Feeding Hungry Indians

News today in the Bombay press about India’s worrisome food imbalance.

Too much food.

It seems that India’s “buffer stocks” have more than 30 million tons of wheat and rice over what they want or can handle.  Having sucked down their precious water to grow the mostly irrigated grains, and paid farmers more than the market rate for the surplus, they will now export large quantities for little profit. I mentioned India’s grain surplus in an earlier post and have gotten several questions about it, so here’s the story.

First note that India has more hungry people than any other country by far. But this has nothing to do with the actual amount of food in the country.  What it has everything to do with is poverty.

Since the 1960s the Indian government has been buying wheat and rice from its farmers to create buffer stocks.  This is to modulate market prices, to support farmers, and to provide subsidized food for the poor.  The vast amounts of grain are stored in hundreds of granary facilities called godowns, replenished twice yearly by India’s major harvests.

Godown (storage facility) in Andhra Pradesh. Godowns are really hard to photograph. The buildings go on as far as the eye can see.

The state-owned Food Corporation of India sets “norm levels” for the stocks — that’s what they actually want to have in the stocks — but it keeps buying as long as farmers are selling, often creating enormous surpluses that it doesn’t want and can’t even store.  For the last year the stocks have been over 30 million tons over the norm level; over 10 million tons were at risk of rotting and the storage cost for the overage was expected to top $170 million.   The situation has been a major political issue, with one party demanding a parliamentary investigation and another charging the agriculture minister with deception.

Here’s what has been going on with the buffer stocks since the 1990s (click to expand).

It may seem like an inexplicable oddity of the modern world that India, with all its hungry people, has a national scandal over surplus food.  But odder yet is that the problem is not new; it has been going on for years, and has been covered extensively in the Indian press and the NY Times.  I wrote about it in Current Anthropology back in 2002 when the India papers were saying “Dump rotten foodgrains into the sea“.

Why India continues to have so many hungry mouths alongside overflowing granaries is a topic for future discussion, but rest assured there is nothing unusual about it (except maybe the scale).  Hunger in India has no more to do with population outpacing agriculture than it does in the US, where 14% of the country suffers from food insecurity.

So who is it who keeps telling us that India’s problem is an imbalance between population and agriculture?  Mostly 2 groups, I believe: 1) those who don’t really follow Indian agriculture, and 2) those who have a vested interest in selling things to Indian agriculturalists (biotechnology interests spring to mind).

For group 1, give them this blog and suggest they follow some of the links.

For group 2, ask them a simple question: Just exactly how are their technologies going to feed hungry Indians when over 30 million tons of excess grain can’t?

This entry was posted in Agriculture, Biotechnology, Food, India, Population. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Feeding Hungry Indians

  1. brainfarmer says:

    Thank you Glenn for explaining this sad situation.

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  14. Marci B says:

    I am still amazed that USAID’s feed the future program is focusing on biotech for “climate smart” staple crops while wheat is rotting in the godowns.

    • GDS says:

      Maybe genetic engineers can develop “storage smart” grains that can resist rot and rats as they sit in godowns by the tens of millions of tons.

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