When farmers choose to grow food, not tobacco, sustainable development wins

"We need food, not tobacco," was the theme of the World No Tobacco Day 2023. The UN health agency, the World Health Organization (WHO) rightly points out that tobacco contributes to increased food insecurity. Apart from being a deadly health hazard that is responsible for over 8 million deaths every year globally, tobacco production also adversely impacts economic stability, food security, gender equality, and our environment.

Grow food, not tobacco, a new report by WHO recalls that globally 349 million people are facing acute food insecurity, many of them in countries where tobacco cultivation has increased by 15% in the last decade. Tragically,  9 out of the 10 largest tobacco producers are low- and middle-income countries, and 4 of these are also low-income food-deficit countries.

It is deplorable that 3.5 million hectares of fertile land across 124 countries are converted for tobacco growing each year - even in places where people are starving. Tobacco cultivation also contributes to deforestation of 200,000 hectares a year, that is cleared annually for tobacco growing and curing. Growing tobacco requires heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers, leading to soil degradation. As soil fertility is depleted, land used for growing tobacco becomes infertile for growing food crops.

The tobacco industry often touts itself as an 'advocate' for the 'livelihood' of tobacco farmers while it hides the fact that tobacco consumption results in a loss of over USD 1.4 trillion to global economy and devastates lives, and our planet. Some farmers and government officials also see tobacco as a cash crop that can generate economic growth. But this is far from the truth. Contrary to tobacco industry claims, research from across the globe shows that tobacco cultivation is neither safe - it can result in green tobacco sickness - nor lucrative. It does not provide a prosperous livelihood for most smallholder farmers and most of them struggle economically. They either incur losses, or generate small profits that are insufficient to support a household.

A WHO report on tobacco and the environment found that "short-term benefits of the crop are offset by long-term consequences of increased food insecurity, frequent sustained farmers' debt, illness and poverty among farmworkers, and widespread environmental damage. Moreover 1.3 million child labourers are estimated to be working on tobacco farms, instead of going to school. 

India and Indonesia are among the top five producers of tobacco in the world. India is the second largest producer of tobacco in the world (and the largest tobacco producer in the WHO Southeast Asia region, followed by Indonesia).

Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director for WHO Southeast Asia region had said that tobacco farmers and tobacco growers and workers are often used by the tobacco industry as front groups to rally against tobacco control. "It is time that the governments and policymakers across the region hold the tobacco industry accountable for the health, environmental and economic costs of tobacco cultivation and use, including the deepening food crisis," she said.

Even though the pace is slow, tobacco growing countries in the southeast Asian region are taking initiatives towards providing alternative livelihoods to tobacco growers and workers. There are success stories from Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka, where tobacco-growing farmers have successfully shifted over to economically viable alternative crops.

My interviews with farmers who quit growing tobacco

During the 7th APCAT Summit of Mayors in Bali (held in December 2022), I spoke with some Indonesian farmers, who had switched from growing tobacco to other crops. This Summit was organised by Asia Pacific Cities Alliance for Health and Development (APCAT).

Growing sweet potato, not tobacco

One of them, Istanto, a farmer from Indonesia's Magelang Regency, had transitioned to growing sweet potatoes. On being asked why the switch from 'bitter' and deadly tobacco to 'sweet' and life-nourishing sweet potato, this is what he had to say: "I started this in 2012. That year the weather was not good for tobacco cultivation so I thought of growing sweet potatoes. And now there are 8 villages that have joined me and switched over to growing sweet potatoes and other crops like corn, pepper, and vegetables. Tobacco is harvested only once a year, but sweet potatoes grow all the year round and can be dug out every day."

"From my personal experience, operational costs for both crops are the same, but profits are much higher from other crops as compared to tobacco. The operational cost per 10 hectare (1000 square metres) is around Indonesian Rupiah (IDR) 2 million for both. But it is at least three times more profitable to grow sweet potatoes as compared to tobacco. While the profit from growing tobacco on a piece of 10 hectares land is IDR 2.5 million (USD 168), from the same land I am able to make a profit of IDR 6-7 million (USD 470) by growing sweet potatoes, even when the weather is not very good. The profit is even more, when the weather is optimum. When I was young I smoked but now I do not. Now my mission is to #EndTobacco," he added.

The region from where Istanto comes (Magelang Regency) has reduced the area of tobacco plantation from 7,573 hectares in 2012 to 5,265 hectares in 2022.

Growing sweet potatoes (not tobacco) and making snacks

Another young farmer, who I spoke with, had gone one step ahead. He has not only switched to growing sweet potatoes but also processes them to make snacks from them and sell them.

"Sweet potatoes that are smaller in size, do not fetch a good price. So I make sweet savouries from them and supply them to traders in Jakarta, Yogyakarta, Semarang, Kalimantan and even to Trans Mart in Central Java. I have employed 30 youth to manage this work and so I am generating employment as well. Moreover, unlike tobacco, which requires heavy use of pesticides and fertilisers and contributes to soil degradation, sweet potatoes do not need chemical fertilisers at all. I have also quit smoking, once I switched to growing sweet potatoes," he said proudly.

Growing coffee, not tobacco

Yet another farmer I met had switched to growing coffee. He said that, "Tobacco crops are very much weather dependent. If it rains during harvest time, we get poor quality tobacco and so its price automatically goes down and the farmers experience heavy losses. So, since 1999 I, along with 14 other farmers, started transitioning to growing coffee. In 2002 we started intercropping it with other plants. We had to fight 20 lawsuits filed by the tobacco industry against us. Today there are 800 households in my village who have shifted to growing other crops, including vegetables. Now with the presence of other horticultural crops, and with coffee prices getting better, our profits have increased. We started with coffee but have now shifted to growing vegetables too."

"If the weather is good for tobacco then profits are almost the same for both tobacco and coffee. But if not, then growing coffee is more profitable. My message is that there are other crops to grow and not just tobacco. We cannot just depend upon tobacco. We are gradually shifting from growing tobacco, We must diversify and try growing other crops which are equally profitable if not more," he said.

Istanto is the founder of the Indonesian Multicultural Farmers Forum, that has been playing a pivotal role in encouraging farmers to switch to alternate crops. In recognition of these efforts, the WHO presented the Indonesia Multicultural Farmers Forum with a WHO Director General's World No Tobacco Day Award 2023.

Bangladesh farmers too moving away from tobacco

As tobacco cultivation is water intensive, farmers from water scarce regions in Bangladesh are replacing tobacco farming with tea, sunflower, maize and mustard, that consume less water and yield higher profits. One news story cites the example of one such farmer who turned his fortune by starting a small tea garden of 0.6 hectares. He made a profit of BDT 300,000 (USD 2770) from his tea garden in 2021, which is more than twice the profit he used to make from growing tobacco. Other tobacco farmers are shifting to growing sunflower and mustard that are less labour intensive and at the same time, yield better profits. As a result, area of tobacco cultivation fell from 950 hectares in 2020 to 650 hectares in 2021, while the area of mustard rose from 75 hectares to 250 hectares in the country.

In India too farmers are shifting to other crops. As per a news report, tobacco acreage and production in the country have started declining as the government is encouraging farmers to shift to alternative crops like food grains, cereals, pulses, oilseeds, vegetables, sugarcane, oil palm, chilli, groundnut, and French beans, as well as to dairy and poultry activities.

Dr Tara Singh Bam, Asia Pacific Regional Director at the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease (The Union) rightly remarked: "There is an urgent need to take legal measures to reduce tobacco growing and help farmers to move into the production of alternative food crops."

Governments and policy-makers must step up legislation, develop suitable policies and strategies, and enable market conditions for tobacco farmers to shift to growing food crops.They should stop subsidizing tobacco crops and instead help farmers grow food.

The 8th Asia Pacific Summit of Mayors (APCAT 2023) will be held in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. It is likely that sub-national government leaders from several cities of countries in Asia Pacific will advance their commitment to progress towards ending tobacco and preventing non-communicable diseases (NCDs), as well as ending TB and viral hepatitis.

Time to ponder

Do we want at least two square meals a day for everyone on planet Earth or do we want to gasp with smoke filled lungs?

The choice is ours to make and to make it now. Else we are doomed.

(Citizen News Service)
22 June 2023
(Shobha Shukla is the award-winning founding Managing Editor and Executive Director of CNS (Citizen News Service) and is a feminist, health and development justice advocate. She is a former senior Physics faculty of prestigious Loreto Convent College and current Coordinator of Asia Pacific Regional Media Alliance for Health and Development (APCAT Media). Follow her on Twitter @shobha1shukla or read her writings here www.bit.ly/ShobhaShukla)

Daily Good Morning Kashmir, India (op-ed page, 23 June 2023)

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