India ready to feed the world: Modi govt’s pitch as Ukraine war triggers global food crisis

The world is staring at a food catastrophe. The commodity prices in the international market were already at a 10-year high before Russia invaded Ukraine. The prolonged Russia-Ukraine war has aggravated the world food crisis.

Russia and Ukraine are the food basket of the world, mainly Europe. They supply about one-third of the annual wheat sale globally. Additionally, they supply 55 per cent of sunflower oil and over 15 per cent of maize and barley.

The Ukraine war and consequent sanctions on Russia have disrupted the food supply chain. It has piled on the global harvest issues that were pushing the prices before the war began.

Now, as the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (UNFAO) has put it, the commodity prices have jumped to their highest since 1990, another turbulent year due to various reasons including the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Gulf tension and almost economic default by India.

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Thirty-two years down the line, the question is, can India rescue the world from this food crisis?

This was one of the highlights when Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Joe Biden spoke earlier this month. And now, Sneha Dubey, India’s first secretary at the UN, has said at the UN Security Council Arria-Formula meeting on Conflict and Hunger.

INDIA’S OFFER

Sneha Dubey said, “Food security challenges emanating from Ukraine require us to respond creatively. Growing shortages can only be addressed by going beyond the constraints that bind us presently.”

The Arria-Formula meeting, named after former Venezuelan ambassador Diego Arria, who institutionalised informal meetings of the UNSC in the early 1990s to deal with situations arising out of conflicts, was held in New York on Thursday (India time).

MODI-BIDEN FOOD PITCH

Earlier, during his interaction with Biden, Modi also spoke about the constraints.

India has enough food for its people and is ready to supply food stocks to the world from tomorrow if the World Trade Organization (WTO) allows us, he told Biden in their virtual meeting.

“We already have enough food for our people but our farmers seem to have made arrangements to feed the world. However, we have to work according to the laws of the world, so I don’t know when WTO will give permission and we can supply food to the world,” he said.

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“Today the world is facing an uncertain situation as nobody is getting what they want. Petrol, oil and fertilizers are hard to procure as all the doors are getting closed. Everybody wants to secure their stocks after this [Russia-Ukraine] war began,” he said.

“The world is facing a new problem now. The food stock of the world is getting emptyif WTO permits, India is ready to supply food stock to the world from tomorrow,” he said.

TRACK RECORD

Sneha Dubey bolstered the claim with statistics. She said, “In view of the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, India has decided to donate 50,000 metric tonnes of wheat. Similarly, India has continued its humanitarian support for Myanmar including a grant of 10,000 tonnes of rice and wheat.”

Like the Ukraine war, situations in both Afghanistan and Myanmar have left the world polarised. India has taken a ‘neutral’ stance in all three situations while emphasising that humanitarian concerns arising out of these developments must be addressed by the international community on priority.

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CAN INDIA DO THIS?

India is the second-biggest producer of wheat and rice, the two staples. It has a stock of over 850 lakh (85 million) tonnes of them 513 lakh (51.3 million) tonnes with the Food Corporation of India and another 340 lakh (34 million) tonnes.

Of this stock, 21 million tonnes is segregated as its strategic reserve and the Public Distribution System (PDS), which has bettered its reputation during the Covid-19 pandemic by providing food to about 80 crore (800 million) people, as per government figures.

Indian supplies can also calm down rising commodity prices. India supplies one of the cheapest wheat and rice. India exports wheat to about 70 countries and rice to about 150.

The global food crisis has already seen Indian traders signing contracts for exporting about 30 lakh (3 million) tonnes during the April-July period. The official projection suggests another bumper harvest of wheat at over 110 million tonnes this season.

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WHAT NOW?

In a related development, a day after the Modi-Biden talks, a UN panel the Global Crisis Response Group (GCRG) on Food, Energy and Finance recommended that the WTO relax its rules for the export of food-grains under the World Food Programme (WFP).

The GCRG was set up after the Russian invasion of Ukraine to study the effects of the war on vulnerable nations. The WTO has to take a final call on rule relaxation during its ministerial conference scheduled in June.

However, as the Modi government aims to feed the world with Indian farm produce, it is fighting hard to keep the food inflation down at home. Food inflation reached a 16-month high in March at 7.68 per cent. Prices of vegetables, edible oil, milk, meat, fish and cereals have increased sharply in the past few months.

Yet, the cushion of food stocks with the government agencies puts India in a position to help the world fight hunger. Prices may still be a little high both at home and away.

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