New Delhi’s hosting of the G20 summit opened a window to observe India’s foreign policy goals.
The summit was broken by the absence of Chinese and Russian presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, but it did host world leaders including the US president Joe Biden.
For all practical purposes, it is a known fact that the G20 is the G7 hiding in G20’s clothing and also pushing what is largely regarded as an American-Quad playbook. Biden’s various remarks to the US media before arriving in India had overtly expressed his desire to put “America first” at the G20.
After a successful BRICS conference in South Africa, complete with the addition of new members, US foreign policy had been keen to exert Quad influence on the G20 too. Although the Russian and Chinese sides have come away with a significant victory with how the war in Ukraine was handled in the New Delhi Declaration, India’s agriculture diplomacy in the run up to the G20 shows that it has always been angling at honouring the G7’s motto.
Backing up to June, when G20’s agricultural ministers met in Hyderabad, it became clear that we had a major diplomatic and imminent global food crisis. This is because no global food system can reasonably function in current times without Russian wheat and fertilisers. Meanwhile, Russia, on September 9 rejected the United Nation’s timely offer to restart the ‘Black Sea Grain Deal’ until the West and Ukraine de-escalate and meet Russia’s demands.
But even before Biden’s plane took off, India withdrew major custom duties on agricultural products of US origin like frozen turkey, frozen duck, blueberries and cranberries (of the fresh, frozen, dried and processed varieties) among other things. This is the second round of custom duty reductions in the past three months.
It could very well be that the move was crafted to pave the way for Joe Biden’s electoral gains as, often, Indian consumers have to carry the burden of US-India friendships. US presidents have, over the years, pressured India to open up its agro-trade protections. It is in their interest to get Indians to buy US-origin farm goods – along with the other staple, arms. Thus, agriculturally speaking, India did give the US president a red carpet welcome.
In June, India had reduced custom duties on US agri-commodities including chickpeas, lentils, almonds, walnuts and apples. This allowed for imports to flood Indian markets. It was not by accident that the June G20 agriculture ministers’ meeting was held within days of this announcement.
Getting back to G20 New Delhi, another important agrarian buzz was the launch of the Global Biofuel Alliance. This clearly seems to also have been a move to please the US. India currently battles deep malnutrition, hyper food inflation and bad harvests, yet the message we are sending to the world and its own farmers is – we want to convert arable land for ethanol production and not food. The US has major interest in biofuel and the boost of a robust biofuel industry.
If we simply examine the power dynamic within the alliance, it is evident that the US and US-based biofuel industry gets the lion’s share in policy decisions and is almost setting the agenda. Brazil is also rallying to the US because it is a major producer of bio-fuel. All the while, Indian policy makers are aptly parroting US policies. The technology is neither green, nor more beneficial for the Indian setting. Plus exporting or importing biofuels is not a wise step for our economy or farmers.
No action since meeting
The next important deadlock on agriculture is the follow up on the G20 agriculture ministers’ meeting. The outcome document read well and promoted “principles”, but practical solutions to address growing food security and agrarian issues seemed not to be in focus.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi personally said at the G20 agriculture ministers’ meeting that “India’s G20 priorities in agriculture focus on healing our ‘One Earth’, creating harmony within our ‘One Family’ and giving hope for a bright ‘One Future’”.
He also said, “Traditional practices from different parts of the world may inspire us to develop alternatives for regenerative agriculture”.
He even said, “Farmers all over India are taking up natural farming now.”
Yet, no steps were taken to formalise a global regenerative agriculture alliance in the final New Delhi Declaration. The document instead says that member countries, “Recognize the importance of sustainable biofuels in our zero and low-emission development strategies, and note the setting up of a Global Biofuels Alliance.” Notably, ‘agriculture’ is only mentioned a grand total of six times in the document – three of which are direct mentions of the earlier agriculture ministers’ and scientists’ meetings.
It is clear to me that Modi wanted to promote industrial agriculture through the biofuel industry.
Farmers should also be watchful as the outcome document put India on the path of “digitalisation of agriculture” which could not be in the interest of millions of farmers in the G20 nations who don’t even own a smartphone. Plus they offer up the world’s highest number of farmers for big tech grabs. This policy seems like an imposition, as no farmers were involved in this decision. If not for a forced demonetisation, Indian farmers would not have accepted the digital payments at all. Digitalisation in developing G20 countries will have huge social and economic costs as education and digital literacy is already low and oftentimes underprivileged groups get left out from digitalisation drives.
Recently, it was reported that the leaders in New Delhi G20 were talking of global food security threatened by growing poverty, climate change, pandemics and conflicts, but so far no decision on the action plan has come. Russian food and agri supplies may ameliorate the problem, but it seems they were blocked again. G20 could have provided an important platform for food aid reducing world hunger not only in spirit but through a more concrete step. Apart from Russian wheat, Indian farmers could have played a big role in providing for nutrition needs of other developing G20 nations. Other countries like Canada, Brazil, and perhaps Argentina could have pitched in and created a global food bank or reserve to help store grain, stabilise prices and supply a member nation when in need. But a consensus was not reached.
The rumour is if US wheat production increases, the necessity of Russian wheat will diminish. And Biden could offer the farmers a huge grain deal to keep them happy. So another geo-political battle is on between the grain giants over filling the wheat vacuum in the international markets. And over whether India could receive US wheat instead of Russian wheat consignments, when needed.
To sum it up, the G20 is a blessing for US agro-traders, big agricultural corporations and Biden’s electorate base; what it does for curtailing global hunger or Indian farmers is hard to say. Without a global consensus on food security and agrarian climate distress, hunger around the world will only grow. Once developing nations face the brunt of more hunger, diplomatic integrity and G20 goals will be abandoned for bilateral agreements. Promises made in the calm will be forgotten at stormy times.
Indra Shekhar Singh is an independent agri-policy analyst and writer. He was the former director of policy and outreach, NSAI. He also hosts The Wire’s agriculture talk show Krishi ki baat/Farm Talks. He tweets @indrassingh.