Category Archives: Water

Absolute power comes from absolute control of food – Devinder Sharma

 This painting is by the French artist Michel Granger.

Is this what we have done to our planet?  

Devinder Sharma shares his interview with French journalist Catherine Andre, posted on January 2018 in the Bhoomi Network emagazine, which shares holistic views on ecological and man-made realities.

A summary

The industrial food production model, developed in the United States and Europe since WWII, and lately widely adopted in South America, is unsustainable and is destroying both the planet and its inhabitants…

The large high-input, high-yield monocultures, with heavy farm machinery running on subsidised fossil-fuel and laced with potent agro-chemicals have not only depleted soil health, but polluted oceans, rivers as well as ground water and has massively contaminated the environment. The decimation of plant and animal biodiversity, and the loss of accompanying ‘traditional knowledge’ has in turn impoverished communities that have lived in synergy with the bio-resources.

The emergence of commodity value chains and the way international trade regimes have been designed, means that developing country farmers have been forced to de-skill, abandon agriculture and migrate to the cities in search of menial jobs. Still worse, the forceful opening of the developing country’s trade barriers and inundation with highly subsidised food supplies, has already turned 105 of the 149-odd Third World Countries into food importing countries.

The best way to address hunger for any developing country is to have production by the masses, and not production for the masses

Producing food and carrying it all the way to different parts of the world has created ‘food miles’ which exacerbates global warming. And ever since the global food crisis in 2007/8, multinational companies are now in a race to grab farm land. Studies have shown that an area equivalent to the cultivable area in China and India has already been purchased or leased in Africa, South America and Asia. But in my understanding the best way to address hunger for any developing country is to have production by the masses, and not production for the masses. Small farmers need to be gainfully employed, in the sense that farming is turned into a profitable enterprise. Political stability apart, the region needs investment in livelihood options which means primarily focusing on restoring agriculture, livestock and the rural infrastructure.

The revival of traditional agriculture, depending on water availability and providing adequate farm prices and market infrastructure is immediately required

At the World Economic Forum 2011 at Davos, business leaders from 17 private companies – including Archer Daniels Midland, BASF, Bunge Limited, Cargill, Coca-Cola, DuPont, General Mills, Kraft Foods, Metro AG, Monsanto Company, Nestlé, PepsiCo, SABMiller, Syngenta, Unilever, Wal-Mart, and Yara International -announced the launch of a global initiative — New Vision for Agriculture — that sets ambitious targets for increasing food production by 20 percent, decreasing greenhouse gas emissions per ton by 20 percent, and reducing rural poverty by 20 percent every decade.

While all the targets seem very attractive, the fact remains that world does not need to produce more. As per the USDA report, the world already produces food for 13.5 billion people, which means for double the existing population. Roughly 40 per cent of the food produced globally is wasted every year. The challenge should therefore be to drastically reduce food wastage rather than to raise production thereby causing more environmental depletion.

From an era of food self-sufficiency, India is gradually moving to be an economy of dependence. Successive governments have pushed in policies that promotes privatization of natural resources, takeover of farm land, integrating Indian agriculture with the global economy, and moving farmers out of agriculture – in essence the hallmark of the neo-liberal economic growth model. The result is clearly visible. The millions displaced will constitute the new class of migrants – agricultural refugees. Twice the number of people that are expected to be displaced by global warming worldwide will be pushed out of agriculture in India.

According to Down to Earth magazine, the food import bill for 2015-16 stood at Indian Rs 1,402,680,000,000.

This was three times more than the annual budget for agriculture. Successive governments have actually been following a policy prescription that was laid out by the World Bank as early as in 1996.

Just like the controversial austerity measures in the European Union, the thrust of the economic policies is to cut down on social security, public investment in food, agriculture, health and education. International Financial institutions, credit rating agencies and the multilateral trading organisations have all been pushing for fiscal reforms. This is accompanied with increasing privatisation of natural resources, encouraging corporate agriculture and pushing for public-private partnership projects.

What India needs is a production system by the masses, not production for the masses.

For a country like India, which has 600 million people directly or indirectly engaged in agriculture, food production has the potential to revitalise the Indian economy, be a pivot of inclusive growth.

As I have often said: “Absolute power comes from absolute control of food” So far, the food chain is in the hands of three dominant players. The technology companies, the trading companies and the supermarkets. I see a convergence taking place in the years to come. Three players are swiftly merging into one – the future food factories. Many universities in US/EU have come up with designs for the future food factory, but the most worrying part is that the World Bank is considering how to subsidise it. That will be the end of farmers then.

Whether in Argentina and Mexico, a circle of poison escalated by the application of chemical pesticides, including the controversial glyphosate pesticide, has caused extensive suffering

In India aerial spraying of Endosulfan in cashew plantations in Kerala had for some decades inflicted innumerable diseases/disorders among the people. Lately a train carrying cancer patients from the food bowl of Punjab, engaged in high-intensive agriculture, to neighbouring Rajasthan has come to be known as ‘Cancer Train’.

With six companies controlling pesticides production, and the same companies also claiming intellectual propriety over ‘improved’ seeds, the control over agriculture has become complete. The Poison papers, prepared by the BioScience Resource Project, is a compilation of 20,000 documents that expose decades of collusion between the pesticides industry and regulators. But still, the international community is unwilling to work towards a pesticide-free world.

If consumers demand pesticide and GM-free food, the retail trade will provide it.

Once the demand for pesticide-free food picks up, I see no reason why farmers will not increasingly come under pressure to cultivate without the application of pesticides and chemical fertiliser. The sale of organic food in recent years has picked up enormously in America, Europe and India. I see this as a major development which can shape the future of agriculture, move towards sustainable farming systems.

Consumers rejecting genetically-modified food is primarily the reason why Europe has stood as a wall against the import of GM food from America. European governments are refusing to give way to pressure to allow for GM foods because of public opposition.

The challenge therefore lies in educating consumers, creating wider awareness about their food habits. Once they realise that they are responsible for the environmental damage the world is faced with, they will change. At a time when the world is in the midst of jobless growth, only a sustainably vibrant agriculture can provide livelihoods, save environment, reduce Greenhouse Gas emissions, and boost the global economy.

Read the full article here:





Access to food cannot be left to the market forces, it is the responsibility of society and the state: nine measures based on Mahatma Gandhi’s Talisman

An important message from friend and colleague, Devinder Sharma, who chairs the New Delhi-based Forum for Biotechnology & Food Security and is also a member of the coordination committee of the National Kisan Panchayat (National Coalition of Farmers Unions) in India:

It has been exactly 13 years since I was invited by the UK Food Group and Sustain to make a presentation on My Vision for a Global Agriculture at a ‘Dialogue on Agricultural Trade Reform, Subsidies and the Future of Small and Family Farms and Farmers’, held in London, on June 30, 2004.

[Ed: in the same year came the great paper: Stopping the Great Food Swap: Written by Dr Caroline Lucas MEP, based on background research and support provided by Andy Jones and Vicki Hird of Sustain: The alliance for better food and farming, and by Colin Hines, author of Localisation: A Global Manifesto, Earthscan 2000]

But looking at the recommendations I made you will agree that crisis wouldn’t have been of the order that we see today had the world taken a step towards ushering in sustainability. This would have reduced greenhouse gas emissions, limited the damage by climate change and reduced yawning inequality. This is what I wrote in 2004; it certainly needs to be updated. But the essence remains the same, even now:

“My Vision for a Global Agriculture comes at a crucial time in the history of international agriculture. I wish the powers that be, and that includes the agriculture ministers of the G-8 countries, and international agencies like FAO/IFAD/World Bank and the likes had paid some attention to it, and the world wouldn’t have been faced with the kind of crisis that we are confronted with now. It is my strong belief that sooner or later the world will have to return to a sustainable pathway in agriculture, the sooner it happens the better it will be for humanity.

Well, this didn’t happen. And the crisis on the farm meanwhile has already worsened, the environment already devastated. Climate change has the world sitting on a tipping point, and inequality has multiplied so much so that the world is grappling with these problems with no silver lining on the horizon.

I am trying to spell out a series of parameters that should underline all international approaches to agriculture. These are based on Mahatma Gandhi’s Talisman that suggests: ‘Think of the poorest person you have ever known, and ask if your next step will be of any use to him. In short, the effort should be to wipe every tear from every eye.’

Sustainable Livelihoods: focusing on tackling the causes of poverty, hunger, the inequitable distribution of income and low human resource base with the objective of providing everyone with the opportunity to earn a sustainable livelihood. The green revolution areas are encountering serious bottlenecks to growth and productivity. Excessive mining of soil nutrients and groundwater have already brought in soil sickness.

Food Sovereignty: Every country should have the right to food sovereignty. It should result from the interplay of three determining factors: food production, food availability and access to food. A sustainable livelihood approach is the strength of food sovereignty. It should be people centric, based on community strengths, eco-friendly and gender sensitive. Food production, a central pivot of food sovereignty, must be based on minimal use of external inputs and that includes chemicals, transgenics and water. Access to food cannot be left to the market forces, it has to be the obligation of the society and the state.

Local Solutions: For the past three decades the focus has been on finding global solutions to local problems in agriculture. The World Bank/IMF, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and now some of the major donors like DFID and GTZ have been embarking on introducing alien approaches to agricultural improvement and have exacerbated the crisis on the farm front. This process must be immediately stopped, if not reversed. Given the diversity of the agro-ecological regions, sustainable agriculture needs location-specific solutions. 

Emphasis on food as a commodity: this has encouraged monocultures, loss of biodiversity, encouraged trade in some food commodities, distorted domestic markets, and disrupted the micro-nutrient availability in soil, plant, animals and humans. The emphasis on food as a commodity to be traded internationally has encouraged food miles, adding to greenhouse emissions, water mining, and destruction of farm incomes. The need is to revert back to the time-tested farming systems that relied on mixed cropping and its integration with farm animals, meeting the household and community nutrition needs from the available farm holdings.

Move away from Cash Crops: For the past two decades at least, the World Bank/IMF, some in academia and their donors have been pressing developing countries to diversify from staple foods to cash crops in what is being projected as the right approach to add to farm incomes. This is politically motivated advice and runs counter to the sustainable approach spelled out above. Many Latin American countries are faced with a serious land degradation crisis and increasing hunger as a result. It also pushes farmers into a death trap since the developing countries do not have the resources to provide for adequate marketing infrastructure. Move away from cash crops: focus on staples, only trade surpluses.

Reverse Farm Exodus: The disappearing family farms in the developed countries and the process of further marginalisation of the farming communities in the developing world are the symptoms of the same malaise. Farmers are being pushed out of agriculture through a farming system that is becoming increasingly unremunerative and industrialised. To maintain ecological balance, and to ensure sustainable livelihoods, the focus of any policy imperative should be to restore the pride in family farms. This will need adequate state protection and support and at the same time should be based on the principle of mutual compatibility with the small farmers in the majority world.

Reorient Farm Research: International agricultural research, as well as the national agricultural research systems, should re-orient the focus of farm research based on these principles: farmer friendly, environment friendly and long-term sustainability. Instead of the ‘Lab-to-Land’ approach, which has done immense damage to agriculture globally, the emphasis should be on learning from the land, going back to farmers and the traditional farming systems. Technology need not always be high-tech and sophisticated, it can be simple and effective, fitting the new improved technology to farmers’ need rather than asking farmers to fit into the technology package developed. This can only happen if farm research is brought back to the public sector. All technology should be freely available, and should not come with any proprietary tags.

Change Food habits: Obesity has already emerged as the biggest killer in America, with tobacco-related deaths now in the second position. This is the outcome of the private industry efforts to change the food and dietary habits to suit their commercial interests. Industry is desperate to ensure its acceptability irrespective of the human costs involved. Changing the food habits of the urban consumers that dictate market demand, is certainly a difficult task. Ban advertisements for junk foods and genetically modified foods.

Encourage Local Markets: Creating a global market for farm produce is the bane of modern agriculture. The seed multinationals, the food giants, and the supermarkets, have cornered the food chain in the process destroying livelihoods, local markets and drastically reducing food choices. Such a market strategy has resulted in the disappearance of locally produced nutritious foods and micro-nutrient deficiency in human populations has grown manifold. Encouraging local markets will also reduce the dependence upon long distance transportation thereby minimising global warming. It will also help in bringing back the traditional and neglected crops, and help in changing the food habits.

This political process and mainline thinking has to be reversed for the sake of the global economy as well its sustained future. We need a world where every country is proud of its farmers, and where every farmer is proud to be the food provider – the annadata.

A happy farming family is the base for any and every strong economy. It is also the foundation for an all-round economic growth and development and the pre-requisite for sustainable development at the local, national and international level. Unfortunately, the small-scale farmer (called Kisan in India) has become a burden on the global society. Every government is keen to get rid of them as quickly as possible. Globalisation, economic liberalisation and the free trade paradigm are all aimed at pushing farmers out of agriculture.

Devinder Sharma is an Indian agricultural scientist, thinker, researcher and writer respected for his views on food, sustainable agriculture and trade policy. Through his writings and analysis, he focuses on the inextricable link between trade and sustainable agriculture, new technologies, intellectual property rights and biopiracy, poverty and hunger. He chairs the New Delhi-based Forum for Biotechnology & Food Security and is also part of the coordination committee of the National Kisan Panchayat (National Coalition of Farmers Unions) in India.





Dairy farmer writes: input costs have soared as farmgate price drops

Another Lancashire dairy farmer (a few of her herd, right) responds:

Not only was the average price UK dairy farmers received for their milk in 2015 lower than it was when the MMB was abolished 24 years ago, but it was 24% lower, and that was before farm gate prices last year suddenly plummeted by 1/3. 

No producer ought to be losing vast sums of money for their hard effort when producers are mainly exploited by those who can.

The cost of basic utilities and inputs required to produce that milk has risen:

  • water has increased by 137% in the same period since 1994 due to  companies being able to automatically raise their prices annually by the rate of inflation
  • similarly the price of electricity over that period increased by 207%  
  • Animal feed costs up 58%  
  • fertiliser up 114%
  • and diesel 224% 

and that is another reason that the number of dairy herds in the UK has collapsed – as input pricing is so much out of kilter with the farm gate price.




Serious water shortages in regions where rainfall and snowmelt cannot make up for agricultural, industrial and urban water consumption – 1

A civilised world is one in which every person has pure drinking water – but about 3 billion people in total face insufficient supplies of fresh water and according to the United Nations that number is set to increase to half the world’s population by 2030. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that 40% of the world’s food depends on irrigation, which accounts for almost 70% of fresh water used.

nasa header

Clive Cookson, Science Editor (FT) reported that more than a third of the world’s biggest aquifers, a vital source of fresh water for millions, are “in distress” because human activities are draining them. The problem is most serious in regions where rainfall and snowmelt cannot make up for water extracted for agriculture, industry, drinking and other human purposes. Scientists from Nasa, the US space agency, and the University of California, Irvine, analysed 10 years of data and published the results in the Water Resources Research journal. Jay Famiglietti, the study leader, said: “Twenty-one of the world’s 37 biggest aquifers have passed sustainability tipping points . . . they are being depleted. Over a third [13] are so bad that they are experiencing exceptionally high levels of stress”. Badly affected areas:

  • the Arabian Aquifer System
  • the Indus Basin aquifer of India and Pakistan
  • the Murzuq-Djado Basin in northern Africa and
  • California’s Central Valley.

world-running-out-of-water map

Short-term and unjust solutions

Erica Gies reports in the Guardian that countries in the Persian Gulf are turning increasingly to international food imports after decades of depleting their groundwater. Israel is spending more of its limited water resources on industries other than agriculture, earning money to buy food internationally. Some countries are buying land in wetter countries to grow their food, a practice that can jeopardize local food security, environmental justice and human rights. A study last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is said to have found land grabbing inextricably linked to gaining water rights: 60% taken by the United States, the United Arab Emirates, India, the United Kingdom, Egypt, China and Israel.

47% of such land purchases occurred in Africa and 33% in Asia.

The Guardian has produced a useful summary of the ways in which water can be measured, conserved and used more wisely: