Guest post by JACOB SEBASTIAN
Is 2012 the watershed year for climate change? The year it ceases to be a ‘dodgy concept’ and transforms into painful reality?
Some facts to consider:
*The United States – particularly the food basket that is the American Midwest, is facing its “worst drought” since the 1950s, and is expected to last all summer. US agricultural secretary Tom Vilsack told the media: “If I had a rain prayer or a rain dance I could do, I would do it.” The US is the world’s second biggest food producer, after China, but more importantly, one of the biggest exporters of food.
*Prices of the four key crops: Corn, wheat, sugar and soybean have risen 44%, 48%, 22% and 26% over the last month. The United States produces 41% of the world’s corn and 38% of the world’s soybeans. The two crops comprise two of the four largest sources of caloric energy produced and are thus critical for world food supply.
*Russia, Ukraine and Kazhaksthan have also cut crop forecasts following extreme weather events (both drought and floods) in the ‘bread basket’ regions of the former Soviet Union, according to an article in Financial Times on July 17, 2012.
*India could very well be headed for a drought itself, with the monsoon being delayed by an unprecedented two weeks, and rainfall still 22 percent below average for the time of year.
* The price of rice, the staple grain of the world’s poor, has so far not been affected, but the monsoon’s poor show in India could change that. July is the crucial planting month for the kharif crop, and the sowing of pulses and rice are behind schedule. Already, there are reports of the price of pulses and cotton being driven up by as much as 20%.
* Overall water level in reservoirs has been found to be at 57 per cent of last year’s storage. The Centre has issued an advisory to the States to limit release of waters from reservoirs and to give priority to drinking water and irrigation needs.
These disparate events could have a cumulative effect on the world’s and India’s food supply unless the weather improves and governments step in to impose controls and provide relief early enough. The economic and political implications of a potential food crisis are unpredictable. Price surges in 2008 and 2010 have been identified as at least partially responsible for political turmoil globally, including the events that led up to the ‘Arab Spring’. This time, it could also affect an already crisis-hit Europe as well.
The irony is that the average Indian farmer will be the last to benefit from any such shortfall in food supply and a corresponding price rise. On its part, the Indian state continues with its destructive agricultural policy that have put farmers and farming at the mercy of the ‘market’ – essentially big farmers, agribusiness, retail giants, middlemen, moneylenders and the microfinance mafia.
To mention two instances, earlier this month, vegetable farmers in Burdwan, West Bengal dumped their produce on the highway in protest of low prices and market manipulation by middle men. This week, vegetable farmers in Palakkad, Kerala, dumped their produce by the truckload, for similar reasons.
The criminality in the ‘farm sector’ in India – both in policy and on the ground – has reached such levels that farmers are being forced to resort to desperate measures such as these (not to mention the continuing farm suicides) – but with little impact.
Under these conditions, extreme weather events (still poorly understood) could very well be the straw that finally breaks the back of the beleaguered Indian farmer.
Jacob Sebastian is a Delhi based journalist