Standardised Foods and Compromised Consumers: The New Farm Laws and the Future of Indian Agriculture

Much has been written on the implications of the three new farm laws on the agricultural sector and the livelihoods of farmers, especially how they will facilitate the growth of large agribusinesses and lead to the slow demise of the mandi (Agricultural Produce Market Yards). What has been missed out, however, is the likely impact of these new laws on accelerating changes in our diets and the grave implications of this for our health.

Drawing upon my research on soyabean supply chains in central India, that was published in Rethinking Revolutions, and looking at the history of corporatisation of agriculture around the world, especially in the United States, I argue that the new laws will facilitate the reshaping of supply chains towards creating standardised foods on the one hand, and compromised consumers on the other.

Post-liberalisation in 1991, corporations like ITC-IBD and Reliance Retail, among others, have been purchasing agricultural produce across the country while adhering to different state laws related to agricultural marketing. However, the new laws will facilitate the development of long supply chains in agriculture by making it easier for large corporations (especially international agribusinesses looking for joint venture partnerships with domestic players) to engage in markets across India without having to contend with different state laws governing such trade.  Such long supply chains, as has been seen in other parts of the world, are detrimental for climate change because of the emissions associated with longer transportation of food (Richards 2018, Weber and Mathews 2008).

However, what is even more detrimental is that long supply chains encourage the standardisation of production and consumption towards a narrow band of commodities that is amenable to such movement. This reduces the biodiversity on the farm and the diversity on our plates; it damages the environment but also destroys our health.

This happens because corporations have to work at some scale for their operations to be profitable and scale can only work if the product is of a given, standardized quality. But unlike industry where machines are able to produce standardized products and remove the quality variation that is the hallmark of handmade artisanal products, agricultural products are prone to natural variation. For instance, tomatoes come in many different shapes, sizes, colours and hardness. In the past, our culinary practices have taken this variation into account with the tomatoes used for rasam being different from the tomatoes used for salad, which are different from the tomatoes used for chutney or for sabzi. The rice varieties used for biryani and for kheer and pokhal are quite different. The same thing is true for most other products. However, in our minds, a ‘good’ quality tomato is round, red and just the right hardness. And the only rice variety worth purchasing has become basmati.

How has this come to pass? When nature does not produce standardized products, how is it that we, as consumers, have come to consider something as a standard level of quality?

Much interesting work in the history of food and agriculture in the United States shows this process of standardization of food products taking place as a result of the rise of long supply chains associated with the growing scientisation and corporatisation of agriculture (Hightower 1978, Cronon 1992, Stoll 1998). For instance, the development of high-yielding/hybrid / genetically modified varieties of seeds or superior breeds of animals is associated with the packaging, advertising and marketing of the product as a standardised quality product. Often large portions of such supply chains, from seed to supermarket are controlled by agribusinesses. This ends up being at the expense of local producers who would typically provide non-standardised products, which, ironically are the hallmark of nature.

Nature does not produce standardised products for a reason. Standardised means ‘compromised’ in nature. Uniformity means susceptibility to instant destruction. Disease or predators/pests can wipe out vulnerable populations of plants or animals entirely. Nature thrives on diversity, on variability—that is its mechanism for reducing risk, for increasing the chances of survival.

But the valourisation of a standardised, uniform product that depends on the practice of monoculture farming to produce it, has become equated with a certain vision of quality, where quality has come to be defined solely by appearance and not by taste, the purpose of use, or healthfulness. This has led to the creation of a ‘discerning’ consumer who has begun to expect standardised foods, thinking that unstandardized means below par, poor quality, and unhygienic. The implementation of such standards in the United States ended up pushing out of business all those producers who could not produce that tomato or that chicken to a given uniform specification. Only those who could implement standardised, scalable processes by making their farms into factories, were able to survive (Kramer 1981).

This is because, to produce standardised products, producers were forced to dump the unstandardized, non-uniform produce and eventually, they adopted machines, chemicals and specially bred plants and animals to transform nature’s diverse bounty into products that all looked and felt and even tasted the same (Stoll 1998). This treadmill of monoculture led to growing infections, diseases, pest attacks, further leading to the growing use of chemicals, ultimately causing negative health impacts, toxicity of the land, and declining quality of food (see Chapter 5 in Rethinking Revolutions on 'Constancy of Crisis'). The growing capital costs of farming forced producers into debt. Not every producer was able to survive the treadmill, except the very big ones. One either got big or got out (Kramer 1981, Neth 1998).

With the coming of the new farm laws, there is a growing fear that the dual regulatory system (with no tax or regulation on the transactions outside the mandi and all taxes and scrutiny reserved for transactions inside the mandi), will eventually lead to the demise of the mandi. Not only will agribusinesses increase their control over the marketing of agricultural produce, even private traders will find it worthwhile to create purchase mechanisms outside the mandi for financial gain. Yet, if the mandi closes down, there is no buyer of last resort anymore and ‘poorest’ quality produce might not find a buyer at all.

Given that corporate buyers have far stricter rules regarding quality—anything below a certain grade is rejected (see Chapter 8 in Rethinking Revolutions on 'Questions of Quality')—it is only private traders (both outside and inside the mandi) who buy such produce and improve its quality before re-selling it, or channel it towards consumers who are willing to accept it. These activities are financially viable because private traders are also buying good quality produce at the same time. If private marketplaces are able to corner all the good quality produce, it will mean poor quality produce will not find buyers anymore. But then, only those farmers who are able to produce the ‘good’ quality product will survive. And even they may not be able to meet the standards of quality every time, given the diversity and variation in nature. So eventually, more farmers will fall off the treadmill.

But this would also transform our supply chains according to narrow ideas of ‘standardised’ and ‘good’ quality, which might be built upon the need to promote products that are most suitable to corporate profits. And this may, eventually, lead to the disappearance of the diversity of tomatoes, rice or brinjals, that exist today on our farms and on our plates, in the future. Even today, if an urban metropolitan consumer is keen to buy the different kind of tomato needed for rasam, or desi chicken, one might be in a fix. Promoting a standardised product has become the new norm at the expense of native breeds or desi varieties, of varying shapes, sizes, colours and textures. For the very discerning, elite consumer, customised organic supply chains for exclusively branded and exotic foods do exist. But these are out of reach for the majority of the population whose palates are being reshaped by the need for profitability of long supply chains.

Around the world, the rise of factory farms has created the standardized producer and the standardised consumer. However, the standardised consumer has also become the immuno-compromised consumer because (s)he is eating standardised industrial fare without consuming a diversity of nutrients across geography and season, that are needed to battle infection. In the United States, for instance, much of the ultraprocessed food (from cornflakes and cookies to burger buns) is based on highly refined wheat flour, high fructose corn syrup and refined edible oil, none of which have been very suitable nutritionally. The frightening 2015-2016 Center for Disease Control (CDC) statistic stating that 7 out of 10 Americans over the age of 20 are overweight or obese (https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/obesity-overweight.htm), needs to be seen in the light of changing diets, among other factors.

Often, the food system in the United States is lauded for being ‘efficient’ and providing cheap calories. However, that very same efficient food production system has contributed, among other things, to creating food deserts in the United States where fresh fruits and vegetable are not available or accessible anymore to large numbers of underprivileged people in that country (Karpyn et. al 2019). These and other nutritional outcomes do not fit into the calculations of efficiency. Moreover, the modern global food system has been reduced to dependence on a narrow genetic base of animal and plant products that are highly susceptible to virus outbreaks, which can spread rapidly across the entire system, and even jump over to human beings. This has been most evident with the COVID-19 outbreak in the last year (Kumar 2021).

In India, the growing consumption of highly refined wheat flour and highly polished rice have replaced past diets that were based on the more nutritious millets. Refined white sugar has replaced the more-healthy gur (jaggery), and a whole host of seasonal foods have been lost. For instance, whereas in the past we added sourness to our foods using many different ingredients including tamarind, dried mango powder (amchur), kokam, and narangi, many of these have disappeared from urban homes. Instead, we expect certain foods such as tomatoes and lemons to be available all year round, regardless of the actual season when they should be grown and consumed. The knowledge of what is to be eaten in any given season and what are the suitable food combinations is increasingly being lost.

Our grandparents had very different notions of quality from us today. They would insist that cauliflower is only to be eaten in winter. But in Delhi we get our off-season phoolgobhi from Simla, and then Bangalore, and feel good that we can eat it in the summer also. Our notions of what is ‘good’, ‘standardised’ quality has been shaped by corporate advertising but also by aspirational consumption, but this has reduced the diversity on our plate and has been damaging to our health. The story of standardization of products is an unfortunate story of remaking consumers, remaking farmers and remaking the land—to the detriment of everyone. And, unfortunately, the new farm laws only seem to be contributing towards speeding up this process.

Rethinking Revolutions by NIF Fellow Professor Richa Kumar is an ethnographic study of the processes of agrarian change in the Malwa region of central India, over the last 40 years.

Published by Oxford University Press, the book is available on Amazon.


References:
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