems.
Input – Output Abstract Year 1 Year 2
Loans to land beneficiaries Rs. 39.16 lakhs Rs. 19.45 lakhs
Payment to rural artisans
for storage bins Rs.0.35 lakhs Rs.00.51 lakhs
Total no of villages covered 31 32
Lands brought under cultivation
(Mostly current fallows, degraded
hard terrain with low fertility) 2636 acres 2676 acres
Number of people benefitted
(mostly marginal poor
from SCs and BCs) 1729 1729
Total no of days of
employment generated 2.39 lakh 2.44 lakh
Number of days of
genrated per village 7967 7625
Number of days of
employment / acre 90 persondays 91 persondays
Estimated wage income
generated Rs.35.85 lakhs Rs.36.60 lakhs
Calculated at market
wages of Rs.15/- per day
for women and Rs.20/-
Calculated at market wages of
Rs.100/- per day Per person
as per the wage rate in 2010 Rs. 2.37 crores 2.45 crores
Note : This wage income accrued not only to the land beneficiaries
(1729) but also other labour households who are not covered by
Total income earned on 2636 acres (I Year Rs.108 lakhs
Total income earned on 2676 acres(II Year) Rs.110 lakhs
A nine member Community Food Sovereignty Trust (FST) composed entirely of dalit women, established in 2006, has been now administering and monitoring the entire food sovereignty work. The Trust Preamble clearly mentions what its objectives are:
1. Over a period of five years, hunger in all its manifestations shall vanish from all the communities where the FST is engaged in.
2. In order to achieve this profound goal, the DDS FST shall work to establish a priority for cultivation of food crops over non food crops in their communities.
3. The eradication of hunger shall come through the enhancement of biodiverse farming systems in our communities. Such enhancement shall be visible on the farms of the poor in particular and all farmers in general. These farms shall sport more than ten crops at the same time and space.
4. The DDS FST shall ensure that every community with which it is engaged shall have more than 50 varieties of traditional seeds that are time tested, vibrant and therefore can simultaneously guarantee diverse yields and ecological security.
5. In this process, the DDS FST shall make sure that the leadership of women and dalits over their food and seed systems shall be irrevocably established.
In summary, what local food systems bring to the local communities are:
– Democratic decision making with women taking the leadership
– Farming that is local eco system adopted and hence breathing life into their soils.
– Food that is culturally integral to local communities, thereby enhancing the household and community health and nutrition
– Confidence in their own science and practice
– Truly abolish hunger from their homes and communities
– Eliminate distress migration from villages
– Rejuvenate local businesses
– Let the local communities and marginalised people rediscover their lost dignity
None of these will be possible for a global food system, that can leave communities devastated, food systems in tatters, remove nutrition from food, raise food prices through speculative trade.
The countries in Global South can secure their food and nutritional security only when they look inward and strengthen local food systems instead falling a prey to the predatory global food markets.
P V Satheesh
Deccan Development Society,
No. 101, Kishan Residency,
Street No. 5, Begumpet,
Hyderabad – 500 016