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Western Cow vs. Eastern Farmer: the Absurdity of Inequality

By Devinder Sharma

1.5 billion marginal farmers in the developing world live in virtual penury. Simultaneously, 1.5 billion cattle in the industrialized world are reared in luxury, with a cow in the developed world receiving subsidies that amount to almost twice the annual income of an average Third World farmer.

It is a strange world. It is also an unequal world. The glaring inequality is not confined to the ever-widening gulf between the rich and poor, between the elite and the masses and between the people and the powers-that-be. There is also an inequality between cattle in western countries and millions of farmers in developing countries.

It is a strange paradox, the result of flawed economics and an imperfect development paradigm.

The Indian farmer -- for that matter any of the 1.5 billion small and marginal farmers from the developing countries - owns on an average not more than two acres of land and still continues to feed himself and his family of five, year after year. He lives under a thatched roof or a tin roof, often with not even an electric fan, little or no sanitation facilities and no government support in the form of direct subsidies.

Move the picture frame to a western farm. Whether in the United States, European Union or Australia, in the midst of the sprawling crop fields, you are likely to see a cattle farm. These cattle are well-fed and huge, with big, dangling udders. Take a peep inside the cattle sheds, and you will see a well-designed concrete structure fitted with tube lights, fans and showers. At most places, especially in the US and European Union, these barns are centrally heated. Computer chips worn around the necks of cows enable feeding machines to meet the exact nutritional requirement of each animal. Moreover, each cow requires about 25 acres of land on an average to meet its feed and nutritional needs - enough to enable ten farming families from the Third World to earn their livelihood.


Photo: InfoChange, India

A Highly-Paid European Cow. Cows in Europe, the United States and elsewhere in the developed world receive subsidies from governments that exceed the incomes of poor farmers in developing countries. Although the rules of the World Trade Organization are, in principal, against subsidies, the developed countries, due to their control of the WTO, have been able to exempt these and other subsidies.

The inequality between man and beast doesn't end here. The amount of subsidies a cow in the developed world receives is almost twice the annual income of an average farmer in the Third World.

In the European Union, for instance, annual support for an estimated 300 million dairy cattle in the year 2000 was to the tune of 2,735 million euros for milk and milk products and another 4,465 million euros for beef and veal. Much of the support is in the form of direct payment to farmers and falls within the purview of the "green box" and "blue box" stipulations under the World Trade Organization (WTO). These are the subsidies that cannot be reduced under the phaseout of market-distorting support mechanisms. It is, however, another matter that all subsidies that the developing countries provide to their farmers, and that too indirectly, are considered to be market-distorting and therefore have to be removed or drastically pruned.

For the dairy sector also, the aggregate quantum of subsidy as a percentage of the value of milk produced is measured in terms of a Producer Subsidy Equivalent. In 1997, the PSE index stood at 82 per cent in Japan, 59 per cent in Canada, 54 per cent in the European Union, 47 per cent in the US and 23 per cent in Australia. Such has been the high level of protection provided to milk producers by the developed countries that even with the stipulated reduction in both the volume and the amount of subsidies, the EU and the US continue to flood and dump their highly subsidized milk and milk powder. While the dairy subsidies continue to be on the upswing, the PSE index indicates that farmers in India and in most developing countries were negatively taxed all these years. For India, which alone has one-fourth of the farming population of the world, the PSE index stood at minus 2.33 per cent, whereas for Colombia it was minus 60 per cent.

Worse, while the world makes no effort to feed the estimated 800 million people, almost entirely in the developing countries, who go to bed hungry every night, no effort is spared to feed cattle in the rich and industrialized western countries. In recent years, the new system of direct payments to farmers (since 1992) in the European Union has stipulated increase in consumption of cereals from 134.8 million tons in 1993 to 178.2 million tons in 2000, largely through increased use of EU-produced cereals for animal feed. Even though the feeding of cereals to animals and then their subsequent slaughter for human consumption requires six times more grain than would be needed for the average dietary intake, there is no regret.

Ironically, the number of cattle that are reared in such luxury in the rich and industrialized countries (including the OECD countries, the richest trading block), do not exceed 1.5 billion. Strange, that the number of small farmers who live in penury and are faced with further marginalization too does not exceed 1.5 billion. The clash of civilization therefore is too apparent, too loud and clear. Under such circumstances, to be amused at the abundance of stray cattle on Indian roads is perhaps a folly. After all, when the conflict for survival between man and animal reaches such extremes, it is the cattle in the developing world which first pay the price. No wonder, it is not unusual to find stray cattle battling for their life with over 20 tons of polythene in their stomachs.

But then, with due respect to George Orwell: "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than even humans."


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