Last week India banned the export of wheat. Almost predictably, rich nations, branded as G7, “expressed disappointment” and condemned the decision. The response was steeped in factual ignorance, contextual illiteracy and political hypocrisy of the kind which has led to the aggravation of the global food crisis. Facts are eloquent messengers. India runs not one but two of the world’s largest food security programmes. The National Food Security Act, a justiciable law, obliges the government to make available subsidised food grains to 800 million people — the math tells you that is more than the combined population of the G7 countries. India also supplies free food grains to 800 million under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana. In effect, it is obliged to provide grains to 800 million persons twice (that is 1.6 billion) every month. What exactly is/was the expectation of the G7 countries — that India must forsake its own?
India certainly doesn’t own the copyright on export bans. And the hypocrisy of G7 is best illustrated by an episode from recent history. In 2021, as the virus raged across the world and countries scampered for vaccines, the US under the ‘America First’ policy banned export of not just vaccines but also raw materials required for their production. The EU was not far behind in denying countries access to vaccines. Worse, it didn’t matter that doses were wasted. Indeed, in March 2022, the US’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated the national rate of wastage and concluded that as of February 2022, around 9.85 per cent of the 687 million doses of vaccines — which would be 65 million doses – were wasted. Compute the cost and the cost of denial for effect.
The ban on vaccines is only one of the chapters in the book on convenient leverage of the phrase ‘national interest’. There are and have been many and have led to historical consequences. In December 1975, the US enacted the Energy Policy and Conservation Act banning export of crude oil. The ban was in place for 40 years — despite increased output and even during price spikes — and was lifted only in December 2015.
The cause of the food crisis and the rising inflation has been pinned on the lapel of Vladimir Putin and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It is true that Russia and Ukraine are dominant players in the global food grains bazaar. But, more critical is the disruption (and pricing chaos) in energy supplies crucial for industrial scale agriculture, for transport and for inputs such as fertilisers. It is arguable that the leverage which Russia has over Europe could have been limited — if not averted — had the US allowed exports earlier, not shut the pipeline to Canada and cracked down on fracking. Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and Europe’s energy vulnerability was apparent. Yet, neither the EU nor the US moved to shift sourcing — imagine a continent dependent on one source for over 40 per cent of its energy.
The consequence of unattended issues is haunting the world. It is true that prices of food grains have shot up. As per World Bank as of May 2022, the Agricultural Price Index is up 41 per cent compared to January 2021. Maize and wheat prices are 54 per cent and 60 per cent higher compared to January 2021. But pinning the blame on India’s ban on wheat exports is simply an exhibition of mindless lazy rhetoric.
Public policy decisions rest on context. India presented the circumstance — the extent of availability, the impact of the heat wave and potential prospects of the next crop. Mind you that India’s stance accommodated the need to help the distressed — Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Afghanistan. While India is the second largest producer of wheat, it is not even on the list of top ten exporters. The situation though is dire. Hunger Games is at play in real life. Every country is struggling with both inflation and the crisis of availability. This week UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres declared that hunger levels around the world are at “a new high” and revealed that the number of “severely food insecure people had doubled in just two years — from 135 million pre-pandemic to 276 million”.
The UN, as this column pointed out earlier, crippled by the archaic structure, has repeatedly failed to stop wars. The least it can do is to seize the humanitarian cause — build a coalition to enable evacuation of stocks lying in war-torn Ukraine, design/create a multilateral mechanism to improve availability of inputs and fix the comatose world food programme to deliver to the poorest by accessing funding from IMF/World Bank. The odds of success, given its track record, are admittedly low.
Finally, it would be useful for those in the G7 grouping to reflect on the humongous wastage of food in high-income countries impacting availability and affordability. The US EPA, citing UN-FAO data, states that globally nearly a billion tonnes of food is lost or wasted annually. Just in the US, “40 per cent of food is lost or wasted, annually costing an estimated $218 billion” — a figure over five times India’s food subsidy for 2021-22. The situation in the EU or UK is not very different. The UNEP estimates that UK households “waste an estimated 6.7 million tonnes of food every year, around one-third of the 21.7 million tonnes purchased”. Those lamenting in chorus may well start showing up and contribute more than just outrage to mitigate the misery of people around the world.
Author of The Gated Republic, Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution, and Accidental India