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“Hoarding at work”: India calls out the West, says food grains shouldn’t go the way of Covid vaccines

Price and availability of food grains should not go the way of Covid-19 vaccines – something poor countries struggled to find even as richer ones hoarded doses – India said Wednesday as it voiced concern over an ‘unjustified increase’ in food prices that threatens the stability of the many of the same poorer nations. Union minister V Muraleedharan, speaking at a global meet on food security also defended India restricting wheat exports, saying it would ensure supply to those most in need.

“A number of low-income societies are today confronted with the twin challenges of rising costs and difficulty in access to food grains. Even those like India, which have adequate stocks, have seen an unjustified increase in food prices. It is clear hoarding and speculation are at work. We cannot allow this to pass unchallenged,” Muraleedharan said at a meeting chaired by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and under the US presidency of the UN Security Council for the month of May.

The meeting came days after India’s decision to ban wheat exports; the decision, the government said, was aimed at controlling retail prices of wheat and wheat flour, which have risen by an average of 14-20 per cent in the last year, fuelled by a shortage due to heatwaves and the war in Ukraine.

The minister said India recognised the spike in global prices had put “our food security and those of our neighbours and other vulnerable countries at risk” and that it is “committed to ensuring such adverse impact… is effectively mitigated and vulnerable cushioned against sudden (price) changes”.

“It is necessary for all of us to adequately appreciate the importance of equity, affordability and accessibility when it comes to food grains… We have already seen, to our great cost, how these principles were disregarded in the case of Covid-19 vaccines. Open markets must not become an argument to perpetuate inequity and promote discrimination,” Muraleedharan stressed.

India is the world’s second-biggest wheat producer but is not traditionally a major exporter as most of its crop is sold in domestic markets. However, after Ukraine exports plunged due to Russia’s invasion and as crops in other nations faced natural disasters, the world looked to India.

Before the ban, India had aimed to ship a record 10 million tonnes of wheat this year.

Last week this was stopped in the interest of national security, after which global wheat prices leapt a record 6 per cent. Overall prices have risen over 60 per cent on the back of the war in Ukraine.

At the UN meet Muraleedharan said: “Let me make it clear these measures allow for export on the basis of approvals to those countries which are required to meet their food security demands… Such a policy will ensure that we will truly respond to those who are most in need.”

Muraleedharan also highlighted the country’s ‘track record’ of helping partners in distress, saying that even during the worst days of the pandemic India had never been found wanting. India has, for example, sent 10,000 tons of rice and wheat to Myanmar and continues to aid Sri Lanka, he said.

Ahead of the meeting Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US’ ambassador to the United Nations, had said: “We have seen the report of India’s decision. We’re encouraging countries not to restrict exports because we think any restrictions on exports will exacerbate the food shortages… we hope they can, as they hear the concerns being raised by other countries, they would reconsider that position.”

Meanwhile, on Wednesday UN chief Antonio Gutteres stressed that global hunger levels were at a ‘new high’ and urged action to fight this problem. “These frightening figures are inextricably linked with conflict, as both cause, and effect,” he said. “If we do not feed people, we feed conflict”.

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