The Grain Raj

The WTO’s Doha Development Round in Bali ended with India keeping its agricultural subsidies and enjoying a temporary reprieve from its immediate food security concerns. But as long as India continues to embrace Capitalism’s basic imperialist priorities- favouring the exchange value of food as commodity over the value of food as nourishment, true food security will continue to elude it. Thomas Crowley illuminates…

In the aftermath of its drubbing in the state assembly polls, the Congress government can take some solace in its victory at the World Trade Organization negotiations that concluded recently in Bali. The latest iteration of the WTO’s Doha Development Round, the Bali meeting ended with a deal that incorporated India’s demands on food security. The United States, among other countries, wanted India to curb its agricultural subsidies, which India argued were essential for food security measures, including Congress’ flagship Food Security Bill. The Commerce and Industry Minister, Anand Sharma, doing his part to bolster Congress’ popularity in dire times for the party, stood firm, even as countries like China and Indonesia drifted away from the Indian position. While not permanently resolving the issue, the final Bali package allowed India to maintain its agricultural subsidies until a final solution is reached.

Of course, the Doha Development Round is not only about food, even though agricultural subsidies have been a major sticking point in the Round’s 12-year history. The Doha negotiations are the first talks to bring together the WTO’s 159 members, and are broadly intended to promote trade liberalisation, supposedly for the benefit of developing countries. For countries like the United States, though, “free trade” really means prying open the markets of developing countries while maintaining lavish domestic subsidies for agriculture and other sectors. Even the minimal resistance of developing countries like India – not out of some anti-capitalist principle, but merely out of selfinterest – has irked developed countries, who have largely moved outside the WTO framework and have entered into secretive talks to establish free trade deals like the Trans- Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA) with less intransigent countries.

But for the moment, the Indian government is enjoying its victory in the WTO negotiations. It is hardly surprising that this political battle is centered on food, which is a hot topic both internationally and within India. The soaring prices of basic foods were a major issue in the recent state elections, with BJP hoardings in Delhi blaring out the high price of onions and tomatoes. Food is essential to human wellbeing. It touches the lives of everyone, especially the poor, and for this reason, it can be used as a potent political weapon. This is especially true in an age of globalised food, where food prices vary at the whim of fickle market forces. Any politician promising to tame these prices will at the least, garner attention.

Political intrigue concerning food is hardly a new phenomenon. To some historically-minded observers, the WTO agricultural fights may hearken back to the days of British colonialism, when the globalisation of food was at an earlier stage. The British, like today’s Western powers, also had an interest in controlling India’s agricultural strategies, though for different reasons. In those days, the British saw India as a source of inexpensive, plentiful wheat for their empire. Then, as now, cheap, easily transported food was a cornerstone of international power. Grain, in particular, was a commodity of great importance, and India’s presence in the global grain market was firmly established during the times of the Raj.

India’s tryst with food-as-commodity accelerated rapidly with the coming of the Green Revolution. After Independence, the foreign force pulling the strings of Indian agricultural policy was no longer the explicitly imperial United Kingdom, but the more insidiously expansive United States. The Green Revolution was championed by government organisations like the US Agency for International Development (USAID), along with the World Bank and the “charitable” arms of industrial power, including the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. Contrary to the standard narrative of the Green Revolution, which portrays its American backers as altruistic humanitarians who helped India combat massive food shortages, the Green Revolution was largely driven by the anti-Communist politics of the Cold War.

Although the Green Revolution was officially launched in India in 1967, American involvement in Indian agriculture dates back to the early 1950s. At this time, Indian agriculture was becoming increasingly productive, in part due to the implementation of limited land reforms. But although some Western officials, like the World Bank’s Wolf Ladejinsky, supported these land reform efforts, they were generally met with skepticism by the Western establishment.

American policymakers saw oppressed peasants as potential Communist revolutionaries, and in order to keep them from turning to the dark side, they needed an abundant food supply – and if that supply was based on American hybrid seeds and synthetic fertilisers, so much the better.

And so, with the support of leading Congress politicians (and despite the principled opposition of other, more Gandhian Congress politicians), the Green Revolution was born, and large-scale industrial agriculture took root in India. Punjab, with its fertile soils, was ground zero for this effort, and soon the state was covered with fertiliser-infused, pesticide-sprayed, hybrid seed-dominated monocultures. While this kind of agriculture, heavily reliant on expensive, ecologically harmful inputs, did increase yields, these gains became increasingly hard to maintain, leading to a vicious cycle of increased inputs, which in turn led to increased spending, increased indebtedness and increased pollution. Studies have shown that cancer rates are higher in Punjab districts that use more pesticides, and locals have even dubbed a train that goes to Bikaner, home of a medical centre that treats cancer patients, the Cancer Train.

As activists like Vandana Shiva have made clear, the social costs of the Green Revolution have been just as devastating as the ecological ones. Instead of encouraging land reform and egalitarian agricultural relations, the Green Revolution has widened the gap between rich and poor farmers, and rich and poor agricultural areas, favouring only those who can afford the expensive package of agricultural inputs. The increased tensions between Punjabi farmers and the Centre, which sent down its agricultural decrees from on high, only bolstered the growing movement for regional autonomy. The breakdown of social structures due to the widespread commercialisation of agriculture also created space for Sikh revivalist leaders, who offered to fill the moral void left by a newly profit-obsessed lifestyle. While the unrest in Punjab in the 1970s and 1980s cannot be attributed to the Green Revolution alone, the state’s agricultural transformation played a much-neglected role in the escalating political crisis.

As Shiva points out, the Green Revolution was never the apolitical, technocratic fix its advocates insisted it was. It was not just anti-Communist; it was a major step forward in India’s capitalist development. In Shiva’s words, it was a “strategy for creating cheap food surpluses for growing urban/industrial centres.” The production of cheaper food meant that industrialists could pay urban workers less, since these workers had access to inexpensive food. But this was no boon for the workers. While high-yield varieties of rice and wheat may have become cheaper and more abundant, the overall nutritional value of agricultural products fell. For instance, the pesticides of the Green Revolution wiped out the “weeds” that many people depended on as their source of Vitamin A. Further, as mixed crops – which provided a balanced diet that included grains, legumes and vegetables – were replaced with grain-dominated

monocultures, more people could perhaps be fed, but they were not being truly nourished. This is one reason why the Green Revolution “miracle” has done little to alleviate the scourge of malnutrition in India.

With the Green Revolution, food was increasingly treated as a commodity: something that could be freely bought and sold on the market, just like any other product in today’s society. The profits that could be made from food – by American seed and pesticide companies, by Punjabi farmers well-off enough to afford high-input agricultural packages, by industrialists who could pay their workers lower wages – came to overshadow food’s essential role as a provider of material sustenance.

This is an excellent illustration of Marx’s theory of the commodity: there is a fundamental tension between a commodity’s usefulness in fulfilling a human need (its use-value) and its ability to be traded on the market and thus to potentially generate profit (its exchange-value). In the case of modern food production, the latter function came to dominate at the expense of the former (hence mass-produced, low-nutrition foods).

Marx’s insights into agriculture – and ecology more broadly – go far beyond his use-value/exchange-value distinction. While Marx has often been painted as anti-ecological, or – at best – neutral on environmental issues, a recent spate of writing has asserted just the opposite: that Marx’s dialectical method and his materialist outlook were deeply ecological. Particularly recommended is Marx’s Ecology, by John Bellamy Foster. As Foster demonstrates, Marx believed that a key feature of capitalism was a “metabolic” rift, in which the beneficial exchanges between humans and nature had been horribly distorted. Capitalist production, including agricultural production, alienates workers from their work, but even more fundamentally, it alienates them from the earth.

Marx bore witness to the crises brought on by capitalist agriculture throughout Europe in the 1860s. Declining soil fertility was the chief symptom, as frenzied agricultural production depleted the soil of its nutrients.

The introduction of new synthetic fertilisers to combat this decline, in Foster’s words, “only served to rationalize a process of ecological destruction.” Similar crises can be found wherever overzealous capitalist agricultural methods have been employed, from the American Dust Bowl of the 1930s to the ‘Cancer Train’ districts of present-day Punjab.

The WTO’s Bali package may have won India temporary reprieve from its agricultural worries, but only within the deeply exploitative framework of capitalist agriculture. As long as food is treated as a commodity, and not as a lifegiving source of nourishment, speculation and market whims will drive food production. In this context, it’s easy to see the risibility of BJP’s claim that they’ll outperform Congress when it comes to food prices. Both parties are in thrall to the enchantments of the market. Only by breaking this spell can India achieve true food security.

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