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Why I Worry About Food Channels



A confession. This is less about a mid-day chef shootout amidst howling spectators and more about food, the kind that most of India finds it difficult to source daily. There are many indicators to measure governance. Usually, its access to food, shelter and clothing to start with. Then education, healthcare and infrastructure. In a country where elections are often lost on food in general and onions in specific, lets look on food.

Here is a table that I have taken from Time Magazine that's self explanatory.  It highlights  percentage of total household consumption expenditure  towards food.

Country                         % Of Income On Food

United States                                          7

United Kingdom                                       9

Australia                                                 11

Brazil                                                       25

China                                                       33

India                                                        35

Tunisia                                                    36

Egypt                                                       38

Nigeria                                                    40

Indonesia                                               43

Pakistan                                                  46

India is better off than some countries but worse off than many developed countries. And most of these countries are much smaller in any case, except China which is bigger. The Time Magazine draws a connection between rising grocery bills hitting the poor and causing political unrest, note  Egypt and Tunisia. The Economist has a special report on the same subject in the latest issue. The world's population will go from 7 to 9 billion in 2050. Will there be enough food, the author asks ? Adding that at the start of 2011, world food prices have crossed the peak they hit in 2008.

Why No  Blueprint ?

In India, I would pose this question right now. And I did go through the pronouncements of the Union Budget 2011 in this regard. With some disappointment. Because while  are a multitude of steps, none or all add up to  the one Big Idea, Big Blueprint I thought one would expect at a time like this. And given the way we reacted (or not) to the last onion price crisis, I am not sure how much of even this is converting to action and in what way.

Production and supply chain are the big concerns. Much has (and will be) debated and written about on these two aspects of agriculture in India. But to little avail overall. Not just because there are foodgrains rotting in the warehouses of the Food Corporation of India (FCI). Turns out it happens in many countries. The Economist says rich countries waste about the same amount of food as small ones, in quite different ways. Studies in the US/UK apparently say a quarter of food from shops goes straight into rubbish bins or thrown away by shops and restaurants. Salads head the list, if you were keen to know.

That does not help us here. What I would expect now  is a blueprint with action points that says how  food prices could come down and supply go up, in whichever order. You can't do this over the weekend and announce it while inaugurating a car dealership. Instead, take three  months, appoint the right people to work on it, see how technology can help manage the information-supply chain challenges and then present a national solution. Which is surely there. I am not getting into the rest of it (including genetically modified crops) because that's not the problem.

Of Food Shows

The Economist points out somewhere in the survey: (I suggest you read the whole thing) that the food industry has been attracting extra attention of other kinds. For years, some of the most popular programmes in English speaking countries have been cooking shows. That may point to a healthy interest in food, or not. The historian Levy thought the Roman empire started to decay when cooks acquired celebrity status. Meanwhile, for the  last three days, my cable television has been flashing a message  about a new food channel.

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