Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Let Them Eat Cake' Said The Queen

Let Them Eat Cake' Said The Queen.

There is a famous apocryphal story about the French queen Marie Antoinette who is said to have replied to the Parisian citizens’ complaint about lack of bread with a question of her own "No bread? Then why don’t they eat cake?" This might be taken as either sheer callousness or more probably, extreme naivety but whatever the historical context in which it was uttered, very soon the French revolution took place and the queen lost her head, quite literally.

Public figures and institutions have always been reminded of this story from time to time whenever they have suffered a foot in the mouth moment, but still in the heat of the moment many do forget to guard their tongue and spout drivel which comes back to haunt them later on. For example, former American President Bill Clinton's famous "I did not have sex with that woman" or Shashi Tharoor's calling economy passengers as "Cattle class" or the countless times people have challenged "over my dead body" only to die immediately.

So we have to accept that our words have effect, tremendous effect and are best used sparingly and with much forethought. If you lack that forethought or any thought at all, better not open your mouth, like the esteemed Indian Prime Minister Mr. Manmohan Singhji. This example applies equally to those who think themselves know-it-all's and fancy themselves as intellectuals with an opinion on anything and everything, people like Amartya Sen (failed economist), Navjot Sidhu(failed cricketer) or yours truly(failed wise guy). People like us (me) do get to eat crow from time to time, but we also shrug it off easily as with time, taste of crow becomes familiar.

So if you thought only individuals suffer from this foot in the mouth disease and get to eat crow, think again.  Sometimes an entire committee of scientific experts spout such utter rubbish in the name of a scientific report or recommendation, that you are left wondering how many crows are needed to prepare a tasty crow-biriyani for them all to eat.

Which will be the first thought on your mind too, when  you read this report of the Food and agriculture committee of the United Nations Organization recommending that the hungry of the world eat insects to survive.

According to my limited knowledge the food and agriculture committee was constituted to help advice on food and "agriculture". Not to offer recipes to cook cockroach. This must be one of the most mind numbingly dumb feet in the mouth moment of the U.N.O, an agency which has a rich history of eating shoe leather fairly frequently.

Let us first take a birds-eye look on global hunger. The first thought which comes to mind is the simplest- the supply and demand situation- more mouths to fess, lesser food. But it is too simplistic to blame the increasing scarcity of food worldwide on an ever burgeoning population. Granted the global population crisis is a time bomb which if left unsolved can cause havoc with all our civilizational achievements. But the advocates of birth control have muddied the issue too much for population control to ever succeed. Religion, tradition and beliefs are all cited as reasons for why population cannot be controlled. Even politic is thought to play a role- as specific vote banks depend on population strengths.

But leaving aside all that, let us just look at it from a unbiased scientific viewpoint. Umpteen numbers of reliable data and studies have pointed out that as economic indicators go up, population indices’ comes down. Or in other words, the rich are too busy to have kids and hence developed countries register negative population growth. So one way to solve population explosion is to de-incentivize having children as economic assets or to penalize those having children with hefty economic damage. Case in point- the recent "tough" Indian divorce laws, which will make people wary of marriages, leave alone having children.

So if we leave out population growth as the lynch pin of global hunger, we can still see that there are umpteen number of ways the food cycle is being disrupted worldwide. The conversion of food crops into cash crops for instance or more specifically for bio-fuel conversion is destroying cultivation of edible food stocks. Large swathes of fertile cropland in Brazil is switching over to ethanol production for bio-petrol. And this has allowed speculators in commodity futures market to bet more and more on the conversion of sugarcane into molasses and into bio-ethanol rather than as table sugar leading to depletion of sugar reserves worldwide. 

Just to give a simplistic (and closer to home) example of the above situation, let’s ask ourselves why the Indian Government which used to supply free sugar in ration shops for fair price suddenly wants to do direct cash transfer to poor peoples bank accounts? The govt says it is so that they can take the cash and buy whatever they want whenever they want. And that is the rationale behind the Food Security Bill and Direct Cash Transfer Bills pending in Parliament to become laws. But the truth is not so obvious, for it all starts when

1) The Saudis raise crude oil prices which in turn affects the american public's consumption of diesel and petrol.

2) The irritated Americans want to be self sufficient in oil and so the Americans allow the bio fuel companies to add up to 30% of ethanol in crude oil to produce biofuel.

3) The Brazilians want to profit from the American biofuel craze so they stop making table sugar and start producing ethanol.

4) This leads to a scarcity of table sugar and drives the prices of sugar up globally.

5) The indian sugar farmers want to profit from the high global sugar prices by exporting their indian sugar.

6) Fortunately the Indian sugar farmers are mostly from the marathwada region of maharashtra and the Indian agriculture minister is also from the same region making it all very simple politically.

7) So Indian sugar is now being exported but the parsimonious Indian government doesn’t want to buy it (at market rates) and supply through ration shops to the poor people.

8) So the Indian government decides to give cash subsidy directly to the below poverty line poor and ask them to buy sugar in the open market at international (export) price ranges.

9) The hitherto price protected Indian public now realize the global prices of everything as sold at their neighborhood retail shops.

10) Everyone’s happy at a job well done for economists can now say that this is demand and supply at its robust best.

So when the Saudi Crude Oil price goes up, the local ration shop boards say "no Sugar stock" and that’s our entwined world economy.

And so we come back to my original idea that there are too many factors involved in global hunger and like or not it’s the job of the Food and Agriculture organization to offer reliable and effective advice and scientific know-how on improving crop yields or preventing desertification of fertile crop lands by over cultivation. Not to go around telling people to eat insects for their protein value.

If you think about it, there is another creature, easily available which has more nutrients, minerals and proteins readymade for human consumption than beetles and locusts can ever make, can you guess who? Yep humans and it was not so long ago that humans were eating other humans (as evidenced by numerous cave finds of the Paleolithic era). So will the UNO next publish the calorific value of humans and advice us to practice cannibalism? Horrific as the thought may be, you cannot expect anything less from committees staffed by pseudo-experts who don’t understand ground realities.

Our civilization has reached an epoch of sending probes and rovers to other planets like mars. So will discovering new ways of cultivation of food crops be an insurmountable scientific challenge for us, if we put our collective minds to it? I think not. All it lacks is the will. If the political will is there, the financial muscle will automatically follow and science will suddenly be discovering newer and better varieties of crops with which we can feed all the worlds hungry to excess.

We can and we will beat the global hunger challenge quite easily in the near future, provided we are led right. We want and expect such scientific direction from our institutions like UNESCO, FAO & UNO and assorted global think tanks, not puerile advice to eat insects. Shame on you U.N.O. Show leadership not idiocy.

P.S. the Food Security Bill and the Direct Cash Transfer Bill are still being held up in Parliament by the repeated walkouts of the opposition parties for various reasons. I hope they languish and expire there itself for such thoughtless pieces of legislation should never become law in the land.


  1. Very knowledgeable and enlightening piece of writing.

    1. Thanks Tomichan...and welcome to my blog....hope to see you here more often

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