The universal lockdown is impacting the world in more ways than one. As the world fights Covid 19, farmers are being forced to dump their produce. How are we going to sustain them, asks Citizen Writer Aarthi Raghavan.
Scenes of food being dumped across the world are splattered across mainstream media. From Wisconsin to Belgium, disposing of excess food seems to be plaguing farmers and local civic bodies. Wisconsin in the US has been dumping approximately 30,000 gallons of milk a day to lighten the load and prevent the market for milk from crashing. All this while tens of thousands of people line up across the US for free food, courtesy, the pandemic. Before this is dismissed as a first world problem, stories of Indian farmers dumping their produce have made small editorials from time to time but have rarely received the attention it deserves. From Kerala to West Bengal, the closure of various milk procuring factories and shops that process raw milk into dairy products has resulted in the mass dumping of milk across the country. A mother’s milk meant for its calf is taken away by humans, only to be poured down the drain.
Global fall in demand: Reports of farmers around the world dumping their produce are growing. One season of bumper crops and the deficiencies in our supply chain to store and process the harvest leads to mass dumping by farmers. ‘Covid’ times have further accelerated this problem due to a massive disruption in the supply chain and a global fall in demand. The grape growers of Maharashtra (using approximately three lakh hectares of farmland) have seen 40 percent of their produce this year rot in a swarm of mosquitoes and flies as the price for grapes fell from of Rs 100/kg in December to Rs 2 /Kg (Source: India Today). Farmers were forced to dump the produce as the cost of transporting the grapes at that price became unviable.
Capsicum spread over 50 acres in the Denkanikottai and Hosur blocks have taken a landslide as their demand has largely been through export markets and restaurant owners. Farmers were forced to harvest and dump their produce in order to preserve their lands for future crops. From the tea estates of Assam and Bihar to the fruit & vegetable plantations across the sub-continent, the lack of hands to harvest and the lack of wheels to transport has left farmers pan-India in the lurch.
Empty markets: Supermarket shelves are no longer adorned with the beautiful colours of a spring bounty. Yet, customers are not exactly starving due to a lack of supply. People are starving because of their socio-economic limitations not due to a lack of supply. There is a traditional greeting in Tamil Nadu villages – ‘Sapputengala’ (Did you eat)? If a person has eaten, then all is considered to be well. Such is the respect and importance given to food. With everyone locked inside, what is happening to the food that was being consumed by the world hotels and restaurants?
Are we over producing and paying too little?
This leads me to bigger questions: Have we been overproducing to the point that prices are low enough to bankrupt farmers? The excess production is driving prices down and that is making the harvest unviable. Poor ROIs and mounting debts are driving farmers across the nation to commit suicides. Are we paying too little for our food? As more and more land is turned towards agriculture with yield per hectare higher than ever before (keeping food cost low), are we creating wastages everywhere?
My grandparent’s generation spent a significant part of their income on food as compared to my parents or my generation. The average middle-class Indian household was spending approximately 18-25 percent of its income on food in the 1990s. Fast forward to 2020 and the same household spends less than 10 percent of its income on food; all while buying a wide variety of imported products and sporting a mini supermarket as their personal pantry.
Are we spending too little on food so that we can maintain a higher disposable income to indulge in clothes, electronics or the latest fad? Can we support farmers engaged in sustainability and organic produce and pay the right price tags? I dare dream of a day when we release the excess agricultural land to revenue-based afforestation (through fruit-bearing trees) and create subsidies for farmers who are willing to move to tree-based farming. All we need is the economic, social and political will to make these changes.
After all, these are corona times!
The writer, Aarthi Raghavan, is a corporate trainer based in Chennai. She is working with Just Speak, a Life skill training house. Aarthi Raghavan started her career at the age of 19 by opening a tech start-up catering to the SME segment. She has worked in the space of International Sales & Marketing for a technology giant handling US, Europe and Asia Pacific markets. She also worked for a gulf-based corporate. She set up Just Speak with her business partner to bring high-quality training solutions backed by two decades of International experience in managing large scale businesses.