The Pigs Revolt; and the Mexicans are not Amused

Dearly loved children, is it not a sin?
To peel potatoes and throw away the skins?
For the skins feed pigs and the pigs feed you,
Dearly loved children is it not true?

Children, the elderly and even the otherwise hale and hearty, take cover.  There is an ill wind that blows, a virus is on the loose, a contagion stalks the citadels of the great cities of our world, an illness stalks us all.  Look closely at the sneezing stranger next to you; you could be staring at the face of death.

Hyperbole aside, the outbreak of the flu in its latest avtaar gives us all something to think about; particularly those of us who have the sniffles.  Of course, this is no  runny nose to be scoffed at; but while health professionals across the world scratch their heads; I am most intrigued by the subtle and not to subtle politics of the flu.

Perhaps we could start off with its name – Swine Flu. An illness allegedly originating in that most filthy of beasts – the pig.  As one born in the year of the pig, I feel a grudging sort of kinship with this wallowing creature; but this is no time to wallow. It is a time for action, and action is what the world is enacting.

As you – kafila readers sit and chew the fat -Lets see what the world is up to.

Like most things that require a modicum of efficiency, the Israelis were the first off the blocks. In an example of that famous Israeli tact that makes it one of the world’s most admired countries,

Deputy Health Minister Yakov Litzman said the reference to pigs is offensive to both religions [Judaism and Islam] and “we should call this Mexican flu and not swine flu,” he told a news conference at a hospital in central Israel. Read the rest of the report here.

Predictably, the Mexicans were not amused.

Mexico’s ambassador Frederico Salas and the Israeli envoy to Mexico Yosef Livne both lodged official complaints at the foreign ministry on Tuesday protesting at the new term. “The ambassador (Salas) said he was offended when the deputy health minister called it the Mexican flu,” a foreign ministry official told AFP.

Not to be outdone, Israel’s neighbour Egypt took matters to another level by shaking off typical Arab torpor and announcing the slaughter of approximately 400,000 swine and simultaneously putting their Christian minority in its place.  After all, it isn’t often that medical science offers reinforces deeply held prejudices against pigs, pig keepers and the “unclean”. As the venerable BBC notes:

Pig-farming and consumption is concentrated in Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority, estimated at 10% of the population. Many are reared in slum areas by rubbish collectors who use the pigs to dispose of organic waste.

As befits an international organisation, the WHO urged restraint – particularly in the matter of a swine genocide. the virus it appears is spread from human to human – the pigs just happen to be there that’s all! The solution, it appears, is to popularize the scientific name – which I believe is H1N1; and is a re assortment of four  more commonly observed strains of the flu. So why is it called the pig flu? The Guardian reports:

Swine flu is a form of influenza that originated in pigs but can now be caught by and spread among people..Swine flu is caused by a type A influenza virus, and the new strain belongs to the most common subtype, known as H1N1. Public health experts are particularly concerned about strains like this one that have spread from pigs to humans, because the animals can act as “crucibles”, harbouring several flu viruses at once which can swap genes and become more virulent.Influenza viruses are made up of only eight genes: the new strain has six genes from a swine flu virus known to have been circulating in North America – itself a mixture of human, pig and avian flu viruses – and two from a swine virus found in European and Asian pigs.

Despite repeated assurances by the CDC and the WHO that properly processed pork products bore no risk, Russia and Chine were not convinced, and swiftly moved to ban the import of offending flesh.   After resolution 1141, who can blame them for taking assurances by international organisations with a pinch of salt? Proving that pre-emption is not the prerogative of a few, some reports suggest that the Chinese took to yanking Mexicans off the streets of Shanghai and frog-marching them straight into quarantine. Once more the Mexicans were not amused.

And in the US, that old bogey raised its head.  After all we all know who brings disease into this pristine land of plenty.  THE IMMIGRANTS!

As MSNBC reports:

“No contact anywhere with an illegal alien!” conservative talk show host Michael Savage advised his U.S. listeners this week on how to avoid the swine flu. “And that starts in the restaurants” where he said, you “don’t know if they wipe their behinds with their hands!”

Presumably, the Mexicans will not be amused.

28 thoughts on “The Pigs Revolt; and the Mexicans are not Amused”

  1. On an even more unamused note –
    Have you seen Mike Davis on the role of corporate industrialization of livestock in these kinds of epidemics:

    Animal husbandry in recent decades has been transformed into something that more closely resembles the petrochemical industry than the happy family farm depicted in school readers.

    In 1965, for instance, there were 53m US hogs on more than 1m farms; today, 65m hogs are concentrated in 65,000 facilities. This has been a transition from old-fashioned pig pens to vast excremental hells, containing tens of thousands of animals with weakened immune systems suffocating in heat and manure while exchanging pathogens at blinding velocity with their fellow inmates…

    This is a highly globalised industry with global political clout. Just as Bangkok-based chicken giant Charoen Pokphand was able to suppress enquiries into its role in the spread of bird flu in southeast Asia, so it is likely that the forensic epidemiology of the swine flu outbreak will pound its head against the corporate stonewall of the pork industry.

    Remember mad cow disease which was actually about mad human greed – resulting from raising margins of profit by augmenting cow feed with remains of other dead cows?

    No really, remind me again – humans should not become extinct because…?


  2. The issue of industrialised farming is indeed a prickly one. There is clearly a problem with not just the inhumanity of meat processing, but also with its resource intensity.

    As one AFP report suggests, Hamburgers are the Hummers of food :

    Quoting from the report : “The livestock sector is estimated to account for 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and beef is the biggest culprit. Even though beef only accounts for 30 percent of meat consumption in the developed world it’s responsible for 78 percent of the emissions, ”

    Industrialised farming is a tough nut to crack because on the face of it, it does appear to be a rather efficient method of mono-culture. However, the fact that it is hugely subsidised means that it is rather hard to tease out exactly what the costs really are – especially when measured in terms of the impact on water resources, chemical contamination, and of course, the risk of breeding immunity-compromised influenza crucibles.

    My only reservation against the organic food movement is that it reeks of disconnected “hippiness” where the consumer is only one step away from sitting in a circle and singing a prayer for world peace. Organic food is wholesome, healthy and delicious – but it is also extremely expensive. And this isnt just a first world problem.

    Down To Earth magazine has done a number of studies/stories that show that most of our food in India is drenched in pesticide.


  3. Isn’t it true that the ‘hippy disconnectedness’ of the organic food movement is very much a function of the same factors that make mono-culture so efficient as you put it? We have had an unprecedented global population post industrialisation; a population that has lost its bearings as far as a collective sense of food availability is concerned. People who farm and people who eat have never been so disconnected. Everything in the world militates against locally available, organically produced food. Its too easy to pin the hippiness of the organic food movement on the movement itself. There are powerful lobbies working to make that kind of food difficult to grow, and ridiculous to support.

    How have things come to such a pass that only bead-wearing california hot tubbers can afford organic while the farmer in uttaranchal is eating pesticide-drenched rubbish? Let the world peace singers sit in circles and pray; nobody should care, because thats not the sum total or even representative of the organic movement, which is a movement with well-developed and diverse positions. It includes the idea for instance that in an ideal world, the rich can eat tasty plastic crap if they so wish, but the poor should always have wholesome local produce that suits their bodies.

    I’ve been eating organic in Delhi for years, and its only recently that its become relatively as expensive as it has been in the west. I am sure its to do with the same perverse sets of factors (its suddenly-discovered upper-class hipness, and the mushrooming of well-paid regulatory bodies and certifying officials – a combination of mono-culture big farmer lobbying and stifling and expensive bureaucratic regimes) that took organic food out of the hands of the average consumer in the West. It doesn’t need to be the only way we ‘go organic’.


  4. I’ve been eating organic in Delhi for years, and its only recently that its become relatively as expensive as it has been in the west.

    I wasn’t aware that there was “organic farming” in India “for years” as you put it. True, a significant number of Indian farmers have been (and probably still are) “organic” by default but to call them “organic farmers” is misleading. I call it misleading because “organic farming” implies a deliberate choice to not use artificial fertilizer, genetically modified material etc.

    I’m not sure organic farming can address the problems that we globally face now. The global population is far too large. At best, organic farming will serve a niche market, primarily the rich who can afford to pay for such luxuries. This is similar to what happens elsewhere. For instance, in clothing, cotton is primarily used by the rich because it’s expensive to maintain. (I’ve seen my mother starch and then iron her cotton sarees for years. She refuses to use nylon and the like and we are rich enough to indulge her.) The poor obviously prefer the easier to maintain and cheaper synthetic material for their clothing needs.

    I’ve nothing against organic farming but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that somehow we can turn back the clock to a mythical, happy pre-industrialized era. I think, though I am sure to be flamed for it, that synthetic fertilizer, genetically modified seeds and the like are there to stay.


  5. I understand that ‘organic’ in the West seems to mean something completely different- a complicated technocracy of nutrition experts, environmental engineers, agro-traders, governments invest large amounts of money to produce myriad shades of ‘standards’. These standards and the sanctity they bring with their stamp-pads create the ‘organic’ product. This ‘organic’ has an assurance of health-friendly production technique, it has no links with consumption chains and their geographical proximity. So there is nothing about organic coffee and extra-virgin olive oil and their ‘organic’ stamps to indicate that the coffee will only be consumed in local Jamaican neighbourhood. In fact, it is the overwhelming late modern demand for ‘health’ (as opposed to ‘plastic crap’ which the rest of the world should be condemned to eat) that fuels the expansion of the ‘organic’ economy. What it ensures for a lot of developing economies is a sort of new trade monopoly- that assures steady revenue, as long as they are able to ensure virginity of their products for western heathy consumers. Somewhat like mail-order brides i suppose:)

    I know someone who researches the ‘organic’ ness of Uttarakhand, and her research zooms in on the urgency with which the Uttarakhand government markets the state as ‘virgin’ (as never having used chemicals because of hill-agricultural practices, which is of course, only partially true) so as to keep its fingers in the world-organic-basmati-pie.

    So, eating locally-grown (swadeshi if you will) products and eating ‘organic’ are really quite different things. And on the note of similarities and differences, cattle-breeding malpractice and yearning for ‘organicism’ may not be so different, if seen as industrial strategies to tap and control different kinds of markets. The logic of market-control hardly escapes the ‘organic’.


  6. from
    However, the first reports came from Perote, Veracruz — home to a huge hog farm co-owned and operated by the U.S. transnational industrial livestock company, Smithfield, and a Mexican company. In early March, local health officials proclaimed an epidemiological alert due to a flu with the exact same characteristics. La Jornada reported that Perote officials claimed 60 percent of the population suffered from flu, pneumonia and bronchitis. Federal health officials reportedly ignored the complaints until April 5, when they placed sanitary restrictions on Carroll Farms.

    Mexico’s Secretary of Health Jose Angel Cordova discarded the theory that the flu originated in the hog farms of Perote. But the information provided led to more confusion than clarity about that. This needs to be independently and seriously analyzed because the fact remains that the people in Perote show high indices of similar and unexplained illnesses, and the government information is partial and inconclusive.

    Silvia Ribeiro of the ETC Group told the Americas Program that Mexican officials “act like this is something that fell from the sky, but we’ve known for a long time that industrial livestock operations, especially hogs, are a breeding ground for recombinant viruses. Carroll Farms is just one example, an important one in this case, but it’s also true of industrial chicken farms.”

    Anybody who has seen an industrial hog farm knows the risk of disease. The unimaginable concentrations of filth, corrals filled with sick and suffering animals pumped full of antibiotics, and buzzing with flies that then carry disease to the human population create a disease paradise.


  7. Thank you for your comments – lets try and broaden this issue further, because this is getting interesting.

    To make my position clearer, I am certainly not holding up a brief for the horrors of industrialised animal rearing. However, the idea of local produce is something that needs to be investigated more thoroughly.

    Eating local seems like one of those things that is de facto good/desirable – but what here is our definition of local? What is the radius of the local? Why should our food choices be determined by our location? Is it because it is more natural? What does that mean?

    So is eating nationally produced food local – ie wheat from punjab, apples from himachal and mangoes from Maharashtra? What if it is easier, more ecologically sensitive and carbon friendly to fly in fruit from Thailand than to grow it on the banks of the Yamuna?

    One variant of the shop local argument is the idea of food-miles which shows the distance that food has travelled from source to point of final sale, in an attempt to map its carbon footprint. However, as an article in the guardian points out:
    “you make the counter-intuitive discovery that air-transported green beans from Kenya could actually account for the emission of less carbon dioxide than British beans. The latter are grown in fields on which oil-based fertilisers have been sprayed and which are ploughed by tractors that burn diesel. In the words of Gareth Thomas, Minister for Trade and Development, speaking at a recent Department for International Development air-freight seminar: ‘Driving 6.5 miles to buy your shopping emits more carbon than flying a pack of Kenyan green beans to the UK.’

    Of course, by making an argument about carbon-miles and carbon verification I automatically become part of the technocracy that Atreyee refers to in her comments.

    On this idea of technocracy and standards. I like how its is possible to put a word in play by simply putting it in quotes : ‘standards’. While I am willing to have the discussion on health-standards – I had written about this in a story on pesticides and coca cola – where (apologies for quoting myself, but kya karen:)

    “The starting point for standards formulation is the pragmatic acceptance that there is a trade-off between toxicity and nutrition. While pesticides are known to be lethal and toxic compounds, they also play a crucial role in improving yields by killing pests. The first step is the calculation of an Acceptable Daily Intake, or ADI. An ADI is the amount of a particular pesticide that a human being of a particular body weight can consume on a daily basis for the rest of his or her life without adverse effects. It is calculated by testing pesticides on animals, and calibrating the sensitivity for humans.

    The second component of a standards regime is a draft Maximum Residue Level (MRL), which is defined for a particular crop for an individual pesticide, and gives an indication of the acceptable amount of pesticide in the crop. It is arrived at by studying crop samples and determining the pesticide residue. This is then multiplied by the amount of the food item consumed daily (obtained from dietary data) to arrive at the Theoretical Daily Intake (TDI). The TDI is then compared with the ADI. As long as the TDI is below the ADI, the MRL can be considered to be a “good standard.” Thus, a population’s exposure to pesticide is measured by considering a standard consumption basket based on dietary patterns, multiplied by the corresponding MRLs of each component of the basket.

    However, as can be seen, a good standard is dependent on both what a society deems “acceptable” in terms of pesticide intake and on the dietary patterns of a given population.”

    So Atreyee is correct in noting that standards are not objective – but negotiated. However that does not mean that they do not offer any guidance whatsoever. I think its important that consumers know what they are eating – and for that labelling/standards are important.

    On the issue of market control of food. Again, it appears to be one of those phrases that could mean anything – Do you mean that the prices are set in the market? or do you mean that the market itself is controlled by a few big players? Or both?

    On the issue of food prices – the alternative to market prices for food is of course the Public Distribution System and the fair priced shop’ and Minimum Support Prices.

    There is considerable debate on both – but the MSP has come under criticism for incentivising certain types of food over others – an example of incentivising wheat/rice monoculture for instance.

    So to sum up – Am not convinced why geographic proximity is necessarily desirable; why standards or technocracy are necessarily undesirable.


  8. It does not matter how far away or how local the food source.

    What matters is the way it is produced. The United States, in order to get cheaper food, has allow thru Nafta, Cafta and other treaties, the mega corporations to go to a developing country and pollute.

    Smithfield has had more than its share of legal problems stemming from its operations in the United States. Most recently it announced a decision to reject a $75 million dollar settlement on claims brought in Missouri by residents complaining of the stench. On August 8, 1997 a federal court judge in Virginia imposed a $12.6 million fine on Smithfield Foods for violation of the Clean Water Act. In September of 1999 an appeal’s court upheld the ruling.

    What did Smithfield do? Settle in Mexico.
    Mexicans complain as well but to no avail.

    In South America, many Americans corporations
    are taking over water resources to plant roses to sell in the United States. Many natives are getting skin cancer due to the pesticide used daily to grow these “roses” Employees complain but with no unions to fight for their rights, government officials in the payroll of these corporations will do nothing to protect the public.

    Global Market at its worse.


  9. Aman, the questions you raise take for granted existing systems of nation-state-based agriculture, “development” strategies, and the common sense produced by living under predominantly capitalist forms of production and distribution.
    “Is it okay to eat wheat from Punjab, apples from Himachal” etc. you ask. Thousands of varieties of local rice and other grains, and varieties of local mangoes and apples have vanished over the years due to the gradual spread of high-yielding varieties that require intensive irrigation, thus further depleting ground water – it’s a very vicious cycle. (This is true all over South and South-East Asia).
    Had we been eating locally, it would have been healthier for us and better for the environment. There is no health imperative that requires us to eat wheat from Punjab and Basmati rice. The economic imperative for farmers to export out of the locality is also not some kind of instinct occurring “in nature”, but produced by specific kinds of nation-state driven economic policies of incentives, subsidies, disincentives.
    The Guardian story you cite, quotes the Minister of – not Environment – but of Trade and Development – saying confidently with no figures to back him, that ‘Driving 6.5 miles to buy your shopping emits more carbon than flying a pack of Kenyan green beans to the UK.”
    Yes, that makes sense. It’s cheaper and more environmentally sound to fly everything to the UK from far-flung, relatively unspoilt parts of the globe than to buy locally. He says this at an AIRFREIGHT seminar (AMAN!!)
    The idea of “sustainable” development assumes that somehow the environment can be “husbanded” (I use that word advisedly) to keep up unchanged, the lifestyles and consumption patterns of the wealthy across the globe (not just in the First World). The kinds of arguments you mobilize are rigorously logical and make excellent economic sense – but only if one doesn’t question the logic of capitalist economics. In this framework, even renewable sources of energy serve only to “sustain” existing consumption patterns – for instance, Obama’s Presidential address said – “we will harness energy from the sun, wind and soil” to do what? “…to run our factories and engines”.
    Factories and engines will carry on unchanged.
    There really is no way out but to move to local ways of living in every sense. It is another matter that when one is in competition with mammoth agribusinesses and the corporate bloc , organic will increasingly be the quirky, hippy and unaffordably expensive option.
    Remember, it was relatively recently (late 1980’s/ 1990s) that “pure cotton” became in India a more expensive option than synthetic fibres. Didn’t happen because something changed in “nature”.
    We do have to put into crisis un-thought through assumptions about consumption, urbanization, and so on, we do need to ask the genuinely post-development questions.
    Et tu, Aman?


  10. Remember, it was relatively recently (late 1980’s/ 1990s) that “pure cotton” became in India a more expensive option than synthetic fibres.

    Can you point me to a source for this assertion? At any rate, “cost” is not merely the cost of purchase. It also includes the cost of maintenance, the durability of the material (how long it lasts) etc. It was the combination of all these factors that made synthetic clothing a better choice on the whole for poor people.

    Finally, I have really no idea what you mean by saying that it didn’t happen because something changed in “nature”. If you mean that nylon, polyester, rayon are the active products of technological development, then yes, it’s true. But so what? So many other products also are including the computer which you use to type your post. Should we get rid of all the products of technological development? Is that even possible or desirable?


  11. I think Sunalini has hit the nail on the head. By arguing that what is cheapest is best, or why certain kinds of movements – for organic food or the slow food movement e.g. – ‘reek of hippiness’ (as Aman puts it), we already enter the terrain of corporate-capitalist logic. Everything that is cheap (economies of scale!) and based on new technology (full blooded modernity) seems to be the way to progress. Any idea that suggests that something may be seriously wrong here seems positively outdated and Luddite.
    I do not want to get into a debate here on what is ‘really’ organic – our own ‘organic’ (i.e. natural, by default) ways of life (which is where the word really comes from), or a ‘conscious choice’ made after we have managed to successfully sever all connections with our being. Odd, that the latter should appear as the ‘true meaning’ of ‘organic’ to many today but it just speaks of our own predicament. Indeed it is a predicament and to try to answer it by saying that X is cheaper than Y and therefore preferable sounds to me as strange an idea as say the organic food movement to you. Nivedita’s comment I think was made in that perspective.
    For years, we have eaten unpolished rice, kachchi ghani ka sarson ka tel (mustard oil), gur, coarse atta (flour) etc etc only to be told by the technocrats of modern progress how backward all this was. Read the new age health columns in our newspapers today and they will all tell you to avoid processed oils, polished sugar and polished rice and try using the still less expensive coarse stuff. Yes, as the global demand for this kind of stuff (the green beans from Kenya!) goes up, we will find less and less of all of it and prices will soar. And then we can easily be told that see, synthetic and polished stuff is cheaper, that is why you should eat it.
    I live on the ‘other side of Yamuna’ and everyday I cross the river to go to work and on both sides of the bridges, there are people selling fresh vegetables from the fields below (watered maybe with the toxic water of our now polluted Yamuna) but still ‘local’ in a way that your very rhetorical questions about ‘what constitues the local’ do not help to understand.
    In some parts of the world and for some forms of life, defining the local does not seem to be that difficult a problem. Everything there is not simply part of a long and endless global chain and we ‘know’ this, not theroretically but maybe, simply experientially.
    We may still celebrate modern development and globalized economies, based on industrial production (agricultural industry included) as the mark of progress and as a rejection of the ‘hippie counter-cultural mentality’. We have every right to do so, but it seems to me that that the last laugh may still be that of the ‘hippie’ who exists as a counter-cultural community in the West but still resonates with forms of life that, despite everything, are still predominant in large parts of the world.


  12. Suresh, my comment could be so fundamentally misread by you because it was necessarily a brief statement of a dense alternative world-view which questions the taken-for-grantedness of every assumption that underlies yours.
    What I meant by “it didn’t happen because something changed in nature”, was this:
    a) technological developments do not just happen along by some simple logic of human need. If that were the case, a civilization that can “put man on the moon” could have ensured that nobody lives in a constant state of hunger, as most of the world’s population does. (For that matter, surely we would have had a clean and safe and cheap and convenient way of handling menstrual periods…)
    Human need and technological progress have a tangential relationship to each other at best. In which areas the money and interest for technological innovations is invested, depends on a range of factors – profitability being the most important. Of course many innovations are very useful indeed for many people, but all too often, technological innovation’s link to profits ensures greater and greater consumption of non-renewable resources with every innovation. So yes, washing machines and vacuum cleaners are great for reducing manual labour, but the idea is – one machine per nuclear family, (most often operated by the wife – the sexual division of labour doesn’t change). Shared laundry spaces, as you find in university campuses and in some apartment blocks in the West , are seen as a poorer stage from which you aim to graduate to the real thing – the home which contains one of everything. Instead of ten machines serving the population of a neighbourhood, one machine serves four people – that much more electricity consumed, etc.
    Similarly, airconditioners in a place like Delhi do save on water used by much more environmentally friendly and “appropriate technology” water-coolers, but the more airconditioners, the greater the consumption of electricity, for which the greater the numbers of people who have to be displaced to build the hydroelectric projects that become necessary.
    But the question also is, why do we not have the water any more for water coolers that were routinely run in Delhi, why is the water table sinking, and why do we now need airconditioners in places like Bangalore which never needed even ceiling fans? (In the parlance of housing norms for government servants, Bangalore used to be called a “non-fan station”!)
    (And why does the term “appropriate technology” even emerge – precisely because of the recognition that generally technology is highly inappropriate – environment-unwise, cost-unwise, use-unwise).
    b) Second, technological innovations don’t just survive or not due to their inherent usefulness – some are selectively fostered by government and corporate funding/policy, others suffer benign neglect or are quite malignantly, with malice aforethought, just demolished. See if you can, the documentary by Chris Paine “Who killed the Electric car?”
    As for the source for my assertion that clothes labeled as “pure cotton” became more expensive than synthetic fabrics within my living memory – that’s exactly, at the moment, the source of my assertion, my own experience. Terycot and Terelene shirts and fabrics used to be the fabric of choice for the upwardly mobile, while the poor wore cotton saris, dhotis, gamchas, shirts. That changed in the 90’s, when things labeled “pure cotton” suddenly became more expensive. But there is a further level of complication here – even now, cotton is still cheaper for the poor. It is not true, as you say, that “synthetic clothing is a better choice on the whole for poor people” It is only for the middle classes that synthetics have become cheaper than the kind of cotton they would wear, and this is because of government policies of subsidy/duties etc. Where are the really poor people clad in synthetics – I don’t see them, not on construction sites, not working in the fields (they’d die of heat stroke far more often than they do, if they wore synthetics while labouring in the hot sun!). Cotton, when cheap, makes long-term durability a non-issue – you just buy a new tehmat/lungi and gamcha at the next weekly haat when yours wear out.
    The specifics of government excise policies on cotton and synthetic fibres is another, much more complex issue I don’t want to get into. That is not the point here.
    The discussion on Aman’s post raise fundamental differences of vision, in which Sunalini, Aditya and I are urging a recognition that the dominant paradigms of development/progress make only certain kinds of arguments appear to be rational and practical, and other kinds to be – not an alternative way of thinking, but – irrational, impractical, ignorant.
    “Development” is simply not sustainable. All our clever arguments to one side, the earth has shown in increasingly terrifying ways that “progress” has been on the wrong track.
    Our only hope is from ways of life outside of capitalist common-sense that still survive in large parts of the globe, – and from those “hippies” who recognize the need to resurrect those ways of life in the very places where their massacre began.


  13. >>At any rate, “cost” is not merely the cost of purchase. It also includes the cost of maintenance, the durability of the material (how long it lasts) etc. It was the combination of all these factors that made synthetic clothing a better choice on the whole for poor people.

    True, the poor are sensible they would consider durability and longevity in their purchase (like the rest), as far as clothing goes they would still prefer cotton if it was cheaper than the synthetic option.

    It takes less than a minute working under the hot blazing sun – (regular workspace condition in South India and elsewhere), to have all the benefits of the synthetic, stick to the skin. Ever tried wiping sweat with nylon, or covering an infant from the scorching heat with a synthetic sari palu? The fabric of the poor also serves many other functions than just a ‘dress’. They would buy the synthetics for occasions, perhaps, if they had a choice.

    Tracking how a cheap, local and very fine produce became an expensive option will go back a few hundred years. Cotton is a good example for this post to separate BS from facts, and how we become targets to convoluted market practices. It has all the elements of the big debates; GM, environment, weather, lives –especially the ones gone/ing in the suicide epidemics of cotton growing regions. Brinjal may not become that big a killer but it will hit the poorest farmer. That said, farmers were always tinkering with genetics –GM is not a sudden techno off shoot of modernity. The environment was not always cleaner with traditional practices etc, meaning there is no longing for status quo (I like my laptop and will not throw out my pencil and paper!).

    Painful but we may want to list the basic understanding of terms used in organic farming and its relevance to India, to the consumers, the producers and the environment. The thought of this taking the fancy of some big corporation and their hunt to cultivate organic food in ‘virgin’ grounds is chilling. In South India, I can think of a few patches on the Western Ghats that may have lesser soil and water contamination with fertilizer and pesticides residues from the surrounding coffee, tea and other monoculture plantations. These spots for food that we are not sure of what their claims mean? Organic farming requires that land be free of synthetic pesticide and fertilizer use for at least 3 prior years. It requires strict regulation of standards. It is a great turn around for the West but for us it is going to be a lovely dream and if we don’t pay attention to the ‘terms’ it will quite as easily spiral many undesirable downstream events. The time when a small farmer in India has and exerts the choice to grow his crops organically and be assured of getting his returns from a discerning and assured consumer base, is one that we can hope for.


  14. Wow this debate has become so rich in the two days I’ve been away that I won’t add much – practically every important issue seems to have been thoroughly debated. But I must, must reply to Suresh’s very patronising explanation of what real organic farming iinvolves. Er, yes, real organic farming involving a conscious choice to stay away from pesticides and genetically modified seeds etc DOES exist in India. There is a reason that I mentioned Delhi and certifying agencies in my response – one, this food is available at the moment in the metros only as far as I am concerned, but it IS available. Where have you been living? I can pass on the numbers and addresses of the outlets (please note I said outletS – there are at least four agencies that stock organic food, including fresh produce in Delhi and NCR) if you are interested. Two, certifying agencies are active and each organic food packet carries a seal of authenticity, in which they check the factors for organic-ness you mentioned. So yes, I have actually been eating certified organic food in India for years.

    Just one little thing, esp. regards Atreyee’s comment. Very important difference I agree, between local and organic, and this is one of the debates that the organic food movement is quite self-reflexive about, from what I know. Eating local can often mean making a more socially and environmentally sensitive choice, and eating organic can mean not giving a damn about where that expensive and exclusive pesticide-free food was produced and how may third world habitats it destroyed, and how may air miles it clocked up getting to your table. But like many have said above, these choices are created in a world where mono-culture and big farming are the norm. One should be able to eat locally produced AND pesticide-free food if the world was less crazy right?


  15. Re Aditya:

    Your comment clarifies thsi debate to a great extent. I see two categories evolving as protagonists in this debate- locally grown (using local, raw materials, labour, tapping local markets, therefore not threatening local traditional livelihoods); the other being global commodity-chains or agro-sharks, who eat up environmental well-being, autonomy of farm labour, land, natural resource and tap into huge world-markets. And a third being, possibly, the ‘counter-culture’ with a shadowy presence and songs of freedom.

    I just want to point out that much as the former would have been ideal in terms of ensuring large number of farmers then don’t end up pandering to seed demands, production mandates, fertiliser requirements of the sharks, we are also assuming that agriculture below the Yamuna by the ‘local’ farmer has water supply that has no trace of arsenic in it, or soil that is in no way influenced by industrial effluents from chemical factories in western UP. I dont want to shout the good-old-clean-up-everything chant, but this is the reality of autonomous farming in the developing world, where the land, the resource does not exist separately from polluting influenced that have already been around. It take resource to be able to tap safe water or chemical-free soil, which the yamuna farmer wont have on his own.

    I only want to point out that the middle-class developing-world consumer and the middle-class developed-world consumer in these terms, having equally laudable ideals about ‘locally grown’ and ‘health’ in consumption, are very differently placed. One has the leverage to demand that ‘health’be exported to them from Darjeeling or Madagascar, stamped and ceiled for a few extra bucks, the other has either to gallantly support the local farmer along with traces of arsenic, or engage in new consumerist euphoria of Reliance, stamped and ceiled. So, industry, is a reality that many of us in our entangled modern lives, can’t get out of. It is a luxury of the loghouse citizen of the Alps, because polluting industry has been pushed out of his river and trade barriers ensure that he can produce wine and cheese and market it without any economic threat.

    I also want point out that the counter-culture ‘hippie’ is as invested in global commodity chains to live his or her removed existence. Simply because even in the hills of Vermont, internet, telephony and health services are assured through channels of modern industry, to ensure that amidst mountains and organic milk and poetry the hippie is alive, free and well. An option that the Delhi citizen would have trouble exercising if she were to move to the Shivaliks.


  16. Ok, my fault for bringing in the reference to clothing, a subject about which I do not really know much. (*Kick* myself for mouthing off.) But it is an interesting issue, one I’ll follow it up in my own time.

    Nivedita – As an economist, I am well aware of the problems of “capitalism.” I am also aware that there are alternatives to “capitalism.” Many, if not all, economists are aware of these two points also. See for instance, Brad DeLong’s opening lines in one of his blog posts here:

    The problem is that all economic systems have their strengths and weakness. To point to capitalism’s weakness is easy enough. But that’s not good enough as a critique because “capitalism” also has strengths. I can write more but I think “Brayden” in a response to Brad DeLong expresses it well:

    Brad DeLong wonders aloud if having economics graduate students “read short biographies of William Gates and William Marshall as a way of getting at the idea that there are non-market societies that work very differently from our own today-–would that be a teaching idea of extraordinary brilliance or of total insane lunacy?”

    Sociology graduate students, I fear, sometimes suffer from the opposite problem. Many of us enter our graduate education dissatisfied with the status quo and assume that other economic systems must be better.

    It’s that last sentence that bothers me and I sense this in your comment: the automatic assumption that since capitalism has flaws, any alternative must be better. I am glad to see a sociologist acknowledge as much.

    I will be honest to say that at present I don’t see a viable alternative to what we know as “capitalism.” I guess you disagree. Let’s leave it at that.

    Oh, by the way, the link to Brayden’s post:


  17. Okay, Okay Okay.

    Thank you all for jumping in. Food, it appears, is nourishing in all its forms – even as a subject of discussion. Am also glad that we are all taking the trouble of engaging with the strong side of each argument, rather than taking cheap , nit-picking shots on semantics and syntax.

    To start – a quick question – how does one embed links in comments? Ive just been pasting them – but Nivi, I notice you are adept at comment formatting. Kindly advise. Ok, I figured it out

    first up,@Nivi – I agree that posting comments by the UK Trade Minister was rather foolish – but in my defence, he and the air freight industry arent the only ones who point out that transportation accounts for only about 2% of the carbon footprint of food. This argument has been made a number of researchers – one of whom, I could google at short notice is Dr Ruth Fairchild – Lecturer at the Cardiff School of Health Sciences.

    A similar study has been done in New Zealand.

    However, the foodmiles debate is far from settled – an excellent summation of mainstream sources can be found at Chow.

    My point behind bringing up the issue of food-miles was to de-stabilise the easy assumption that “local” is always better. My point is that local is not ALWAYS better – at least not better for the environment, in one measurable way.

    @Aditya, Nivi and Sunalini.

    I am aware of how certain commodities become “health foods” and then are priced very differently. I am also aware that in America for instance – where agri-businesses have almost complete control of the market, fresh fruit and vegetables are prohibitively expensive in comparison to processed/freeze dried food. I am clearly not arguing for this.

    However, I am still completely unconvinced by the “localness” argument that Aditya dismisses as rhetorical. It is not rhetorical, it is crucial – I find it intriguing that we are expected to imagine away the nation-state, the capitalist market, the development paradigm and embark on a project of “un-thinking” – and then be accused of rhetoric when I simply ask you to define what you mean by “local”.

    Further I also find it surprising that Nivi can assert that

    “The economic imperative for farmers to export out of the locality is also not some kind of instinct occurring “in nature”, but produced by specific kinds of nation-state driven economic policies of incentives, subsidies, disincentives.” and leave that statement completely un-explored.

    While i agree that export is not a manifestation of primordial agrarian urge, and that governments shape agrarian policy but surely we recognise that trade of olives, oil, spices, pepper, salt and grain have been around for far, far longer than capitalism, globalisation and hell, even the nation-state as they are currently defined.

    What would we make of that ancient form of trade?

    What do we make of the fact that many cultures have evolved by eating foods that were not “local” in any way, but were brought on merchant ships, on horse-drawn caravans and embedded in the bodies of animals and humans alike.

    This reminds of a text by Raqs Media Collective – which is available on Kafila titled “The Rest of Now“.

    To quote:
    “In 1855, the English botanist Richard Deacon published a botanical study of the ruins of the Flavian amphitheatre in Rome, “The Flora of the Colosseum.” His meticulous and monumental account catalogues the 420 species of vegetation growing in the six acres of the ruined edifice. These included several species so rare in Europe at that time that Deacon speculated that they must have been transported as seeds in the guts of the animals and slaves imported into Rome from Africa and Asia for the staging of gladiatorial spectacles. Deacon speaks of these rare plants with affection and awe, saying that they “form a link in the memory, and teach us hopeful and soothing lessons, amid the sadness of bygone ages: and cold indeed must be the heart that does not respond to their silent appeal; for though without speech, they tell us of the regenerating power which animates the dust of mouldering greatness.” By 1870, the Colosseum in Rome had experienced the first of several modern attempts at “restoration,” and the ancient cosmopolitan exuberance of vegetation that had been the botanist’s consolation had begun to give way to naked stone.”

    I find it deeply disturbing that the response to globalisation is the self-sustaining “local” economy – because that is no more “natural” or obvious or even demonstrably “good”.

    Hence, I am not sure what to make of Aditya’s observation that vegetables are grown on the banks of the Yamuna. Yes veggies are grown on the banks of the river, but this does not mean that we must eat them!

    So – at the risk of sounding stubborn, I dont think we can talk about local paradigms if we dont even agree on what the local is. Come on guys, this is not rhetorical – this is important.

    To come to this notion of a post-development paradigm. I am certainly open to imagining alternative futures – how ever it is equally important to imagine pathways to these futures – given a present (which may be interpreted as you choose) – how do we move on from here.

    As Atreyee points out “The reality of autonomous farming in the developing world, where the land, the resource does not exist separately from polluting influenced that have already been around. It take resource to be able to tap safe water or chemical-free soil, which the yamuna farmer wont have on his own.” and elsewhere ” So, industry, is a reality that many of us in our entangled modern lives, can’t get out of.”

    Does this signify a death of imagination beyond the industrial? Of course not – but perhaps if started by acknowledging the presence of the industrial, our imaginations might serve us better.

    My crack about the hippiness of the local-produce movement seems to have cut a lot of people to the quick. My “beef” with California hippies is not that they attempt to eat local – my beef with they have no idea why they do so.

    Et tu Nivi?


  18. Aww come ON Aman…you know this for a fact? All California hippies don’t know why they eat local? You have access to their knowledge-sets? I am the first person to say eating local should not be a fad, it should be a more real, more viable choice. And I completely get it if you are simply taking a swipe at the California hippy, just for kicks as they say. But it seems to be a more considered response in your writing. I mean if you want to take pot shots at various social types that inhabit our world (a perfectly acceptable way of doing political and social theory I believe), why do it at those who are trying by their very nuisance quotient perhaps, to show us a different way of doing things? I insist that’s too easy – the stereotype and the response. On the question of trade and food miles, ok there may be a danger of an anti-globalisation position being seen as anti-trade, and forgetting the rich history of trade in the ancient world. But why should pointing out the astonishing scale of trade in the modern world, with the nation-state and capitalism as drivers of this trade, amount to that forgetting? How indeed has modern international trade become efficient? At the risk of stating the obvious, by riding on the back of colonialism, war and extremely unequal trading arrangements. Green beans from Kenya cost less than driving to your local supermarket partly because we live in a world of ridiculously cheap airplane fuel; and the fuel is cheap because we have been raiding fossil fuel resources for the past century, and will continue to do for the foreseeable future. There are those who insist that all this talk of global warming and fossil fuel depletion is vastly exaggerated, including the ‘sceptical environmentalist’ bjorn lomborg (who has since nearly reversed his stance); but I don’t share this view.

    I also actually agree with you Aman, the definition of the ‘local’ is completely crucial; but what Aditya, Nivi and I seem to be saying is that any such definition must be circumscribed by our late industrial imagination of what is reasonable and realistic and rational. Sure, there is no reason to blindly support ‘local’ and assume its superiority over everything in the-world-as-it-is. But as far as I knew, none of us blindly support anything unilaterally in the-world-as-it-is; we are engaged in the business of asking why the world became as-it-is. What I find interesting, actually somewhat disturbing is why somebody who is well aware of the pitfalls of mono-culture farming would automatically assume the alternative is the california hippy in the-world-as-it-is. Sure, trash the upper class demand for health-on-tap, third world habitats be damned. But why the hell must that be the only way we imagine our way out of this world, or fail to imagine as it were? There is a serious issue of power and control that this discussion hasn’t foregrounded yet – mono-culture didn’t just happen to become efficient – consumer tastes were tinkered with, seeds were genetically modified (and please don’t say farmers have been doing it for years – you have to visit the monsanto headquarters to get a sense of the scale of GM research thats going on there) so that you couldn’t any longer grow spinach in your backyard which didn’t immediately succumb to a new virus that the GM spinach was resistant to, fuel costs were lowered through shady geopolitical deals and global monopolies, billions were pumped into advertising, supply and distribution chains were controlled (often with barely-concealed violence), machines were invented so that only mono-culture large farms could use them profitably…one could go on. And yes Atreyee, organic food is in in no way free from all these taints. But all the more reason to bring down this farce. The way I see it, in the face of all this, to target the organic consumer ( a consumer, for god’s sakes – not the creator/s of this system, however much they try to convince you of otherwise in econ 101) is disingenuous, or naive.


  19. Sunalini, Been there, seen it ☺, this is a quick response:

    >>and please don’t say farmers have been doing it for years – you have to visit the monsanto headquarters to get a sense of the scale of GM research that’s going on there

    Which is precisely why we need the farmers role to be recognized. All of Monsanto and GM research rides on civilization’s worth of research and actual genetic tinkering of the farmers of the world – from the very first farmer in the wheat crescent to the one in Yamuna banks growing a particular spinach that grows better in the toxic waters –what he is not doing is not publishing a paper on it and patenting –saying that this species has a trait with a gene/network that can exclude the heavy metal….da da. But Mr. Monsanto will be picking that very species and putting it through his shiny labs, and get the government scientists to nod excitedly and have the market machinery sell it right back to us and the said farmer with additional baggage. With claims that they engineered a novel, never before observed trait, that needed all of techniques of biotechnology to be involved. This is knowledge hijack. And making fools of us -the consumer janta.
    The companies can scale up massively on that advantage of a trait of a plant/animal because of the resources they command.
    The seed company’s bank balance will show the benefits of that knowledge, that expertise of the farmer.

    If the farmer on Yamuna bank knew how to negotiate the modern world of science and business, he would know the process of claiming his advantaged species and selling it to the world, he would do more or less what the seed/biotech company does, on a different scale.

    If we are able to trace the origins of a technology or the base principle of an industry to the ‘local’ as in the random example of spinach, we will also be able to see how it got displaced and makes it appear like we are always recipients of technology that never was appropriate to the local.

    Will get back on monoculture and displacement of germplasm diversity shortly…!


  20. I dont find this ‘targeting’ business much fun, but I suppose I failed to communicate that the purport of my argument was to demonstrate that particular kinds of consumers, positioned in particular places in economic chains, come to desire ‘local’ in certain ways. I dispute any universal moral content in the desire for ‘local’. The flip side of this is that the desire for flashy cars and fast food also comes out of a particular position (mostly in the developing world) in economic flows, where middle-class consumers of Delhi or Bangalore are caught in a capsule where choice is a liberating performance only inside spectacular shopping malls. Far from targeting consumers, I was trying to posit consumers and their ‘moralities’ as derivatives of their positions in global economic flows. But perhaps, greater sense should have prevailed and I should have restrained my two and a half pennies in fear of the predictable spate of name-calling that is wont of conversations on this forum.


  21. An entirely new element in the debate Aman. I didn’t realize that I had valorized the local qua local, as if it was endowed with some ontological superiority. I had spoken of the local, to the best of my knowledge and ability, in relation to the bogus argument about the ‘cheap is best’ argument. The green beans from Kenya epitomize for me the bogusness and the madness of the argument. Let me add some more crazy and hippi-ish points to make my own point clear. For some decades now, I have regularly bought fruit from the local market/s here (Delhi and Dehra Dun). Till very recently, we used to get apples from Himachal and Kashmir at something like Rs 20-25 to 35 and they were relatively affordable even for the not-so-fortunate as me. The absolute poor of course do not get even basic things but relatively poor people like domestic workers could buy these Golden or Delicious or the small Kashmiri apples at least once in a while. We also got mangoes from Malihabad and other places in UP at much lower rates than what we do now. Apples like golden and delicious are hardly available and sometimes range from Rs 45 to 80 while most of the best mangoes are hardly available. What we get instead in the Patparganj market are Washington and New Zealand apples and Kiwi fruit, pears from China etc at nothing less that Rs 100 a kilo. Before saner people rush to tell remind me, let me say that I do not labour under the illusion that Kashmir and Himachal are ‘local’ for us in Delhi in an absolute sense but they are local in a relative sense (which is why I think that any attempt to dissolve this specificity into some unspecified ‘global’ is pure rhetoric as if it is the same as getting Kiwi fruit from New Zealand). Now, Indian fruit will always be available in US and British supermarkets, like Kenyan beans, while Kenyans and Indians suck their thumbs – as most Indians increasingly are.
    As for trade in ancient times etc, that is precisely a point which I have been making elsewhere (partly following Karl Polanyi and a certain Karl Marx): Trade and commerce – even long distance ‘global’ trade – have been with us since antiquity. What is different from what happens from the 16-17th centuries but more specifically 18th and 19th centuries, is that markets are disembedded from social relations and acquire a fetishized character standing above everything else and determining everything else. Trade, till recent centuries, did not change the internal relations in societies between whom the trade took place. As Marx put it in vol 3 of Capital, mercantile capitalism (if we can call it that!) does not necessarily and automatically lead to industrial capitalism; it becomes so only when the merchant becomes industrialist and takes over the organization of production itself. The fatal error, in my humble opinion, that the latter Karl made was to believe that the second was the truly revolutionary way as that ushered in capitalism. Subsequent marxism indeed reduced all exchange relations, trade and commerce to the prehistory of capitalism. Anyway, that is a different debate and I do not want to enter it here. It is something that I am still working on and we will have more opportunities to debate that in future – inshallah, if we survive this crisis (another mad hatter’s nightmare, you will say). If you can guarantee that to me Aman, I can take ‘the presence of the industrial’ as an immutable given and endlessly debate. Else, good luck to all of us…


  22. Thanks Anu, exactly the direction I am also pointing at – that the asymmetry of power between the local farmer and Monsanto changes everything doesn’t it? Nelli above has said a similar thing – “It does not matter how far away or how local the food source…What matters is the way it is produced.” To which I want to add, yes, and the way the world is ordered, eating local can (not necessarily) mean opting out of some of the habits and tastes created by mono-culture supply-driven forces. There is so much bounty capitalism going on in agriculture and land relations (Anu and I have referred to these processes in our responses above) behind the smooth talk of efficient production and consumption that we need to ask where and how the consumer is produced – first or third world, GM-consuming or organic junkie.


  23. I am by now wary of intruding into this (interesting) debate which seems to be between sociologists with words like “fetish” and “knowledge system” being taken for granted. Fair enough. However, economists (and indeed other social scientists) also have an interest in the question: Does trade lead to more pollution? The answer, so far as I can see, seems ambiguous. That is, one can imagine scenarios where trade leads to more pollution and also scenarios where it could leave to less pollution. For an economist’s analysis of the problem – not that I can imagine any participant being interested – check

    Apologies for the intrusion.


  24. Dear All,

    I have been hugely enterianed, and edgimickated, by this excellent debate and discussion on food, originating from Aman’s post on Shine Flu (my compound of Swine and Human is Shine)

    I found the debates around the word ‘local’ particularly fascinating, and this ties into my recent experiences of being in Israel (more of that in other postings, later). For various reasons that have to do with the purchasing power of the average Israeli citizen (not very high) and the fact that Israel is a small country that finds itself (or has surrounded itself) with hostile neihbours with most of whom it cannot trade much, the Isaeli state made ‘self sufficiency in agriculture and food production’ almost a strategic, military target.

    Historically, this meant even more intense expropriation of agricultural lands, that were originally in the hands of absentee Palestinian landlords, present Palestinian small peasants, and the vast majority of Palestinian farm labour. The slogan of ‘grow local, eat local, farm local’ which was often awash in a ‘heroic-socialist’ tinge in Israel, had a dark shadow, the eviction of Palestinians from their land, and the forced collectivization of agricultural land in the Kibbutz system – which for many decades was the mainstay of agricultural self sufficiency (and substantial ecological and organic farming innovations in Isreal).

    This has meant that in Israel, local organic produce of a very high quality is available at reasonable prices (and is not only consumed by ‘hippy’ types. That it tastes good, and is available often through direct contact between consumers and producers in an ethic which is indeed egalitarian and fair to its current consumers and producers, but, that at the same time, this has a darker history, and a dark present.

    I say this only to point out how difficult it is to always valorize the terms ‘local’ and ‘organic’ even in terms of the embedding of these realities in social relations.

    Are the social relations that guarantee year round local produce through organic farming on a mass scale not for elite but for general consumption fair and egalitarian apart from being ecological ? – Yes, they are, in large measure

    Are they rooted in a continuing, unjust and deep rooted violence? – yes, they are.

    The fact that the answers to both these questions is ‘yes’ is the difficulty which I am pointing towards. I am not saying this either to dismiss any of the positions advanced in the very interesting thread so far. I am just saying this to perhaps point to the difficulty I have in taking absolute moral stances about the origins, trajectories and destinations of food. I guess that makes me a bit ‘lame’ when it comes to thinking about food at the moment, but I need to think about it a lot more before I feel I can take a clearer stand.




  25. Oy Shuddha, shalom. So that’s where you have been.
    There’s a bit of a red herring here, I think – surely nobody has suggested that “local and organic” necessarily closes off all other questions of power and exploitation. A society can live local and organic by exploiting peasants and making them do forced labour (oh wait, they did it already, under feudalism), or conceivably, by kidnapping children and keeping them prisoner to run little local farms. Or a state like Israel can go organic and local because it has no other choice, having hemmed itself in with rings of hostility. But surely organic and local is conceivable even if a just solution is found in which Israeli and Palestinian live as sisters?
    No-one here is taking “absolute moral stances” on “origins, trajectories and destinations of food” – the stances are modulated by the absolute non-negotiability of the very limited range of feasible options the earth offers us humans and swines as we enter the second decade of the 21st C. This is not the world of the 16th C when the horizons of natural bounties seemed limitless. In 500 years, human civilization has come a long way, baby. The consolation is, perhaps there’s just a short distance more to go.


  26. @Nivi,

    Precisely – the point on feudalism more or less hits the nail on the head. It is interesting that certain practices are possible only in the context of a blatant exploitation of labour.

    To introduce another red-herring; as I had written elsewhere on kafila – some believe that one of the reasons why the efficacy of canal irrigation has dipped dramatically in the years following independence (and even before) was the gradual elimination of the use of forced labour to de-silt the canals. Once people had to be paid to de-silt, it suddenly became prohibitively expensive.

    Could it be that the reason that local/organic is so expensive is because people are actually paid a decent living wage for growing it? In which case I owe the california hippies an apology. Have any of our readers – Anu comes to mind, because her posts suggest more than a passing familiarity with the subject – found any data that dis-aggregates the cost of production of organic food?

    Because if it is true that those that grow organic are compensated better – then some very interesting possibilities open up.

    Also, a quick note on the rising costs of “health food” like unpolished rice etc that was once so cheap. Could it be that the unpolished rice that was so cheap was grown with pesticides, on mixed farm patches, in “non-virgin” soil; while the new “health food” variant claims to be grown without any pesticides, without any fertilizer, on a patch of land untainted by industrialisation and hand-picked by people who are paid a living wage? Now it is possible that it is the same old rice – but as Sunalini has pointed out – there are agencies to confirm this. (It is also possible that these agencies are not confirming this – but it allows the health-food sector to mark up prices anyway.)

    Similarly, I have been having a number of off-line conversations on the subject of organic/non-organic and of-course world hunger – and the argument I’ve heard most often is that organic cannot be scaled up to the point where global food production satisfies demand.

    Does this argument presume the existence of nation-state/market/capitalism? Yes it does.

    I’m not saying that anyone who opposes Monsanto’s violent entry into new agricultural markets has the blood of dying children on his/her hands. I’m merely saying that in the absence of a situation where everyone grows their own food; we need to think about scalability.

    Also, the same way that supporting organic does nt imply supporting Israel in the west-bank; contemplating a industrial agriculture does nt imply a outright submission to the demands of agro-companies. To quote a phrase must in phashion, ‘No-one here is taking “absolute moral stances” on “origins, trajectories and destinations of food” ‘.

    So, as much as I was moved by the story of the farmer and the spinach; you realise that issues of what anu calls “knowledge hijack” exist in every space from free-software to tribal songs that have been appropriated by music labels, to japanese street fashion in harajuku. I’m not dismissing these concerns, I am pointing out how they are not an intrinsic part of the system- and large scale agriculture is possible without such “knowledge hijack.”

    Of course the fact that Sunalini is arguing for what “should” be possible – allows her to say
    “One should be able to eat locally produced AND pesticide-free food if the world was less crazy right?”

    Of course one SHOULD; if the world was less crazy. Given the world is as crazy as we think it is. What is to be done?


  27. >> we need to ask where and how the consumer is produced – first or third world, GM-consuming or organic junkie.

    GM is based on selecting a better performing species, capable of delivering in adverse condition (bugs, drought) which gives same or better yield than the commonly used species. This is not significantly different from traditional agriculture. However they are wetted for a few properties by using some high end techniques and sent out as some new thingy by the industry/institute. The said beneficial trait/s functions from an underlying genetic mechanism, our understanding of these mechanisms is rudimentary and not ready to be marketed as an end product at the scales it is being done.

    Genes do not function in isolation. They interact with the sum total of all the genes of an organism, which in turn will interact with the environment –itself composed of many known and unknown variables. At present we know very little about genes and their interactions. So, saying that we have a better performing plant, suitable for a number of environments, based on tinkering with one gene -misleading at best. It is little like saying, one specially reinforced brick in the building is the secret to the entire stability and functionality of the modified building and it will withstand all calamities, so go on tear down and replace all the buildings that do not have the said modified brick.

    Genetic engineering as a science derives from other knowledge systems, the science of the farmer being the foundation and the rest the superstructure. The seed/garment/pharma companies have placed themselves at the end of the cumulative knowledge of these other basic sciences (formal and informal, holistic and largely sustainable) and parcels it as it very own contribution and the benefits rarely shared. This it is does with impunity because of the lack of articulation from the other groups who are under fragile monetary backing for their respective enterprises. The farmers, well. The breeder’s science is largely funded by government and is subject to the vagaries of political understanding or favor. The vulnerability of scientists who are basically the knowledge enhancing part of the production process has steadily grown and the industry stepped in with a ‘helping hand’. The GM industry did not appear de novo. There is a clear relationship between the farmer-government scientists-industry, in the GM cycle.

    Goodwill GM:
    If Bill Gates foundation demands that starvation in Africa be addressed pronto by enhancing corn, it is welcomed without protest by the scientists and with delight by the industry. And here the ‘cheap is best’ or poor will take the cheapest comes into play. The aim of this goodwill gesture is to have every conceivable nutrient engineered into one staple crop. Lets help the poor by giving him a staple that meets all his nutrient requirements in a single item. It taste like nothing, no problem, he will not complain (think synthetic). So, a monoculture becomes a mono staple in the poor’s meal. Now, since Africa is faring better than most Indian states regarding starvation, probably the funding and goodwill may turn its attention to us. There will be researching and attempts to market ‘all in one rice/wheat’? No need to buy dhal and vegetables, which would meet the nutrient requirement for a balanced meal. For, that means looking at the country’s PDS, talking with the local governments, sustained dialog and so not modern a solution.

    Goodwill apart, what to do with all the technology already created to answer pedantic questions, and safeguarding self-interests. Like finding a swine that is resistant to H1N1, now that would be useful, believe me in all that name calling about Mexico as in the post, behind the scenes is a mad scramble to crack the disease and find the magic swine/human, that did well. And here the food will tie in with the pharma industry and have Mexico as the consumer for the new drug and on and on….

    The GM consumers are thus produced in the West with assured, careful and complete monitoring, whereas it gets dumped on the third world that cannot afford or is not equipped for monitoring. Hence, GM maize has been around in the West for a long time and there no major disaster stories associated with it, but we are not able to separate fact from fiction about the GMO’s that have been introduced in our country.

    This is not to malign the scientist’s efforts but to point to them as a crucial link between the farmer and industry, and the vulnerabilities that produce this chain. And I mean scientists in the West; In India there is no parallel pressure to raise funds for research or even to ask the question why?
    Asking why and looking for answers is the basis for science and technology, most technological innovations came out of some university lab –meaning they have been government funded. Yet, it is the industry that decides how that technology gets used.

    So, in my understanding the third becomes a consumer of western science that has been appropriated by the industry. And a lot of the western science (natural product science) feeds from the knowledge and resource bases (farmers) of the third world. The disconnect that exists between knowledge production underlying the technology, the original motivation and the role of the industry is too complicated to be attempted in a comment.


  28. Aman,

    >> how they are not an intrinsic part of the system- and large scale agriculture is possible without such “knowledge hijack.”

    Basmati?? this battle for this patent is being contested not just on how it looks and smells; everything from where it originated, who cultivated it first and how the qualities were carefully selected over generations of farmers by cross breeding and the careful choice of environmental conditions are being are being examined. Now they are tracking the human migration path and the basmati’s progenitors origin to dislodge the claims of ownership. Those combinations of qualities in basmati rice aroma -length upon cooking etc just did not come about in nature, they were human selected, pre large scale agriculture.

    If we have the view that farmers throw seeds and let nature takes its course, well, I better stop here but I do hope I addressed this a little bit in the previous comment.

    I was not garnering sympathy for him/her but trying to draw attention to their intellectual contribution, on which sits a monster that has all of us so vexed. Spinach, pig or cotton, they are products with associated knowledge systems. Period. Whether you want go organic, GM, or home garden you need the knowledge that goes with it.

    In this minimal line of producers, farmer-scientist-industry, the farmer can and did exist without the other two until recently. The latter two, however need the farmer, first as a source of knowledge and germplasm, next as a consumer of their so-called ‘value added’ product. Place yourself as a consumer of these three specialists. Would you wish that the farmer had somehow retained his control over knowledge and germplasm? As consumers, his loss is our loss and I am very moved by the plight of us, the consumers :)

    – the consumer base for the product based on hijacked agricultural knowledge, are entire continents, quite different from the examples you cite. Those do not take lives and livelihoods on epidemic scales, right?
    – Additionally we are left with the costs of environmental repair. I do understand your point that this happens in every space.

    Organic, is a term that I am yet to fully grasp, my high school understanding of the water cycle completely messes up this image of an unpolluted natural product.

    The figures of $23 billion for organic food and non-food sales in 2008 up from 1 billion in 1990, hints at more than just a hippie trend and involvement.

    Organic farming as I see in the US is not a return to manual farming techniques it uses most of the technology of big farming, with the equipment being certified to be free of synthetic chemicals. So, I doubt that high price is only because of labor wages. To my limited understanding of American society it seems like they are willing to pay an extra buck for better lifestyles and have started to feel invested in the environment.

    The town I live in is very ‘green’ and there is a really big, hippie and non-hippie mobilization for the movement. At the same time Wal-Mart’s fresh food section is doing just fine. Hence, they the have the choice of chain and organic products for their people. However, there are subtle and not so subtle attempts to get the school children to be thinking organic; putting the organic thought in the next generation of consumers –very significant!


We look forward to your comments. Comments are subject to moderation as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s