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Food security and WTO

November 08, 2013

Gateway House/ by Rajni Bakshi

A recent UN report praises governments for promoting the right to food. At the same time, India’s Food Security Act will encounter resistance at the WTO meeting in Bali in December. Can India play an exemplary role in the global power struggle over food security?


India’s new Food Security Act is set to fall afoul of WTO rules. However, this development should be viewed in the context of a report submitted by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food to the UN General Assembly in the last week of October.

This report has lauded governments across the world, for adopting laws, policies and strategies to make access to food a basic right. A resurgence of the rights-based approach to food security is particularly impressive at a time when multiple conflicting visions for food security are on the table, writes Olivier De Schutter, the Special Rapporteur on the right to food. The Special Rapporteur’s position is that of an independent expert appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to examine and report to the General Assembly on specific themes.

De Schutter has specially emphasized that giving the right to food legal protection is not an end in itself. Such rights will reduce hunger and malnutrition only if food security is defined in holistic terms and related decision-making processes are participatory, transparent and accountable.

India is not alone in enacting a law on the right to food. But India could potentially play a crucial role in what is essentially an international power struggle over what kind of technology and business models will ensure food security.

Over the last decade South Africa, Kenya, Mexico, the Ivory Coast and Niger have made food a right protected by their country’s constitution. A variety of ‘Food and Nutrition Security’ laws have been adopted in Argentina, Guatemala, Ecuador, Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, Nicaragua, and Honduras. Several other countries, including Uganda, Malawi, Mozambique, Senegal and Mali are also in the process of adopting legislation to support rights-based access to food.

This does not necessarily mean that hundreds of millions of people are now entitled to free food. Instead the focus of De Schutter’s recommendations is on what is being called ‘food security-plus’ – which means not just access to foodstuffs but also productive resources that economically empowers small holder farmers across the world.

The contrast between wranglings over trade rules at the upcoming Ministerial meeting of the WTO, at Bali in December, and the assessment of the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food illustrates a bitter irony of our times. In all international forums there is consensus on the need to urgently solve the problem of hunger and under-nourishment. But there are sharp differences over which of the multiple conflicting visions for food security will actually work. For example, what should be the extent of dependence on industrial agriculture dominated by large multi-national corporations and to what extent should organic and other non-chemical forms of agriculture by small farmers be boosted?

There is no obvious connection between this larger tussle and India’s immediate food-subsidy related woes in the WTO. Yet closer scrutiny reveals inter-connections that might have dire implications.

The Director General of the WTO, Roberto Azevedo, has said that India’s food security act will cause it to breach its commitments on Aggregate Measurement of Support (AMS) – which pertains to all domestic support measures or subsidies that are deemed to distort production and trade.

During a visit to India in the first week of October Azevedo was reported as saying that WTO officials are working with Indian officials to invoke a ‘peace clause’, a provision in the WTO rules that would serve as an interim measure till a final solution is found.

This has raised alarm bells among agriculture and food related activists in India. They are concerned about what deals Indian officials might strike with their Western counterparts in order to win support for being allowed to invoke the ‘peace clause’.

So far India has taken a leadership role in challenging WTO rules which put agricultural policies of developing countries at a disadvantage. Since November 2012 a coalition of countries known as ‘G33’ has been formally pushing a proposal for changes in these rules. This coalition includes India, China, Pakistan, Venezuela, Indonesia along with various African and the Caribbean nations that have large populations of smallholder farmers who need a variety of government support.

However, the fight over subsidies – always a complicated matter – is not just about distortions in international trade relations. For instance, over the last decade subsidies in India have risen faster than public investments in agriculture. Ashok Gulati, chairman of India’s Commission for Agriculture Cost and Prices (CACP) said in an interview in October to a UN supported news agency called Integrated Regional Information Networks, that the marginal return on subsidies is less than one-fourth that from investments.

This means that subsidies cannot be a substitute for public investments that support both agricultural technology and business models of the kind that will empower farmers and ensure access to wholesome foods for all.

Across the world, the battle lines are now sharply drawn between models which concentrate power in the hands of a few companies, which produce pesticides, fertilizers and seeds – versus those which foster an enabling economic climate for millions of small farmers and entrepreneurs.

For instance, control over seeds is the most critical arena in this on-going war. The Indian seed industry, the 6th largest in the world, is worth about $ 1.1 billion. But this constitutes only 30% of India’s seed requirements. The rest is still supplied by traditional methods of replanting, exchanging or buying non-patented seeds in local markets.

Existing seeds related legislation in India does not prevent farmers from saving seeds and replanting. But, says G.V.Ramanjaneyulu of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, a Hyderabad based think-tank, there is sustained pressure from Indian and foreign agri-industry companies to change Indian laws so that farmers cannot reuse seeds. This would dis-empower farmers in ways that no amount of subsidy or food security legislation could counter.

These pressures are long standing and quite independent of making India’s Food Security Act compliant with the WTO. India’s actions will not just have an impact not only on its own farmers and consumers. If the G33 initiative flounders this will hurt other developing countries as well. Thus, in the build up to the Bali WTO meeting, there is a need for close public scrutiny to ensure that Indian policy-makers and negotiators do not make deals with other nations that may smooth the way for India’s right to food legislation in exchange for promoting policies that are detrimental to the long term interests of small and medium farmers.

Rajni Bakshi is the Gandhi Peace Fellow at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.

(The views expressed above are the personal views of the writer)

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