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HELPING HAND

Why India’s chefs and restaurants must pay attention to the farmer protests

REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
Standing out.
Published

For the past two months, tens of thousands of Indian farmers have been camped on the border of Delhi, protesting against the new agriculture laws that they say will benefit large private buyers at the expense of producers. The farmers want the government to repeal the laws and bring in legislation to guarantee minimum support prices for their crops.

To the outsider, including many from the restaurant industry that I hail from, the issue of agriculture laws may appear remote. But it is not. Related to it are the subjects of food security, culinary heritage, food habits, and international agreements.

Given this backdrop, it is important for my peers in the hospitality industry to pay attention to what is happening in Tikri, Singhu, and Ghazipur. They must examine the long-term effects of contract farming on our food habits and identify what we can do to reverse the effects of agricultural policies.

Lack of diversity

The seeds of change were planted with the Green Revolution in the mid-20th century. Meant to increase foodgrain output, it also altered the contours of agriculture in India. The area under cultivation for wheat and paddy increased, while the cultivation of coarse crops such as sorghum (jowar), pearl millet (bajra) and small millets reduced from 37.67 million hectares to 25.67 million hectares, according to a study in the Journal of Ethnic Foods.

A role in the Green Revolution was played by the Rockefeller Foundation, which provided the Indian government with high-yielding variety seeds. Wheat and rice were pushed with government incentives as they produced the best results, while protein-rich grains dawdled behind, resulting in reduced availability and consumption. India’s quest to become self-sufficient in agricultural production and food security had eclipsed its long-term environmental, economical, and nutritional concerns.

The consequences of those decisions are still being felt today. Malnutrition remains high, as do child wasting, and stunting. Early analyzes point fingers at the National Food Security Act, which includes the midday meals scheme and the public distribution system. Apart from corruption and inefficiencies, both programmes suffer from an additional problem—overreliance on wheat and rice. Experts believe that excessive consumption of carbohydrates along with decreasing consumption of fruits, vegetables, meats, and pulses have led to deficiencies in minerals and vitamins among children. A lack of diet diversification in both these schemes has been the principal reason for India’s failure in tackling malnutrition.

Contract farming in Punjab was identified as a possible solution to break away from the wheat-paddy cycle and promote crop diversification. However, it was scrapped a decade later due to centre-state relationships and farmers feeling that they were at the disposal of agri-processing companies which dictated trade in open markets. They were given deadlines and targets which undermined not only their skills and education but also agro-climatic concepts like seasonality and sustainability.

Past experiences with contract farming show that it has not supported localised, democratically planned sustainable models. Organic farming—a type of agricultural practice that uses indigenous seeds, natural fertilisers, and localised cropping techniques—has also been tried under the contract farming model. But left to market forces and certification systems, it could not achieve large-scale feasibility.

Economist Jayati Ghosh writes that the need for corporate interference in agriculture emerges only because the government has failed to provide farmers with basic protection and support. There is no reason, she adds, why services such as minimum support prices, loans at reasonable interest rates, information about new technology, and agricultural methods cannot be provided by the government.

Farm to table

The questions of food security being raised today by the protesting farmers in India were once being considered in the US. This is why restaurants and chefs in California stepped in to reform farming practices starting in the 1970s. With avant-garde techniques centred around concepts of seasonality, chefs gave rise to what is now popularly known as the “farm to table movement”.

Alice Waters and her Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse, which championed this cause, helped establish an ecosystem in which food innovation thrived through seasonal and sustainable produce. In her book, Coming To My Senses, Waters says that she wanted to break away from the norms of industrial farming to serve flavourful and organic ingredients, which she found only when she interacted with her local farmers. Even today, 50 years after its opening, Chez Panisse sources all its ingredients from the local Sonoma farm, Green String.

This is not to say that the US agriculture sector is no longer plagued by obdurate problems. In 2019, Time magazine reported that 

farm debt in the US

was at an all-time high at $416 billion. Farmers were filing for bankruptcy and killing themselves at an alarming rate. Many contract farmers had begun to realise that their methods were financially and environmentally unsustainable, while small farmers who were victims of changing technology found it difficult to cope with fluctuating markets. Still, the farm-to-table movement is a sliver of hope.

In India, a recent success story has been the revival of ragi (finger millet) in Karnataka. A humble crop that had been the poster boy of Karnataka’s cuisine for 300 years was given up by farmers after the Green Revolution for other subsidised and high-yielding variety seeds. The dwindling production of ragi forced the government to focus on urban areas, where people ate more expensive alternatives like quinoa and amaranth.

The agricultural department organised programmes to educate chefs about the nutritional and traditional value of the millet while encouraging reluctant farmers to build a multi-cropping system centred around ragi. Chefs then contemporise the millet with urban eating habits, increasing its popularity in metropolitan cities. With collective stakeholder ownership, ragi became a part of the clean eating movement and has seen an upward trend since 2010.

Helping hand

Fifty years ago, the Green Revolution prioritised production over environmental and nutritional concerns. Today, the new farming laws are prioritizing the needs of big corporations over farmers.

Some industry experts might believe that restaurants stand to benefit from the implementation of these laws. But what they fail to recognise is the uncertainty around the contracts: will the system be driven by corporate demand or be built around the charitable assumption that the farmers will bring to restaurants their organic produce? If contracts are centred around corporate demand, then the system only stands to benefit restaurant chains and fast-food giants with standardised menus.

Over time, the law will allow corporations to dictate cropping patterns and production quality, which will lead to loss of history seeped in local dishes and ingredients. Most restaurants will have no option but to cook with the products provided by agri-processing companies.

It is to stave off such a future that the restaurant industry must invest in the practice of polyculture and put local ingredients on the table that will support regional cuisines and make food supply chains more sustainable. Doing this will also curb farmers’ dependence on one crop during harvest, balance food demand, and strengthen biodiversity.

It is time for chefs and restaurateurs to stand with their biggest and most important stakeholder—the farmer. This should begin with trade groups such as the National Restaurant Association of India questioning the government on the implementation of the new farm laws. This will admittedly not be easy. Before the start of the Budget session of the Parliament, NRAI had requested the finance ministry for tax relief for the industry that had suffered greatly during the pandemic. Yet, the government paid no heed.

The vulnerability of the F&B industry makes the need to invest in farmer-restaurant relationships even more urgent. The government must incentivise a move to an agro-climatic system that aims to maximise production with existing climatic conditions. Restaurants must aim to put food on the table with purpose while calling for greater conversations around sustainability and nutrition. The idea of community-supported farming could be an alternative solution to India’s agricultural and nutritional woes if chefs, restaurateurs, and food processing technicians are politically committed to making sure no one goes hungry. Today, that means opposing the Modi-led government’s attempts to let monopolists dictate what we eat from the farm to the table.

This article first appeared on Scroll.in. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

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