Category Archives: Poverty

Professor Moseley’s recent rebuttal of the decades-long assertions that GMOs will solve the problem of world hunger

On July 3rd this year, William G. Moseley, Professor and Chair of Geography, and Director of the African Studies Program, at Macalester College in Minnesota, published a paper in the Geographical Review with the title: ‘A Risky Solution for the Wrong Problem: Why GMOs won’t Feed the Hungry of the World’.

His basic thesis is that GMO technology is so expensive that it is inaccessible to the poorest of the poor for whom food insecurity is the great issue.

He opens: “There’s a standard setup that many food-policy experts use to frame the global hunger problem and its solution. It typically goes like this. We have a global population of 7.5 billion today of which nearly a billion suffer from chronic hunger. With a projected world population of approximately 10 billion by 2050, we simply have to produce more food to meet demand and feed the hungry. As such, we must use all available technologies, including genetically modified organisms (GMOs), to achieve this end (Pinstrup-Andersen and Schiøler 2003; Collier 2008; Juma 2011).

Moseley reminds us that Amartya Sen showed the policy community that though plenty of food might be available on the market, poor people might not have access to that food because of limited incomes (1981).

He adds that geographer William Dando was also making similar points around the same time, based on archival research, showing that food was often available on the market during famines, and even being exported (1980).

A Cambridge reader sent a link to an appraisal of Moseley’s paper by Charles Benbrook (Hygeia Analytics), who elaborates on Moseley’s next point, adding more detail:

“How many times have we read both in science journals and the media that GE breakthrough X or Y can increase production of Z crop by so much, or overcome some well-known problem limiting crop yields (e.g. drought, saline soils, Black Sigatoka, wheat viral disease, lack of N, etc etc). All of these widely-exaggerated claims are based on a huge assumption – that all other constraints to yield will be simultaneously overcome to support the promised, much higher crop yields after adoption of some GE-based genetic or production-input technology.

“No one told the farmer that the new seeds will be super-charged for production under ideal conditions and when ample soil nutrients and water are available, but will be vulnerable and weak in responding to drought and a host of pest and disease problems that live in the neighborhood and must be dealt with, year in and year out.

“So, a farmer in Mali buys the new GE corn seed capable of tripling her corn yield, based on careful and rigorous field trails touted by the seed company (and all too often, Gates Foundation funded agronomists). But no one told her she would have to find a way to add 80 units of nitrogen per acre, or that to produce 3-X higher yields, the crop will need three-times the water, with no significant periods of drought, especially during key steps in pollination and ear formation.

“And last and most important – no one told her that if she bypassed spending the extra money for the potentially higher-yielding, GE seeds, and instead spent it on proven agroecological methods to overcome her most important yield constraints, whether they be worn out soils, nasty weeds, or drought, that she would be more likely to end the season with a bigger crop than possible in most years out of 10, had she planted the GE seeds, as well as having more profit left to support her family”.






Farmers have been subsidising the nation

So says Devinder Sharma, in India’s APN News, a respected and widely watched news channel:

“The economic crisis farmers are facing is compounded by the denial of a rightful income to farmers for their produce. To keep food inflation under control it is the farmers who have paid the price. What we don’t realize is that it is the farmers who have been subsidising the nation all these years.

“Farmers are in distress throughout the country, be it in Karnataka, Punjab, Maharashtra or UP. Why has the situation reached these extreme levels and what can be done to reverse this trend?

“The Economic Survey 2016 had clearly pointed to the severity of the prevailing agrarian crisis. Accordingly, the average annual income of a farm family in 17 states of India is a paltry Rs 20,000. This means that the average monthly income for a farm household in these 17 states is less than Rs 1,700.

Most of us who live in cities have a monthly mobile bill exceeding this

I shudder to think how farmers survive with such meagre income . . . I thought this revelation alone should have shocked the country and forced policy planners to undertake immediate steps to address the grave tragedy. But unfortunately, nothing of that sort happened.

And, as in UK: “Our planners can’t think beyond what is prescribed in textbooks. Increasing crop productivity, expanding irrigation and reducing the cost of production as the way forward . . .” (see next week’s post here)

There is a high rate of suicide in the farming communities of India and UK, compared with other occupational groups.  Over the past 21 years, India’s National Crime Record Bureau reports that more than 3.18 lakh farmers have committed suicide. In secretive England such records are out of date or confined to abstruse medical journals, giving the public to assume that all is well.

Sharma emphasises that the burden food producers carry is not one of low productivity but the lack of a fair price providing an assured farm income and this is true in both countries.

Farmers from the southern state of Tamil Nadu display skulls, who they claim are the remains of Tamil farmers who have committed suicide, during a protest demanding a drought-relief package from the federal government, in New Delhi, India March 22, 2017. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

In both countries already affluent middlemen in retail, packaging and transport or speculating in food futures have prospered while those who actually work and produce food – in particular fresh milk, fruit and vegetables – are denied a fair price covering production and living costs.





Update from VRI: Amarpurkashi, Uttar Pradesh – mission accomplished

vri2logoThe first entry about the International Task Force for the Rural Poor was made on this website in 2010, opening, “Australian born Jyoti and Mukat Singh set up the International Task Force for the Rural Poor [INTAF] twenty years ago after seeing that most well-intentioned policies of various governments to uplift the rural poor have either failed or proved ineffective”.

Read about their work on the VRI website.

In addition to routine activities, connected with the school, polytechnic, eye camps and sustainable farming initiatives, VRI took part in a campaign against industrial pollution in and around the village of Amarpurkashi, covered here in 2011. Mill owners had been dumping live ash on the roadside where cyclists and pedestrians walked or rode and many suffered serious burns. Tons of ash from two paper mills were deposited on the banks of the river and by national highway 93, coating buildings and plants in a black dust, harming passersby and residents. As a result of breathing such heavily polluted air, local people developed respiratory problems – in the worst affected areas, as many as 1 in 2 people suffered from asthma.

The stench of chemical effluents polluted the air of the surrounding villages and black dust from the factory chimney blew far and wide. The water table dropped dramatically as the factories used huge amounts of water and all the roadside ponds dried up. The underground water supply was also polluted, causing a rise in the number of people suffering from jaundice and villagers were forced to pay for ever-deeper borings to ensure a clean water supply.

As part of the campaign, VRI’s co-founder, Mukat Singh, and many other local people fasted, an agreement was reached with the Sub-Divisional Magistrate and decisions were made which addressed the problem.

mukat_and_jyoti_2005VRI have now decided it is time to close the volunteering scheme that had run for some 35 years and Jyoti recently visited APK to make sure that this was the right decision. She explains:

“I am glad to say that everything I saw in the project supported it.  Amarpurkashi is no longer a suitable place for volunteers, although visitors will always be welcome.“There is no longer anyone in the project who can guide and help volunteers. This has always been an important part of the scheme.  Volunteers definitely need someone, preferably a woman since most of our volunteers have been women. However, that person has to be able to speak reasonable English and be able to help volunteers with the use of toilets and bathrooms, the food and various customs around eating and so on.  There is no one now who can do that.

“It is also essential that there is something for a volunteer to get involved in while they are in the project.  However, the success of the project means that there is nothing now that a volunteer can do.  The project is fully staffed with local people.  Volunteers have always had difficulties because of the language barrier and significant differences in the way things are done in India”.

She ended by saying that the scheme was closed at exactly the right time and adds that “Fortunately, there are many new projects to be found on the internet where volunteers from abroad can be recruited for specific roles”.

We wish Jyoti and Mukat a peaceful and rewarding retirement.




Universal basic income: Arvind Subramanian and Guy Standing


arvind-subramarnianArvind Subramanian, the chief economic advisor to the Government of India, has a deep concern for the environment and poverty. Speaking at an outreach event in the city of Bhubaneswar, he fielded a student’s question about universal basic income, expressing support for this radical system of wealth distribution.

Under the system of unconditional livelihood provision all citizens of a given society receive a standard amount of money to ensure they could pay for essential items like food, clothing, and shelter. If everyone had enough money to survive and contribute to society, the thinking goes, governments could eliminate poverty altogether.

The student wondered whether, given the growing popularity of basic income in Kenya, Switzerland, Finland, the Netherlands, Canada, and the US, India might be next. Subramanian replied that the country has in fact already seen small pilots of the system lead to positive outcomes. He added that basic income will play a major role in the next Economic Survey, an annual document presented to parliament that outlines the country’s financial health and makes suggestions for the future.

“People are dragged into poverty due to droughts, declining agriculture opportunities, disease, and so on,” he said, according to the Times of India.”So the safety net provided by the government should be quite wide, and that is why this [basic income] has some merit.”

Professor Guy Standing from the School of Oriental and African Studies, UK, set out eleven particularly significant findings from the pilot studies

  1. guy-standingMany used money to improve their housing, latrines, walls and roofs, and to take precautions against malaria.
  2. Nutrition was improved, particularly in scheduled caste (SC) and scheduled tribe (ST) households. Perhaps the most important finding was the significant improvement in the average weight-for-age of young children (World Health Organization z-score), and more so among girls.
  3. There was a shift from ration shops to markets, made possible by increased financial liquidity. This improved diets, with more fresh vegetables and fruit, rather than the narrow staple of stale subsidized grains, often mixed with stones in the bags acquired through the shops of the Public Distribution System (PDS), the government-regulated food security system. Better diets helped to account for improved health and energy of children, linked to a reduced incidence of seasonal illness and more regular taking of medicines, as well as greater use of private healthcare. Public services must improve!
  4. Better health helped to explain the improved school attendance and performance (figure 1), which was also the result of families being able to buy things like shoes and pay for transport to school. It is important that families were taking action themselves. There was no need for expensive conditionality. People treated as adults learn to be adults; people treated as children remain childlike. No conditionality is morally acceptable unless you would willingly have it applied to yourself.
  5. The scheme had positive equity outcomes. In most respects, there was a bigger positive effect for disadvantaged groups – lower-caste families, women, and those with disabilities. Suddenly, they had their own money, which gave them a stronger bargaining position in the household. Empowering the disabled is a sadly neglected aspect of social policy.
  6. The basic income grants led to small-scale investments – more and better seeds, sewing machines, establishment of little shops, repairs to equipment, and so on. This was associated with more production, and thus higher incomes. The positive effect on production and growth means that the elasticity of supply would offset inflationary pressure due to any increased demand for basic food and goods. It was encouraging to see the revival of local strains of grain that had been wiped out by the PDS.
  7. Contrary to the skeptics, the grants led to more labor and work (figure 2). But the story is nuanced. There was a shift from casual wage labor to more own-account (self-employed) farming and business activity, with less distress-driven out-migration. Women gained more than men.
  8. There was an unanticipated reduction in bonded labor (naukar, gwala). This has huge positive implications for local development and equity.
  9. Those with basic income were more likely to reduce debt and less likely to go into greater debt. One reason was that they had less need to borrow for short-term purposes, at exorbitant interest rates of 5% a month. Indeed, the only locals to complain about the pilots were moneylenders.
  10. One cannot overestimate the importance of financial liquidity in low-income communities. Money is a scarce and monopolized commodity, giving moneylenders and officials enormous power. Bypassing them can help combat corruption. Even though families were desperately poor, many managed to put money aside, and thus avoid going into deeper debt when financial crises hit due to illness or bereavements.
  11. The policy has transformative potential for both families and village communities. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Unlike food subsidy schemes that lock economic and power structures in place, entrenching corrupt dispensers of BPL (Below Poverty Line) cards, rations, and the numerous government schemes that supposedly exist, basic income grants gave villagers more control of their lives, and had beneficial equity and growth effects.

Guy Standing ends:

A claim we have made in the public debate in India is that universal schemes can be less costly than targeted schemes. Targeting, whether by the discredited BPL card or by other methods, is expensive to design and implement. All targeting methods have high exclusion errors – evaluation surveys showed that only a minority of the poorest had BPL cards.

In sum, basic income grants could be a vital part of a 21st-century social protection system. These are momentous times in Indian social policy. Old-style paternalism must be rejected and a new progressive system constructed.




Removal of the ban on the cultivation and sale of khesari dal

Subhash Sule (CHS-Sachetan, Nashik) expressed the hope that Devinder Sharma would raise a voice against the removal of the ban on the cultivation and sale of khesari dal – and Dr Sharma has done so.

ICMR 2 dal

The Indian Council for Medical Research recently decided to lift the ban, put in place in 1961 because consumption of khesari dal had paralysed many thousands of people, particularly tribals and the poor.

Even in a 2004 publication ICMR noted that a community survey carried out in the villages of Bhandara district of Maharashtra revealed that several people were affected with toxicity-related illness after consuming khesari dal (Lathyrus sativus).

A 2013 paper confirms a causal relationship between the excessive consumption of L. sativus – which contains a neurotoxin – and neurolathyrism, an upper motor neuron disorder characterized by a spastic paraparesis of the lower limbs. The paper states that this has been known for several decades.

Oldest affected boy

Oldest affected boy

Our reader adds that bringing back khesari dal on the market is a retrograde step by the Government put in place due to its unwillingness to control food prices by taking action against the trading community that financially supports the ruling party.

Dr Sharma sent a link to his widely republished article on the subject, agreeing with the reader that there is ‘No justification for lifting ban on khesari dal’.

His assessment is that to use the current high prices of pulses as a justification for lifting the ban of the harmful khesari dal hardly makes sense, scientifically as well as economically.

devinder 5He explains: “Khesari dal was banned in 1961. The ban was imposed after reports of spread of a disease lathyrism, a neurological disorder from eating khesari dal (botanical name: Lathyrus sativus) that leads to limping, was widely reported and diagnosed. According to New Scientist (Aug 23, 1984) – ‘the disease has two forms: latent and established. The latent form is characterised by mild back pain, an alteration in gait and difficulty in running. In just over half the cases, the disease goes no further. But in its established form, lathyrism leads to spastic paraplegia of the lower limbs; the fortunate sufferers can hobble on crutches; for others leg muscles give way completely and patients are reduced to crawling helplessly’.”

Sharma refers to studies showing that khesari dal contains the toxin ODOP – and states that although it is said to be removable, it is inadvisable to promote khesari dal on the assumption that the average member of the public would take the necessary precautions.

ICMR justifies its support for removing the ban on khesari dal:

  • (though many thousands have been afflicted) this is a very small proportion of India’s population,
  • it only affects those who eat large quantities of the pulse when other foods are in short supply,
  • it grows well in drought conditions
  • and it will have a medical application – now being named as ‘the golden pulse of the future’, containing an amino acid which ‘stays in circulation for longer duration and contributes to a healthier cardiovasculature’.

Sharma’s recommendation is that instead of focussing on detoxification, newer varieties being developed by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) should be promoted. He adds that boosting domestic production of pulses needs a two-pronged strategy: to raise the import duties and stop cheaper imports coming in and to announce a high minimum support price with the promise of assured procurement.

Sound common sense? But with potential commercial returns to the pharmaceutical industry offered by a new medicine for the cardiovascular conditions rife amongst India’s wealthier citizens – and gained by developing a product they expect to be ‘universally accepted as a health food’ will this view prevail?

Should medical ethics lead advisers to recommend exercise of the precautionary principle and avoid any further cases of this crippling condition, though it ‘only’ affects thousands of the poorest amongst its millions?

WTO Nairobi summit: what future is offered to millions of disillusioned, unemployed youth?

  wto nairobi 2015

Rick Rowden, (PhD research, Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) New Delhi) reports that – in a move described in the Financial Times as a ‘victory for the US and EU’- rich countries have dispensed with any pretence that they will fulfil WTO commitments which relate to developmental issues of concern to the world’s poorest countries.

He observes that twenty years after signing the Uruguay round agreements that promised to address the inequities in the global trading system and 14 years after beginning the 2001 Doha Development round of talks aimed at resolving those imbalances, the rich countries have scarcely lifted a finger to get the agreements adopted. The Wall Street Journal amplifies, citing the failure to implement the 2013 Bali deal.

Rowden notes that after urging developing countries to open their markets, rich countries flooded them with subsidised agricultural produce and manufactured goods

The most extreme example is recorded by Simon Jenkins, who notes that though the West urged Afghans to grow food instead of opium poppies, it took no steps to curb its own heroin consumption and even dumped its grain surpluses on the Afghan markets

Rowden continues: “the WTO’s overarching goal of “progressive liberalisation” was inherently wrong-headed for developing countries from the start, given that today’s industrialised countries learned to liberalise trade barriers only once their domestic industries were competitive in world markets, not before”.

He notes that though the Nairobi ministerial will be praised for reducing “export subsidies”, the rich countries still intend to use a range of crop insurance and other insurance schemes, which have the same effect: small farmers in developing countries will still lose out as imports of cheaper, highly subsidised agricultural produce flood in from rich countries.

Rowden says that the current system will make it impossible for small farmers in developing countries (and, we add, their British counterparts) to survive in the countryside and impossible for them to find manufacturing jobs when they migrate into their cities. He points out also that helping to build up a country’s own companies is considered “discriminatory” towards foreign investors and outlawed by the WTO.

Rowden ends: “With such a great development policy, is it any wonder that some of these millions of disillusioned, unemployed youth end up joining the multitudes of economic migrants seeking to enter the US and Europe or, worse, the ranks of Islamic State, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab?”


Timothy A Wise, Global Development and Environment Institute, Tufts University, MA, US disagrees with this assessment – also in the FT: “US Trade Representative Michael Froman’s declaration that the Doha round is effectively over and we can move on to more important issues, is not the majority interpretation coming out of Nairobi. In fact, Kenyan chair Amina Mohamed, in her post-closure press conference, went out of her way to say quite the opposite. She was asked if this meant that the Doha round is over and new issues can be brought on to the agenda. She stated quite clearly that the language of the declaration specifically prioritised “outstanding Doha issues” and that no new issues, such as investment and public procurement, could be taken up unless all WTO members agree.”

Time will tell which account is the most accurate.

Why did USA and EU countries fail to support work on a draft UN declaration on the rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas?

unhcr header

(Geneva, October 5, 2015) On the afternoon of October 1st 2015, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted by majority a resolution where it decides that the open-ended intergovernmental working group, with the mandate to negotiate, finalize and submit to the Human Rights Council a draft United Nations declaration on the rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas, shall continue the process for the next two years.

The resolution was presented by the governments of Bolivia, Ecuador, Cuba and South Africa. It was sponsored among others by Switzerland, Brazil, Eritrea and Argentina, in a joint effort from all regions to support this decisive step. In the final vote, only the US government voted against it. Governments of Europe have abstained from voting and have continued with the same bloc-voting position as in June 2014, in the vote on resolution 26/26.

In total, 31 countries voted in favor, 15 abstained, and only one voted against:

In favor (31): Algeria, Botswana, Congo, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, Sierra Leone, Bangladesh, China, India,Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Maldives, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Vietnam, Argentina,Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, El Salvador, Paraguay, Venezuela, Russia / Votes abstention (15): France, Germany, Ireland, Netherlands, Portugal, United Kingdom, Macedonia, Montenegro, Latvia, Estonia, Albania, Mexico, Qatar, Japan, Korea / negative Feedback(1): United States.

la via campesina header

La Via Campesina, FIAN and CETIM, have helped to position – for the first time within a UN mechanism – a project intended to fill the gaps in human rights legislation of the rural population and rural fishing communities, nomadic peoples, pastoralists, rural workers, landless, rural women and indigenous peoples. A model of peasant agriculture in both the North and the Global South, based on agroecology and equal relations between peasants, is advocated.

The current draft statement submitted by the government of Bolivia in Geneva in February 2015 during the last working group, advocates a universal charter containing a set of rights in order to improve the conditions of those who live in rural areas and produce 80% of the food in the world.

Appreciation is due to the Governments of Bolivia, South Africa, Cuba and Ecuador for their continuous efforts within the Human Rights Council to carry out this initiative emanating from the peasant movement, highlighting an example of good governance, dialogue and involvement of farmers’ organizations, civil society and governments.