Thursday, December 1, 2011


Agreed that fruits and vegetables come under the category of protective foods because they, if consumed in adequate quantities, can provide the precious micro nutrients like vitamins and minerals besides many health boosting phytochemicals and valuable dietary fiber. During the last hundred years the habit of consuming these foods is coming down dramatically with consumers increasingly craving for meat foods. It is forgotten that the tragic health slide being experienced by the population in rich and wealthy countries is to a large extent, attributable to this switch from fruits and vegetables to animal foods and carbohydrate/fat based products. The astronomical farm subsidies flowing into the farm sector due the folly of the governments in many advanced countries are distorting the dietary regimes in favor of cheap processed foods ignoring the crucial importance of fruits and vegetables in maintaining health. If this is so in the developed world, what is the fate of consumers in the developing countries?

Take the case of India. Theoretically it is one of the top fruit and vegetable producing nations in this globe though it is also the second most populous country after China. The mere size of the population can be daunting for any government to provide for the well being, health and safety of its subjects. It is well known that India is plagued by malnutrition and soaring inflation. But an in-depth reality check will reveal that it is not due to inadequate production that the country is suffering from lack of food. Though it is the world's second largest grower of fresh produce there is more or less unanimity that the country loses an estimated 40 percent ( or a guesstimate?) of its fruit and vegetables to rot because of gross deficiency in the infrastructure like cold stores, refrigerated trucking, negligence of railways to provide dedicated racks, poor roads, inclement weather and the despicable corruption that pervades the whole country. Of course it is a poor consolation that post-harvest food losses of the scale found in India are also a problem throughout the developing world and translate into lower incomes for farmers and higher prices for consumers.

Inflation is already undermining living standards across Asia with world food prices at record highs since December last year, according to the FAO of the U.N. In India, home to more than a third of the world's 150 million malnourished children under 5, food inflation hovers around 10 percent stubbornly. Is it not a criminal neglect on the part of the government to allow wastage of such magnitude when poverty is an omnipotent phenomenon? When will it dawn on the government that just reducing the waste could make a significant dent  in bringing down food inflation and making food more affordable to the vulnerable segment of the population? Visit any vegetable market in India and one cannot escape the heaps of rotten vegetables accumulating side by side with vendors selling salable commodities! Imagine the frustration faced by an average consumer when exorbitant prices are charged by the vendors who factor the cost of the wastage into the price charged to the consumer! How can the food inflation be controlled in this country under such a condition? The economists and the financial pundits seem to be barking at the wrong tree when the inflation is sought to be moderated through Reserve Bank by increasing the banking rates across the board, forgetting that the price distortion is purely a supply-demand distortion with too many people chasing too little food available in the market.  

it is not that sporadic efforts are not made to address the sad situation prevailing in the country by successive governments at Delhi. Recall the efforts made by the NDDB in early eighties, under direction from the government in power at that time, to organize fruit and vegetable industry under the cooperative mode, similar to milk. However while NDDB had achieved sterling success with milk, it could not boast of similar success in either the edible oil sector or horticulture produce sector. Why it has failed is a story that is not well known. Could it be because of the obsession of the government with cereal grains ignoring the fresh produce industry? In spite of the recent pompous announcement of a Horticulture Mission by the government of India to augment production of these commodities, nothing precious has happened at the ground level. One is familiar with the fate of similar Missions in the past on Pulses and edible oils and even to day the country is still dependent imports to bridge their demand-supply gap!

Is it not a shame that a consumer has to pay Rs 15-25 for an average sized Apple where as for the same amount one can get almost two kg of coarse cereal that can keep the body and soul together for a poor person as long as a week? If the poor villagers in the hinterlands live on leafy vegetables, mostly grown locally, unable to buy any normal fruit or vegetable during his life time, what quality of life he can hope to live? Practically every fruit or vegetable in the market costs upwards of Rs 20 per kg and if the NPC has defined poverty line at Rs 32 per day, what choice a poor person under the BPL category, has when it comes to buying his food? With fertile agricultural land being diverted to support the real estate business through out the country, where will be the land for increasing production of horticulture produce to meet the increasing demand for them. Horticulture scientists may be working hard to develop newer and better production technologies for many important horticultural crops but in the absence of government support for propagating these technologies nothing tangible can come out of such efforts.

If the government of the day is to be believed, it is also concerned about the situation and it has "begun" work on a strategy to cut post-harvest losses by building modern grain silos, cold storage warehouses and setting up farmers' markets in remote areas to link vegetable growers with retail outlets in the cities. If the track record of the past is any indication nothing substantial will happen, at least in the near future except frequent statements, repeated ad naseum by the concerned ministers and bureaucrats. Ask any farmer in the country and they will confess that they have no faith in the government and even the promised changes are years away if not decades. admittedly. It is recognized that growing vegetables and similar perishables in India is a business fraught with serious financial risks with the farmers finding it difficult to find ready buyers at for such perishables like tomatoes, capsicum, and other vegetables at reasonable price. They face the risk of these vegetables rotting at every stage, whether in the field, on the road, or in the markets. It is familiar sight in almost all major mandisin the country to see hundreds of vegetable and fruit trucks reach the wholesale market each morning and commission agents scouting for the best bargains in a frenzied atmosphere and most farmers are lost in this wheeling dealing atmosphere not able to strike a favorable bargain..

Paucity of refrigerated trucks means that delays at state border crossings, traffic jams, or the frequent landslides that clog hill roads can cause vegetables to wilt and rot. There are only a few trucks run by private firms, that are refrigerated. The rest are open trucks, with tarps or plastic sheets for cover in case it rains. People travelingin these trucks perched on the sacks of gunny bags containing the produce is a familiar sight to behold! Too often the contents are crushed with practically no life left when the destination is reached. The recent opening up of the retail sector to foreign investment is viewed with hope that supermarket giants such as Walmart, Tesco and Carrefour when start operating in India's multibilliondollar retail market, there could be success where the government has failed. The provision for backward integration and building infrastructure for preserving the fresh produce is cited as the reason for such a hope. One has to wait and see whether India will really attract FDI in this sector under such stringent preconditions. Even if they arrive, it is to be seen whether they can reform the fragmented farm sector ans improve the agricultural to any significant extent. 


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