In the summer of 2009, New Delhi’s Lalit hotel, a 1980s monstrosity that had recently been remodeled, hosted the “Second Food Technology Summit,” sponsored by the Ministry of Food Processing and the Confederation of Indian Industries, a powerful lobbying group. Experts and government officials sat on stage, taking questions from the audience, which included the chairman of the Indian Food Processor’s Association as well as representatives from Coca-Cola. The questions were largely rhetorical, lamenting the obstacles to the modernization of India’s food markets. “No one cares about the sell-by dates of bread,” one man commented. “What happens when the bread gets old in the village stalls? They fry it in oil and sell it as bread pakora instead.” In the 600,000 villages and towns in non-metropolitan India, I learned, none of the teeming hundreds of millions of residents cared about the mechanized processes and international standards of hygiene that would allow India to join the industrialized nations in their eating habits.
Perhaps that is because those hundreds of millions have more fundamental concerns when it comes to food. The enthusiasm for expiration dates at the Summit must seem peculiar to the poor in a country where 43 percent of children under the age of five are malnourished. In sub-Saharan Africa, the figure is 28 percent; it’s 7 percent in China, to which India is so often compared. The Indian government’s own data show that 800 million Indians live on about twenty rupees (about $0.50) a day. Half of those are farmers who produce food that they, for the most part, cannot afford to eat thanks to the demands of speculators and affluent urban consumers. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), wheat prices reached a record high in February, and the cost of rice—which accounts for 30 percent of the typical Indian diet—hovers at around 22 rupees per kilogram even in Patna and Chennai, capitals of major rice-producing states. That’s about twice the average cost from 2000 until the middle of 2007, when prices began to rise sharply. The average Indian consumes 73 kilograms of rice per year, which means that farmers, assuming they eat at least as much rice as their non-farming countrymen, are now spending some 20 percent of their income on rice alone.
Yet dramatically rising prices and the malnutrition crisis were far from the minds of the conference-goers enjoying their luxury hotel in the heart of the New Delhi business district. Since the late ’90s, government food policy has promoted breakneck modernization, withdrawing support for local agriculture even while attempting to bring the Indian people into a more globalized food market as consumers and producers. This has involved the entire spectrum of food. Government-operated agricultural institutes emphasize patented, genetically modified crops produced by behemoths such as Monsanto and support attempts by Walmart and its Indian counterparts to take over the retail and wholesale systems. These changes have been welcomed by the 200 million members of the upper and middle classes, largely concentrated in the metropolises.
For the officials at the conference, it was a matter of faith that soon the majority of Indians would join in that welcome. India’s embrace of a “free market” in the early ’90s, its rise as an economic power, the presence of an outsourcing industry closely connected to multinational corporations in the West, and the growth of a frenetically consumerist lifestyle among the beneficiaries, seem to have led to the notion that, after long decades of Gandhian fasting, the country has woken up to a perpetual feast. The colorful crowds at the new malls, eating at local food carts, global chains such as McDonald’s, and gourmet restaurants reinforce this impression. Until recently, the new eating habits were noted mostly with approval in the West. In 2008, however, they began to come under criticism amid the worldwide rise in food prices. Many observers have pointed to the use of agricultural land for biofuels and the growing demand for meat and dairy products as principal causes of spiking prices. Both trends apply in India, but the government’s free-market modernization scheme has exacerbated the problem further by encouraging the planting of animal feed in a country that was already struggling with the basics. Contrary to widespread stereotypes, Indians are not all vegetarians, but historically, they’ve eaten less meat than they do today. Whereas India produced just 121,000 tons of chicken meat in 1971, it produced 1.9 million tons in 2005.
A few days after the Summit, I spoke with Vijay Sardana, a food-industry consultant and poultry expert who had been in attendance. At the Lalit, Sardana seemed a symbol of India’s food markets on the move. He took calls constantly on his Blackberry or made small talk around the generously laden buffet tables. But when I spoke to him at his modest apartment in East Delhi, he told a story I didn’t hear at the Summit.
“It’s not just ignorance at the farmer level,” he said. India’s food problems included corporate lobbying, commodity trading (“all speculation,” he claimed), and government policies that were removed from the rural reality. Officials at the Summit want India to be the “food factory for the world,” but Sardana was concerned that the country may not even be able to feed itself...
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--Siddhartha Deb's most recent book is The Beautiful And The Damned: Life In The New India (Viking, 2011)