A new feature film written and directed by Anusha Rizwi and produced by Bollywood megastar Aamir Khan, called Peepli Live, tackles head on this grim topic. The story is set in an Indian village named Peepli where one young debt-burdened farmer named Natha is talked into taking his own life after he learns that his family will be financially compensated through a government program created to alleviate the loss of farmers taking their own lives. What unfolds is a dark comedy of errors when a media circus descends on the tiny village, followed by corrupt politicians wanting to make use of the planned tragedy. Khan’s credits as an actor and producer include Lagaan, the 2001 Oscar-nominated film about Indian resistance to the British occupation. His latest film 3 Idiots released last year became the highest grossing film in Indian film history.
Text of Sonali Kolhatkar’s interview follows (with video and more information about Khan’s film at the bottom of the article):
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Sonali Kolhatkar: The film Peepli Live tackles a number of issues in rural India which aren’t always portrayed in Bollywood films. How important was it for you to make such a film about an issue that’s not very well known especially outside India?
Aamir Khan: I feel that Peepli Live is not really a film about farmer suicides [but] that farmer suicides are a backdrop because the film doesn’t really go into the issues that farmers are facing or why this epidemic really has been spreading for so many years now. It’s a film that’s more about the growing divide between urban and rural India and how as a society we are concentrating all of our energies, our resources, our wealth towards cities and are ignoring our villages and the rural parts of India which is where the bulk of our population lives. As a result our villages are not life-sustaining in a healthy manner. And that in turn results in a lot of migration from villages to cities. So in villages we don’t have schools often, medical facilities, even basic stuff like water and electricity. I think this is what the issue in the film really is.
On a certain level it’s also a film about survival. While it’s a satire about civil society today and takes a humorous view of the administration, the political scenario, the media, or civil society in general, it’s also on a certain level a story about survival. Each one of us: politician, journalist, civil servant, or a district magistrate, or even Budhia (a character in Peepli Live), who’s a farmer, a villager – each one of us in our own environment, in our own situation, is doing what he or she thinks needs to be done in order to survive.
Kolhatkar: How is Peepli Live different from mainstream Bollywood fare?
Khan: It’s not a mainstream Bollywood film. It’s just a story that I loved and a script that I read which Anusha Rizwi has written and directed and I just loved what she wrote. I found it very funny and moving and also heartbreaking. And also sensitizing in a lot of ways because I have lived all my life in a city. Often I’m not aware of how life in rural India is. So I just loved the script and I wanted to be part of it. I could see straight up that this is not a film that is going to be easy to market or even to convince the market to accept as a film. But it’s something that excited me, moved me, and engaged me.
So I just went ahead and produced it. I was aware of the challenges I have in front of me. And it’s also a film that I believe has the potential to engage a world audience. It’s a film that I think would connect with audiences from different cultures. And that’s what we’re trying to do – we’re trying not only to reach out to our traditional audiences for Indian film but to audiences who may have never watched an Indian film before. Or may have just watched Slumdog Millionaire (laughs). Actually Indian film, or Bollywood, as it’s popularly known, doesn’t make any one kind of film. Yes, the bulk of them are musicals, and the bulk of them have larger-than-life story-telling and have a lot of hope and romance in them. But a number of them now for the last few years have been films which are really off-beat and don’t fall into that category.
Kolhatkar: So Bollywood is evolving in your opinion?
Khan: Well I think everything is changing constantly. So I think cinema in India is also changing. I think audiences are changing. I think younger film makers are coming in who have different voices and have different things to say. And over the last ten years if you look at the films that have really succeeded and have gone down well with audiences, a number of them have been films which don’t fall into that description of what is conventionally known as mainstream Bollywood.
Kolhatkar: Farmer suicides are a huge issue in India and even though it’s a backdrop for your film, it’s a very grim subject. But Peepli Live addresses this is an almost comedic or satirical manner. Why was this approach effective?
Khan: This is a question more for Anusha (Rizwi) who’s written the film. I don’t know why she chose a satirical view of what is happening. But I think it’s more engaging that way. Anusha was a journalist before she made this film and she, I guess, through her experiences in the field, has come up with a lot of what is in the film and a lot of what is in the script. So I think her choice of it being a satire is because it connects more easily with people. But while you’re laughing you’re also feeling bad. You’re thinking, “should I be laughing at this,” you know? “I don’t think I should be laughing at this, but it’s funny.” And, it’s also very thought-provoking on a lot of levels. So personally I really like what she wrote and I think when I saw the film after its first cut – because I was not there when they were shooting it and I was only involved after the first cut stage – I was really happy to see what she has done.
It’s not an easy film to execute. And she hasn’t been to film school and she hasn’t really assisted any film makers to learn from them. It’s so amazing to see someone like her execute so well on screen what she has written. It’s a very layered script with a lot of characters. There’s a lot of chaos in the film at many times and while there often is a lot of chaos in a film shoot it’s usually behind the camera. And to create chaos in front of the camera and make it look natural is not easy. So when I saw the film I felt that what you’re watching is actually happening and she’s has hidden cameras capturing what is happening. So I thought she’s done a wonderful job – I’m really happy with her work.
Kolhatkar: The film most skewers Indian politicians and Indian media. How realistic are the caricatures presented in Peepli Live of the corrupt politicians and overzealous media?
Khan: In my opinion it’s a fairly accurate portrayal of what happens. Having said that I’d like to point out as well that it’s not the only point of view. A satire takes one point of view – it’s not a 360 degree view of politics or the people in media, or the people in administration (civil servants). There are a lot of civil servants, politicians, and those in the media who are trying to do a lot of good work and are very positive in their approach.
Kolhatkar: One of them is the young journalist, Rakesh, a character in Peepli Live, who is very hopeful. I’m wondering if he is a symbol of India’s young journalists.
Khan: He is the only character in the film that really has a conscience as it turns out. As I was saying earlier that while what is shown in the film is fairly accurate and happens everyday in India – it’s a fairly good window into rural life in India – but at the same time, I’d like to add that a satire takes one point of view. Of course there are journalists who are doing great work, and there are some politicians who are doing good work and are really sincere. But that point of view is not shown in this film. This film takes a satirical point of view. While what is shown is accurate, it is one aspect and not the whole.
Kolhatkar: There are no big-name stars in Peepli Live and I understand many of them are theater actors. How were they recruited? Were non-actors also recruited to play the roles of villagers?
Khan: I’m really happy with the casting that Anusha and her husband Mehmood, the casting director and co-director, have done. They really chose to go real with the casting which I thoroughly supported. A lot of the actors are actually villagers and tribals (indigenous people) who are from central India. And a lot of them are part of a theater group called Naya Theater. This is a group that was started by Habib Tanvir, a really amazing theater personality who has worked in Indian theater all his life. Unfortunately he passed away six months ago. But he was running this theater group in which he worked only with villagers and Adivasis (tribal or indigenous people) from Central India. And they did all kinds of things like adapting Shakespeare into their local languages and dialects. So a lot of them are very well trained actors. They may have never acted in a film before but they come from a strong theater background. I think the directors of the film, Anusha and Mehmood, also wanted there to be no known faces so that it looks real. So most of the cast is from a rural background.
Kolhatkar: One of the characters in the film is an elderly farmer who silently toils throughout the story. Is he a metaphor for the typical Indian farmer who is ignored and silenced in the mainstream media?
Khan: Yes you’re right. He really stands for a whole lot of people who in a very sincere and uncomplaining manner try to deal with what is dealt out to them in life and don’t really have a voice in what’s happening around them and are almost invisible to us. That’s how he’s treated in most of the film. So he represents that entire section of people.
Kolhatkar: Let’s talk about the film’s music. One particular song in the film called ‘Mahangai Dayain’ is played by the villagers of Peepli and recently was the center of some controversy after real-life local Indian politicians requested to use the song in their campaigning?
Khan: Well what is shown in the film is happening in real life I guess (laughs). The words to the song are: “my husband earns a lot of money but inflation eats it all away.” And it’s actually wasn’t in the film to begin with. But when Anusha was shooting in the village in Bidwai, she heard the local musicians singing this song. They had written this song themselves and it’s part of their music. When she heard this song she really liked it. So this is their voice and she asked them if she could use it in the film. And she got Raghu-bhai (one of the lead actors in the film) who is a very good singer to learn the song and sing it. They actually learned the song that night in the village under the tree and it’s recorded live on location, not in a studio, with spoons and thalis (steel dinner plates) and home-made musical instruments. And that’s a song that has really resonated strongly with a lot of India[ns] because it’s a coincidence that at the time that we were about to release the music of the film there were these huge price increases in India. The opposition parties called for a national “bandh” which is sort of a general strike for a day all across the country in protest of these price increases. And that day all the news channels actually carried the song as an anthem of what was happening around us. And so that made the song very popular. What’s amazing is that this is a song created by the villagers as part of their lives. This is what affects them – it’s their voice which you can hear.
Kolhatkar: So you hope that the film goes a long way toward bringing the stories of silenced farmers to not only urban India but to a worldwide audience?
Khan: Yes, I am hoping that the film sensitizes a whole lot of us like it did to me when I first read the script. As a society we have to be aware of inequalities and try and fight against them. I think that this is a film that I’m hoping will have an impact. It’s not often that films have an immediate impact but I’m hoping that this film has an impact and starts people thinking in the right direction.
Kolhatkar: There is only one hint in the film about the complicity of corporate America when one of the politicians’ characters in the film mentions the American company “Sonmanto” in an obvious reference to the agri-giant Monsanto corporation. Given that farmer suicides are directly linked to neo-liberal economic pressures from the West, particularly the US, how important is it that the film is viewed by an American audience?
Khan: I think it’s important that all of us should be aware of this, not only Americans. It’s important for all of us to be aware how our actions are affecting other people. When Peepli Live was screened at Sundance where we had a predominantly American audience, we got some pretty interesting responses, one of them being that not only did they find the film to be a great window into rural India but they felt that it resonated with them. One [member of the audience] gave the example of Hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans and how the [Bush] administration reacted and the observation made was that even in that case the people affected were from less privileged sections of society. Which is why nothing was done for very long and even the funds that were collected for them, a lot of that didn’t reach [the people affected]. So these are things that happen all across the world, even in “first-world” countries. And the other aspect that you were talking about is how each of our actions has an impact .We have to be aware of how each of our actions affects other people and on a very basic level – I know this is over-simplifying things – we should try not to adversely affect people with our actions.
Kolhatkar: The media as portrayed in your film Peepli Live is amusing and even shocking. I’m wondering how you think Indian media is going to receive your film and the commentary that the film makes on them?
Khan: I believe that all of us are human beings first. I’m an actor, you’re a journalist, and someone else might be a politician. At the core of it we’re all human beings first and I think that that’s how I think people would receive the film. I think the film is accurate so no one should have a complaint from that point of view. I think that we as a creative group that has made the film are very clear that we’re taking one point of view and that it’s not a holistic point of view. So not every media person is like that. But this is one of the realities today of life in Indian society. And also importantly I think that Anusha Rizwi as a writer and director is not being judgmental on anyone. She’s not taking any sides and I think that’s an important aspect of the film. It’s important for people to receive this in a positive way for it to have an impact. And I think that’s one of the things that this film does achieve in my opinion.
For example you have Natha’s son [in the film] saying “Dad when are you going to die because uncle says that when you die I’m going to become a contractor.” And Natha says “what do you mean? Your dad’s dying and you want to be a contractor?” The son says, “No no, I want to be a cop!” So this is not how every child would react and this is not how we would expect a child to react whose father is about to die. You’d expect him to say “Dad I don’t want you to die.” But here we have a kid who’s in a bit of a hurry about his dad dying. So it is a black comedy, it is a dark view of things. And it’s not the only view and I’m sure the media’s mature enough to realize that.
Kolhatkar: I’d like to talk a little bit about your own career and why you gravitate toward films with a socio-political message. You’ve made a number of films either as an actor or producer or both, that are not simply standard Bollywood fare like Lagaan, Rang De Basanti, Mangal Panday, etc (many of which have been about the historical resistance to the British occupation). Why are such films important to you?
Khan: Well I move towards material that excites me, stuff that I believe in. And creative people whose voices I believe in. So, it’s important for me to be happy in what I’m doing. When I come across a script that touches me, moves me, engages me, makes me laugh or cry, that’s what I want to be part of. I think for me film-making is a number of things: you’re entertaining people, you’re also engaging their minds. And importantly, it’s one or two years of my life. And so, the process is as important as the end result. So I have to be happy and excited about what I’m doing.
Kolhatkar: Your last film 3 Idiots became the highest grossing Bollywood film of all time in India, breaking many records, and winning a huge number of awards. Although it’s extremely entertaining it also has a social message at its heart about the intense pressures that Indian parents put on their children to be highly educated professionals in technical fields. It’s not often that such a topic is tackled in Indian film is it?
Khan: Yeah, I think that Raju [Hirani] is a fantastic film maker but in this case he also picked up [on] a topic that I think a lot of people, not only in India but all across the world, [see in] our lives. And I think the core message of Three Idiots is “don’t chase success, chase excellence. And do what makes you happy, because if it makes you happy you’ll probably be good at it. And success will follow up somewhere behind. But don’t make your decisions based on what you think will make you successful because that might just make you really unhappy as well.” And, I think that core message really hit home in a big way with a lot of audiences. And again it’s a very funny film. It’s a film that is very entertaining but also is a film that rings true with a lot of people.
I’ve been very fortunate to work with a lot of talented people and films like Taaray Zameen Par which is about childcare, primary education, and learning disabilities and Three Idiots, which is about higher education — these films have been so satisfying to be a part of because not only have they been huge successes but more than that these are films that have actually changed lives. I have met so many people and so many have written to me about how the way they look at their kids has changed. And parents have changed the way they look at education, and kids have begun feeling differently about themselves. And that’s a very rare achievement for a film to have such a strong and immediate impact on society. And it’s so satisfying to see that. It’s really amazing.
Kolhatkar: Given how influential Bollywood actors are in India (just as Hollywood actors are here in the US), do you think it’s important for celebrities such as yourself to influence people in a positive manner or should movie stars never talk about social issues? I’m sure I can guess your answer but not all celebrities use their celebrite in a responsible manner.
Khan: I think my answer is fairly obvious. I think celebrities should, to the best of their abilities, use the kind of influence they have with people in a positive way and that’s always great and that’s what ought to be done and ought to happen. But having said that, I think each to his own. Celebrities are also human beings and I think we should understand if a certain person wants to stay away from stuff. Fair enough.
I really feel that each one of us, no matter which section of society we belong to, has to engage socially and politically in our own way. And each one can do it to a different extent. But each one of us CAN do it. And I think that’s what’s important. All of us should be aware of that and should engage in a positive way. That’s what I believe.
Kolhatkar: Bollywood flims have not always gotten too much recognition outside of South Asia, and the Gulf Arab States. But they do break through into the West occasionally, like your film Lagaan which was recognized by the Academy Awards — only the third ever Indian film to be nominated for Best Foreign Film. Do you think it’s important for the West to recognize the largest film industry in the world?
Khan: Well I think it would be nice if people around the world watched our films and enjoyed them but I don’t think we should load the West with this responsibility of having to watch our films and enjoy them. I don’t think that’s fair. And I don’t think that film-makers in India really have looked toward making films which are meant to engage a world audience. Because we have such a large and healthy audience of our own and we are very happy and busy engaging them and making films for them.
But I think every once in a way we do come across films that can break through. For example when I read the script of Peepli Live I immediately thought that here is a film that I really want to make first of all. Secondly it is a film that may have limited appeal in mainstream Indian cinema. But I’m going to try and push that. But I also believe it has the potential to engage world audiences. And so, with that in mind we’re trying to reach out to audiences across the world with this film. It’s not a big entertainer. It’s certainly not “Inception” or “Spiderman.” But it’s a film that is a human story which will connect with people.
So I think every now and then when there is material that organically has the potential to appeal to a world audience, it would be great if they would watch it!
Kolhatkar: You come from a family steeped in the tradition of Hindi film. Your father Tahir Hussein (who recently passed away) was a prolific film maker in India. What sort of mark do you hope to leave on Indian cinema, and indeed on international film making?
Khan: I’m not sure about that. I don’t know whether I think in these larger terms. I just want to be able to do work that I’m happy doing, that’s all. And I’m really happy with the kind of love and respect I’ve gotten over the last twenty years that I’ve been working [in film]. And I’m hoping that I’m able to do work which is good, which is challenging, which actually helps me to grow as a person and as an artist, and creative person.
Kolhatkar: Finally what lies in your future? I understand that you have a film coming up directed by your wife, Kiran Rao. Can you tell us more about that and any other projects of social or political significance or that are designed to appeal to an international audience?
Khan: Well Peepli Live is going to be released on August 13th. And then the next film after that is Dhobi Ghaat which I’ve produced and I’m also acting in it. Dhobi Ghaat is written and directed by Kiran [Rao], my wife, and it’s set in Mumbai. It’s about these four characters whose lives kind of touch each other. And the fifth character in the film is the city of Mumbai. It’s a kind of “slice of life” film. Half of it is in English and half is in Hindi. So, we’ve been honest to the characters. People who would naturally be speaking in English are speaking in English and same for Hindi. And the third film that I have in the pipeline is a film called Delhi Belly, which is a comedy. This is actually a story about three kids living in Delhi and how they get into trouble with the mafia and the underworld and they don’t know why. It’s a bit like Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels in its genre. It’s not that story but it’s that kind of film I guess. Again it’s a very unusual film for Indian cinema because it’s entirely in English. I think it’s one of the few times that an English [language] film will be coming out of India. All the films that have no hopes of working are the ones that I end up producing [laughs].
The world’s demographers this week increased their estimates of the world’s population through the coming century. We are now on track to hit 10 billion people by 2100. Today, humanity produces enough food to feed everyone but, because of the way we distribute it, there are still a billion hungry. One doesn’t need to be a frothing Malthusian to worry about how we’ll all get to eat tomorrow. Current predictions place most of the world’s people in Asia, the highest levels of consumption in Europe and North America, and the highest population growth rates in Africa — where the population could triple over the next 90 years.
There are, however, plans afoot to feed the world. One of the countries to which the world’s development experts have turned as a test bed is Malawi. Landlocked and a little smaller than Pennsylvania, Malawi is consistently among the world’s poorest places. The latest figures have 90 percent of its 15 million people living on the equivalent of less than two dollars a day. By century’s end, the population is expected to be nearly 132 million. Today, some 40 percent of Malawians live below the country’s poverty line, and part of the reason for widespread chronic poverty is that more than 70 percent of Malawians live in rural areas. There, they depend on agriculture — and nearly every farmer grows maize. “Chimanga ndi moyo” — “maize is life,” the local saying goes — but growing maize pays so poorly that few people can afford to eat anything else.
If you arrive in Malawi in March, just after the rainy season, growing food seems like a fool’s game. It’s hard to find a patch of red soil that isn’t a tall riot of green. From the roadside you can see maize about to ripen, with squash and beans planted at the base of the thick stalks. Even the tobacco fields are doing well this year. But there’s a rumble in this jungle. Malawi’s swaying fields are a battleground in which three different visions for the future of global agriculture are ranged against one other.
The first and most venerable development idea for Malawi sees these farmers as survivors of a doomed way of life who need to be helped into the hereafter. Oxford economist Paul Collier is the poster child for this “modernist” view, one that he presented in a scathing November 2008 Foreign Affairs article in which he cudgeled the “romantics” who yearned for peasant agriculture. Observing both that wages in cities are higher than in the countryside, and that every large developed country is able to feed itself without peasant farmers, Collier argued the virtues of big agriculture. He also called on the European Union to support genetically modified crops and for the United States to kill domestic subsidies for biofuel. He was one-third right: biofuel subsidies are absurd, not least because they drive up food prices, siphoning grains from the bowls of the poorest into the gas-tanks of the richest — with limited environmental gains, at best.
Collier’s contempt for peasants seems, however, to rest on something other than the facts. Although international agribusiness has generated great profits ever since the East India Company, it hasn’t brought riches to farmers and farmworkers, who are invariably society’s poorest people. Indeed, big agriculture earns its moniker — it tends to work most lucratively with large-scale plantations and operations to which small farmers are little more than an impediment.
It turns out that if you’re keen to make the world’s poorest people better off, it’s smarter to invest in their farms and workplaces than to send them packing to the cities. In its 2008 World Development Report, the World Bank found that, indeed, investment in peasants was among the most efficient and effective ways of raising people out of poverty and hunger. It was an awkward admission, as the Bank had long been trumpeting Collier’s brand of agricultural development. Farmers organizations from Malawi to India to Brazil had been pointing out that access to land, water, sustainable technology, education, markets, state investment in processing, and — above all, access to level playing field on domestic and international markets — would help them. But it took three decades of lousy policy for the development establishment to realize this, and they’re not quite there yet.
Because of its colonial legacy, Malawi had long been following conventional economic wisdom: exporting things in which the country had a comparative advantage (in Malawi’s case, tobacco) and using the funds to buy goods on the international market in which it didn’t have an advantage. But when tobacco prices fall, as they have of late, there’s less foreign exchange with which to venture into international markets. And being landlocked, Malawi also faces higher prices for grain than its four neighbors — Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Zambia, and Tanzania — simply because it costs more to transport into the country. According to one estimate, the marginal cost of importing a ton of food-aid maize is $400, versus $200 a ton to import it commercially, and only $50 to source it domestically using fertilizers. Particularly at a time when food and fertilizer prices are predicted to rise, Malawi is wise to consider how vulnerable to the caprices of international markets it wants to be.
This partly explains why, in the late 1990s, almost a decade before it became fashionable, Malawi bucked the advice of its international donors and decided to spend the majority its agriculture budget on fertilizer, the first and perhaps most necessary ingredient in prepping the soil for producing viable crops. The government gave farmers a “starter pack,” with enough beans, improved seeds, and fertilizer to cover about a fifth of an acre. International donors weren’t pleased. A USAID official decried the program as consigning farmers to a “poverty treadmill” in which farmers would be stuck growing just enough maize to survive, but never enough to get rich. Although the program had modest success, it took off when Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika expanded the program over the 2005-2006 growing season, quadrupling the amount of fertilizer available. Although driven by domestic political promises, his international timing was perfect — he was embarking on a policy whose time had come. And this is why what happens in Malawi’s fields today matter so much beyond its borders.
To understand why, we need a quick history of agricultural policy in developing countries. Many developing countries were, especially before World War II, pantries to be raided by their colonizers. Post-independence, rural areas were often net contributors to government revenues, but there were some assurances of stability, with government schemes to buy crops at guaranteed prices. Internationally — especially in Asia — the post-war era saw governments pressured to feed a restive population that was increasingly wondering whether their lot wouldn’t be improved through socialism and a change in land ownership. In order to fight the Cold War in foreign fields, the U.S. government and key foundations invested heavily in agricultural technologies such as improved seed and fertilizer. These technologies were designed to keep land in the hands of its feudal owners, food plentiful, and communists at bay. In 1968, William Gaud, the USAID administrator, dubbed it a Green Revolution, because it was designed to prevent a red one.
For a range of mainly geopolitical reasons, the Green Revolution was implemented with less fervor and success in Africa than in Asia. The International Fertilizer Development Center observed in 2006 that $4 billion worth of soil nutrients were being mined from the African soil by farmers who, struggling to make ends meet, weren’t replenishing the nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous in the ground beneath their feet.
The prescription for declining soil quality lay, however, not in addressing the policy causes of farmer’s environmental panic — a systematic neglect since the 1980s to which the World Bank itself admitted in an internal evaluation — but to fix the soil with technology. So in 2006, the Rockefeller Foundation (the original sponsors of the Green Revolution in Asia) joined the Gates Foundation to launch The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, or AGRA. This is the second brave new development policy that hopes to feed Africa.
AGRA claims to have learned the lessons of history, rejecting Collier’s view and focusing on policies that “unlike the Green Revolution in Latin America, which mostly benefited large-scale farmers because they had access to irrigation and were therefore in a position to use the improved varieties … [are] specifically geared to overcome the challenges facing smallholder farmers.”
So did it work in Malawi? It depends on the goal. If the aim was to increase output, then yes. Although economist and Earth Institute Director Jeffrey Sachs recently over-egged the data by suggesting that production had doubled because of the fertilizer subsidy (it only increased by 300,000 – 400,000 tons or up to 15 percent, the rest being mainly due to the return of the rains), the amount of maize in Malawi has undoubtedly gone up.
As the 50 million people food insecure in the United States know all too well, though, having enough food in the country doesn’t necessarily mean that all people get to eat, and Malawi still has more than its fair share of glassy-eyed and underweight children. Chronically hungry kids have low height for their age and the number of children malnourished in this way — “stunted” is the term in the statistics — has remained stubbornly high since the subsidies began.
Measuring increased yields of maize from fertilizer and starter kits doesn’t necessarily translate into a society that is well-fed and economically viable in terms of agriculture. Rachel Bezner Kerr, a professor of geography at the University of Western Ontario who also works in Malawi as a project coordinator for the Soils, Food and Healthy Communities Project, isn’t surprised. “Any nutritionist would scoff at the notion that increased yield automatically leads to increased nutrition,” she says.
Bezner Kerr told me that having more crops in the fields and bigger yields can actually be a bad thing, taking “women out of the home and away from domestic work. Particularly if they are doing early childcare feeding, this can lead to poorer nutritional outcomes.” What happens within the household is crucial in translating increased output into better nutrition.
Indeed, gender matters when it comes to food and farming. Sixty percent of the world’s malnourished people are women or girls. Yet the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization recently pointed out that by increasing access to the same resources as men, women could boost their farm’s output by up to 30 percent, leading to a 4 percent increase in total agricultural output in developing countries. In Malawi, 90 percent of women work part time, and women are paid some 30 percent less than men for similar jobs. Women are also burdened with care work, especially in a country ravaged by HIV/AIDS. Even if they own land and have access to the same resources as men, women find themselves torn between the demands of child and elder care, cooking, carrying water, finding firewood, planting, weeding, and harvesting.
These problems are better addressed through social change — abetted by programs like the Soils, Food and Healthy Communities Project — than chemistry. Yet these are precisely the kinds of programs that are crowded out by fertilizer subsidies. The fertilizer program has been a jealous child, sucking resources away from other programs. The opportunity cost of fertilizer for farmers is money that might have been spent on something else — a serious concern when global fertilizer prices are going through the roof. Research by the World Bank in Latin America and Southeast Asia has suggested that it’s smarter for government to subsidize public goods like agricultural research and extension services and irrigation, rather than directing money at private inputs like fertilizer.
Again, this matters beyond Malawi’s borders, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. The world’s population growth is scheduled to be driven by “high fertility countries” — most of which are in Africa. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter, recently argued that the world might be better fed not by pumping the soil with chemicals, but by using cutting-edge “agroecological” techniques to build soil fertility, and using policy to achieve environmental and social sustainability. In a review of 286 sustainable agriculture projects in 57 developing countries covering 91 million acres, a team led by British environmental scientist Jules Pretty found production increases of 79 percent — again, far higher than the fertilizer subsidy in Malawi, and with a far broader range of ecological and social benefits than increased food production.
These programs succeed, in part, because they don’t see hunger as the consequence of a surfeit of peasants or a deficit in soil, but as the result of complex environmental, social, and political causes. You don’t just need chemists to solve hunger — you need sociologists, soil biologists, agronomists, ethnographers, and even economists. Paying for their skills is the opportunity cost of spending precious dollars on imported fertilizer. Of course, agroecology is an entirely different paradigm than one in which technology is dropped into laps from foreign laboratories accompanied by a sheet of instructions. The programs require much more participatory education work, and much more investment in public goods, than the Malawian government and donors currently seem inclined to provide.
Agroecology is the third development vision battling for the future. In Malawi, it works. By growing cowpeas and groundnuts with maize — expanding the range of crops — Bezner Kerr’s program has beat the fertilizer program’s yield by 10 percent and increased nutrition outcomes too. Yet even agroecology has its limits. Fifteen percent of Malawians remain ultra poor, living on less than a dollar a day and unable to buy enough to eat. They tend to be people who are landless, or who have poor quality land and have to sell their labor at harvest time, just when they need it the most. They remain untouched by the Malawian miracle.
The future doesn’t look terribly promising for agroecology. Concerned about the financial sustainability of its fertilizer subsidy program, the Malawian government is about to embark on a Green Belt project, in which thousands of acres will be irrigated to induce foreign investors to begin large-scale farming of sugar cane and other export crops. The foreign exchange brought in by this program, it is hoped, will bankroll the fertilizer spending. The result will help balance the country’s current account, but as a consequence, thousands of smallholders are scheduled to be displaced to clear lands that will attract the kind of large-scale agriculture of which Collier would approve.
Particularly in the light of the new population projections for the 21st century, it seems foolish to stick to 20th century agricultural policy. Recall that the agroecological interventions in Malawi turned on women’s empowerment. Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has famously argued that there are few policies better placed to improve individual, family, and community lives (and lower fertility rates) than education — particularly the education of women and girls. The prophesies presented to us by demographers vary widely — change the assumptions, and you end up with a world of between 8 billion and 15 billion people. No matter what the future holds, though, it’s clear that a world in which everyone gets to eat depends on women’s empowerment — and rather than treating that fact as something irrelevant to feeding the world, agroecology puts it right in the middle.
A great deal of past agriculture policy has been designed either economically to bomb villages in order to save them, or to administer a technological quick fix in order to postpone politics. Collier wants to get rid of peasants. New fads want to keep them, but keep them knee-deep in chemicals. Yet if we are serious about feeding the hungry, in Malawi or anywhere else, we need to recognize that the majority of the hungry are women, and that we need more public, not private, spending on those least able to command rural resources. Because when it comes to growing food, those who tend the land are anything but fools.