Sunday, September 6, 2009

Austerity Practice

Here in India we are accustomed to things not being available. Suddenly, and often inexplicably, stocks of a certain item run out and are not replenished. Sometimes it's a non-essential - like a particular kind of toothpaste or brand of soap; but sometimes it's something you have a hard time imagining life without: sugar, or whole wheat flour or, as has happened this week: butter.

I am ashamed of the importance of butter to my happiness, but it's a fact. I often give it up for Lent and those forty days lack the normal sparkle I like to think my life contains. I don't look forward to breakfast as I usually do, I can't make cakes or pies, chapatties are dry and white-sauce based soups are out. But during Lent it's bearable because the end is in sight. I can count off the days. And besides, it's making me a better person. It's helping me to become less attached.

Or is it?

We are now in a time where all that practice I was supposedly getting in detachment  (let's see, I am 51, the age of reason is 7, so I have been following Lenten observances for 44 years now) would come in handy. Because I don't think this particular butter shortage is going to go away.

Over a year ago, a similar crisis hit Japan. An acute butter shortage affecting bakeries, restaurants and individual families across the country was seen in retrospect as the result of the global agricultural commodities crisis. Nothing is local anymore - countries don't get to exist in their own little cocoons. What affects one affects us all.

Here's one version of how it played out: the price of imported cattle feed in Japan went through the roof and imports of milk declined - mostly because of drought conditions in Australia. Japanese dairy farmers couldn't feed their own cattle enough to produce nor could they afford or even get adequate supplies from abroad. So butter production declined sharply.

And that was just butter, in Japan. Last year.

This year, it's all come home. Amul, the country's largest producer of butter typically supplies 250 to 300 tonnes of butter to the city of Kolkata every month. Last month, Kolkata got only 30 tonnes. Wheat prices have gone up by 130%. Dal (lentils), the primary source of protein for India's millions of vegetarians, are now virtually unaffordable even for middle-class people with double incomes. The government admits it only has enough sugar for the next two months.

That all this is the result of global climate change is undeniable. Food riots have broken out in countries like Haiti, Mexico, Pakistan and Burkina Faso and here in India, protesters burned hundreds of ration shops in West Bengal, angered by the conviction that their owners were selling the government-subsidized food on the black market. To be fretting about butter, a luxury item if ever there was one, is indefensible.

For most of the world's people, these hard times are nothing new. For the rest of us, it's time to confront reality and to realize that we have a great deal to learn from those who do not waste, who do not indulge and who do not expect to find butter on their table at breakfast tomorrow morning.

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