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India to America: Eat less, fatties

Posted by Stephen on May 15, 2008

By: Simon Robinson

President Bush has never been known for his eloquence, but his comment earlier this month that India’s growing middle class was demanding “better nutrition and better food, and so demand is high, and that causes the price to go up” was neither particularly mangled nor, at first flush, offensive. In the days since, though, India’s most nationalistic politicians, newspapers and television pundits have expressed outrage, calling Bush’s comment rude and insensitive because it suggests Indians are to blame for recent global food price increases and implies they should eat less.

“U.S. Eats 5 Times More than India Per Capita” blared a headline in the Times of India above a typical story outlining the massive disparities between the amount of grains, meat and vegetables the average American and average Indian consumes. The message from many Indians over the past two weeks has been stark: Americans should stop blaming others and start eating less.

Bush’s wording was perhaps simplistic, a point U.S. diplomats have been at pains to rectify as they try to dampen the food fight between the two countries. But Bush was not completely wrong, either. There’s no doubt that China and India’s growing middle classes are consuming more and different types of food. As people get richer they tend to eat more meat and dairy products, for instance, and that’s exactly what’s happening in China and India. That growing demand will naturally push up prices over the long term.

It’s debatable whether the huge price run-ups in the past few months for staples such as rice and corn can be pinned on China and India alone. Short-term factors—such as the huge boom in biofuel production and the skyrocketing cost of fuel that has pushed up fertilizer and transport prices—play a big part too. But to pretend that tens of millions of Chinese and Indians who are joining the middle class every year have no impact on demand for food is silly. Many Americans overeat, but a growing number of Indians do as well (even if the national calorie intake is still relatively small). That’s a problem for both countries’ general well-being and health, but it’s not the main issue in rising food prices.

The key is not demand, but supply. Agricultural production in places such as India has not kept up with the incredible social changes under way in the country’s cities and towns. The green revolution of three decades ago helped keep the country from starvation, but since then productivity growth in Indian agriculture has hardly moved.

Dan Toole, the South Asia regional director for the United Nations Children’s Fund, says India is suffering from “a very serious neglect of agriculture in terms of investment.” India, he says, “is perhaps the solution but is also part of the problem.” What’s needed is massive investment in farming, more assistance for the hundreds of millions of Indians who are malnourished, and for the government “to somehow get beyond the policy and into the implementation.”

Without more attention and investment, India’s health will continue to be a national shame. Almost half of all Indian children under five are malnourished. The effect of that lasts for years, not only because malnourished kids are stunted, but because they do worse in school and tend to have unhealthier kids themselves.

“What happens in today’s India may have a bearing on the next two generations,” said Dr. M. K. Bhan, Secretary of the Department of Biotechnology in India’s Ministry of Science and Technology. “Undernutrition in early life is the most profound issue that should concern us.” Bhan urged all players to stop slinging mud and instead work out how India can start feeding all its citizens properly.

That’s pretty good advice. What’s needed are solutions, not debate over who’s to blame for short-term food price inflation.

Simon is a writer for Time Magazine. This article was published May 15, 2008

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