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Four decades after the Green Revolution seemed to be solving India’s food problems, nearly half of Indian children age 5 or younger are malnourished. And soaring food prices, a problem around the world, are especially acute in India.
Globally, floods in Australia and drought in China have helped send food prices everywhere soaring — on fears the world will see a repeat of shortages in 2007 and 2008 that caused food riots in some poor countries, including Egypt.
While India’s agricultural problems are part of this bigger global puzzle, in many ways India’s food challenges are more entrenched and systemic than those faced elsewhere.
Western investors may take eager note of India’s economic growth rate of nearly 9 percent a year. But that statistic rings hollow in India’s vast rural areas. Agriculture employs more than half the population, but it accounts for only 15 percent of the economy — and it has grown an average of only about 3 percent in recent years.
Critics say Indian policy makers have failed to follow up on the country’s investments in agricultural technology of the 1960s and ’70s, as they focused on more glamorous, urban industries like information technology, financial services and construction.
There is no agribusiness of the type known in the United States, with highly mechanized farms growing thousands of acres of food crops, because Indian laws and customs bar corporations from farming land directly for food crops. The laws also make it difficult to assemble large land holdings.
Yet even as India’s farming still depends on manual labor and the age-old vicissitudes of nature, demand for food has continued to rise — because of a growing population and rising incomes, especially in the middle and upper classes. As a result, India is importing ever greater amounts of some staples like beans and lentils (up 157 percent from 2004 to 2009) and cooking oil (up 68 percent in the same period).
Food prices are rising faster in India than in almost any other major economy — and faster than they did during the 2007-8 surge.