Desperate ‘attempts’ to ‘keep’ agriculture impoverished leading to exodus to urban regions
Smallholders produce a third of the world’s food supply; local communities manage one billion hectares
Globally too, the farming scenario is equally disparaging. If the massive domestic support in agriculture -- $ 500 billion in 2019-21 paid from public budgets – was withdrawn, whatever remains of farming in the developed countries is certain to collapse
Among the various definitions of living income for farmers, Fairtrade International, a global movement co-owned by more than 1.8 million farmers, defines it as: ‘Sufficient income to afford a decent standard of living for all household members – including a nutritious diet, clean water, decent housing, education, healthcare and other essential needs – plus a little extra for emergencies and savings – once farm costs are covered’.
In my own humble way, I have relentlessly drawn focus over the years on the economic deprivation that Indian farmers are faced with. The denial of a living income for farmers is what has aggravated agrarian distress. Over the decades, while agricultural production has gone up leaps and bounds, farm income has been steadily on a decline. In a lot many ways, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that the increase in production happens to be inversely proportionate to the average decrease in the agricultural household true income.
Although I have said it time and again, let me reiterate it once again to put it in the right context. As per the Economic Survey 2016, the average income of farmers in 17 States, which means roughly half the country, stood at a paltry Rs 20,000 (or $241) a year. This means an average farm household was surviving in less than Rs 1,700 (or $21) per month. This income is not enough to even raise a cow if you are living in a village or domesticate a dog if you happen to be in the city. With such derisory income, the misery and deprivation that farmers live with can certainly be imagined.
The pitiful income is for farmers living in half the country. But at the national level, the picture is equally disparaging. According the 2019 Situational Assessment Survey for Agricultural Households, the average monthly income of a farm household from all sources stands at a meagre Rs 10,218 (or $ 123). Considering that almost 50 per cent of the country’s population is directly or indirectly engaged in farming, the primary reason behind the plight of the farming community is clearly discernable.
Globally too, the farming scenario is equally disparaging. If the massive domestic support in agriculture -- $ 500 billion in 2019-21 paid from public budgets – was withdrawn, whatever remains of farming in the developed countries is certain to collapse. Simply put, it is the sustained effort to continuously keep farming population on a ventilator that is keeping the farmers alive, and somehow manage to struggle against all odds.
The exodus from the farm the world has witnessed is the result of an economic design that has deliberately kept agriculture impoverished. In other words, it is the economic design – both globally and nationally – that has denied a living income to farm households thereby exacerbating the demise of agriculture.
At this critical juncture, it is so heartening to see a group of 70 international civil society organisations (CSOs), including Fair Trade, Solidaridad, Rainforest Alliance, Oxfam and Mighty Earth among others, seeking an amendment to the European Union’s Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive (CSDDD) to include living income and fair purchase practices in the proposal.
“We welcome the CSDDD and its goal to address the human rights and environmental impact of companies’ global value chains. However, in order to lead to a positive change, it must take into account the interests and needs of rights holders, especially those in the most vulnerable in global value chains.”
Although the European Parliament already has included a reference to living income in its position saying that the right to enjoy just and favourable conditions of work, including remuneration that provides for a decent living, “includes both the right to a living wage and the right to a living income for self-employed workers and small holders” the joint petition by CSOs is seeking an explicit reference to living income so that the smallholders and other vulnerable sections can truly gain from it.
Knowing that smallholders produce a third of the world’s food supply, and indigenous people and local communities manage about 1 billion hectares of forests, it is important to assure a viable livelihood security for them. These communities remain at the bottom of the pyramid as far as an assured income is concerned. Assuring a living income along with a living wage for these vulnerable communities is absolutely essential to overcome poverty. While the G-20 effort is to strengthen the global value chains, incorporating a clear cut direction to these companies to provide income security to the producers of the basic raw material has never been part of any policy directive.
In an article: No sustainable world without a living income for farmers (Fair Food, Sept 22, 2021), I had talked of how concentration of power in the hands of a few multinational companies have resulted in unfair trade practices hitting millions of livelihoods of small farmers and landless workers in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Take the case of coffee, which is a $ 200 billion industry, gulping 3 billion cups of coffee every day, yet a majority of the coffee beans growers live below the acute international poverty line of $2.15 per day.
Not only for coffee, but for most agricultural commodities traded globally, while the upper segment of the value chains romps in profits, it is the poor producers at the bottom of the chain who do not receive any attention. In most cases, I am aware that the share of the value chains that goes into the hands of the producers of the raw material is not even enough to cover up the cost of production.
This has to change.
Drawing from the experience of dairy cooperatives in India, wherein dairy farmers get more than 80 per cent of the end consumer price, I think the time has come to quantify what percentage of the turnover of the global value chains should be classified as a living income. The fact that even at that high a share of the consumer price that goes to dairy farmers, milk plants in India, including in the private sector, are not in losses, clearly shows that the share has to be explicitly spelt. My suggestion is that the farmers share in the end consumer price should not be less than 50 per cent.
Historically, small holders, farmers and pastoralists have been denied their rightful dues by the greedy global value chains. Not only in EU, should such a directive be emulated in countries like India and for that matter in the rest of the developing world, it will help bridge gnawing income inequality that the world is confronted with and does not know how to emerge out of it.
(The author is a noted food policy analyst and an expert on issues related to the agriculture sector. He writes on food, agriculture and hunger)