Cash cropping versus food sovereignty

Published: March 19, 2012

The writer is a development consultant and a PhD student at the University of Melbourne syed.ali@tribune.com.pk

Instead of rethinking what crops to grow and how to help lessen the growing friend of malnutrition and food shortages in Pakistan, agricultural policymaking remains preoccupied with rather different concerns. Consider, for instance, Punjab government’s ongoing tussle with the US agrochemical giant, Monsanto, over demands for intellectual property rights (IPRs) protection of its Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton seeds.

Punjab government’s rejection of Monsanto IPR compliance-related demands are not motivated by ecological or livelihood-related concerns. Instead, it is due to Monsanto’s insistence that the Punjab government is paying a fine to the company if farmers in the province are found to be sharing its seeds without paying for them. While the provincial government is up in arms about the potential implications this could have on government revenues, or on cotton exports in general, it seems less concerned about the fact that the bulk of the seeds for producing major crops across the country are those that farmers share with each other. Yet, the overall threat posed by genetically modified (GM) seeds on eroding indigenous seed banks and the consequent impact on food security deterioration, in particular, seem to bother our decision-makers much less.

Perhaps, this is why the Technical Advisory Committee of the National Bio-Safety Committee has allowed biotech giant Monsanto for a field trial of its Bt corn, despite the fact that small farmers’ crops adjacent to experiment sites may be at risk from this highly-pollinating variety. Critics are thus demanding that Monsanto be compelled to pay compensation to those farmers whose corn may be affected following the commercialisation of Bt corn. Moreover, while Bt corn can prove successful on larger farms which can afford to pay for such expensive seeds, it will adversely affect the smaller farmers whose crops may be contaminated with GM pollen, which inhibits seed germination. Such farmers could also ultimately face law suits for ‘stealing’ GM technology.

Proponents of agribusiness argue that Pakistan promote GM crops, rather than organic crops, in order to meet the demands of a growing population and eliminate hunger. Uninformed or indifferent governments, coupled with feudal domination of farmlands, have in fact maintained an elite-led approach to agriculture focused more on enabling cash cropping rather than achieving the goal of national food sovereignty.

Government subsidies, including the support price offered for wheat procurements, as well as extension of agricultural credit, remain lopsided to advantage affluent landlords instead of small farmers who remain exploited by a range of intermediaries and rent-seeking officials. This is what happened earlier during the so-called ‘Green Revolution’ which accelerated agricultural growth through an elite farmer strategy, by focusing on provision of new inputs such as mechanisation of large farms, despite its adverse impact on poor, landless farmers. Even major donors like the World Bank continue to fund neoliberal agricultural development models with an emphasis on boosting exports.

A range of factors, such as population growth, rising food and oil prices, climate change, unfair terms of trade and land-grabbing are now exacerbating a major food crisis in Pakistan. It is still possible to create a more sustainable food production system in our country, but this requires a serious rethink by our decision-makers. Furthermore, concrete actions are needed to ensure food growing capacity of largely ignored sustenance farmers and for devising more efficient means to deliver this food to the non-farming and to the urban poor instead of remaining obsessed with a myopic view of harnessing agricultural productivity to increase export earnings.

Unless a more ‘bottom-up’ approach to agriculture is adopted, it will prove difficult to arrest a range of interrelated problems, including declining health indicators, increasing disparities and more social unrest.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 20th, 2012.

Reader Comments (2)

  • Jalib
    Mar 20, 2012 - 12:28AM

    Well written and well argued Mr. Ali. I sincerely hope that teh mandarins of the Ministry of agriculture et al are listening!

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  • Mar 20, 2012 - 10:25AM

    Well whatever strategy has been adopted it seems to be working. We have surplus food production.

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