We have heard of food riots in Africa. Marie Antoinette is said to have angered the French masses faced with bread shortages with her flippant exhortation to eat cakes instead. In India, food prices drove out complacent governments.
Decades ago, Sushma Swaraj, leader of the BJP, had the mortification of losing the Delhi Assembly elections when angry voters refused to be appeased by the justification of a seasonal shortage of food. onions as the proximate cause of the soaring price of the vegetable that tickles Indian taste buds endlessly. Now, there are reports of lemons being sold for Rs 15 each in many parts of the country experiencing drought periods.
Fortunately, no election is imminent. “Bought a lemon” is a joking expression that means the item purchased is worthless or not worth the price paid. In the wake of its increased value, albeit hopefully temporary, people wouldn’t be so flippant about the lemon spicing up our food and quenching our thirst.
Agriculture and agri-food industries should preferably coexist side by side. What are the axes of thrust? Forty percent of apples lost to the elements in Himachal Pradesh is shocking and can be reversed if food processing industries beyond breweries or distilleries like apple jam and juice makers grow in the region. Milk and potatoes dumped on the roads during glut seasons by angry farmers can be similarly reversed by following the cooperative model of AMUL producers across the country.
Individual farmers who partner with PepsiCo and McDonald’s condemn themselves to the role of junior partner while producer cooperatives give producers the bargaining and marketing power, ie the upper hand. Unity is strength. Guntur, famous for its chillies, can take the initiative to make chilli pastes that can be easily stored and transported throughout the year. Same for the tamarind paste.
There’s no reason farmers can’t grow their co-ops to produce bread, potato chips, tomato puree, ketchup and so on. And yes, bottled lemon juice too. What the government needs to do is encourage farmers facing huge disguised unemployment to ask young people among them to work in food processing industries adjacent to farms and rural centres.
The government itself must play a catalytic role. First, it will provide huge job opportunities. Second, it will eliminate seasonal shortages and price spikes. Namely, squeezed lemon juice in bottles would make it available year-round, as would ginger paste. Third, it minimizes waste. Milk close to the expiry date can be advantageously transformed into yogurt and buttermilk. In fact, most households are mini-industry or cottage industries in food processing. Mango and lemon are pickled in rural houses as well as in some urban houses to last for a year. But their contribution to this desirable activity cannot be pushed further because they lack means and technology.
Government FDI in multi-brand retail policy has had no takers, although the ongoing struggle for ownership of the Big Bazaar chain suggests that Amazon may have moved past its fixation on e-commerce and could toying with the idea of branching out into huge brick-and-mortar stores. The policy requires a minimum investment of US$100 million, with 50% in backend operations such as cold storage and food processing industries. Such stores would eliminate middlemen who hijack farmers with a pittance in addition to integrating farmers into urban consumption centers.
National distribution chains should also be encouraged to invest in backbone infrastructure. Cold storage infrastructure along the route from farms to consumption centers is essential, but it cannot substitute for food processing.
Frozen vegetables and meat are not a connoisseur’s delight. Freshness itself can improve food quality. In any case, it is physically not possible to store garlic purchased during the season for off-season demand while garlic paste can be with preservatives. Mangoes cannot be stored in cold storage for gradual release during the off-season, but mango pulp and mango juice can be sold throughout the year. Although cold storage is essential, it cannot replace food processing.
— S. Murlidharan is a CA by training and writes on economic issues, tax and trade laws. The opinions expressed in the article are his own.
(Edited by : Kanishka Sarkar)