Chocolate and Gold Coins

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Caloric Nonsense

The Indian blogosphere has caught fire by this article published in the Hindu by economist Utsa Patnaik that claims that there is a crisis in the rural community in India. There may be problems there, I don’t know, but the evidence used by Utsa Patnaik to support her claim is really suspicious. Her main evidence that there is a problem on the farm is base on looking at the consumption of grains and the caloric intake of the people. Here is a quote:

Forty years of successful effort to raise foodgrains absorption through the Green Revolution and planned expansionary policies has been wiped out in a single decade of deflationary economic reforms and India is back to the foodgrains availability level of 50 years ago. The farmers of Punjab and Haryana are in crisis for they have lost internal markets to the tune of 26 million tonnes of foodgrains — for if grain absorption had been maintained at least at the 1991 level of 178 kg per head instead of falling, the internal demand would have been 26 million tonnes higher than it actually is today.

Food grain “absorption” takes in consideration both grain consumed directly and indirectly via feeding animals. But basically, absorption is very closely related to caloric intake.

Now several commentators have criticized her methods (Aadisht Khanna, Amit, Vinod) But they aren’t saying the obvious: maybe this whole idea of using diet as a proxy for income is pure nonsense. Actually that isn’t completely true: Amit did link to this old article by Swaminathan Aiyar that makes the same point I am going to make. This is nonsense, folks. There is absolutely no way you can infer anything about how well off a person is by just looking at his or her diet over time.

Let me illustrate the problem with the diet method with a simple example. Suppose Amitabh is a rickshaw driver. Ten years ago he consumed 2400 calories a day, but today he only consumes 1800 calories. He must be starving to death, poor fellow. But oddly, he is gaining weight. How could this be? Let us ask Amitabh: “ Well, I used to have to eat a lot because I had an old cycle rickshaw and I needed the strength. Today, I have a nice auto rickshaw and life is easier.”

Don’t you think that possibly the same thing is happening in rural India? Isn’t at least possible that some of the donkeywork that ordinary Indians performed in the past is now being replaced by machines? Wouldn’t an obvious result of industrialization be that people’s caloric intake would either decrease or people would gain weight or both? I cannot know for sure that this is what is happening in rural India but neither could Utsa Patnaik know by just looking at “absorption” of food grains.

If you measure the weight of people in India, you might get some idea about their well-being but it is much better to measure income. If the farmer sells some of his grain on the market, then you can easily infer his income by multiplying the total production (including the portion saved for his family) by the market price. This is a much better indicator of well-being than caloric intake.

Here is the money quote from Swaminathan Aiyer:

What explains this? [That the poorest 20 percent only consume 1600 calories per day and this has stayed constant despite technological progress.] One reason is that nutritionists have exaggerated calorie needs to grab headlines and importance. A second and perhaps more important reason is that lifestyles have evolved so as to reduce calorie requirements. Mechanisation of every sort has penetrated rural India , substituting mechanical energy for manual energy. In Haryana and Punjab tractors are so widespread that it is getting difficult to find people who can plough with oxen.

Isn’t it an odd coincidence that the two states that Swaminathan points out as examples of states that have seen the most mechanization on the farm are exactly the two states that Utsa points out as the ones that have seen the greatest drop in “foodgrain absorption”. The really odd thing is that Swaminathan whote his excellent rebuttal to Utsa’s piece two years before she wrote her article. That’s impressive.


  • Hi Michael,

    There is absolutely no way you can infer anything about how well off a person is by just looking at his or her diet over time.

    Are you sure Michael? At least in extreme cases one can and should infer something from that data, right? If one is not able to afford food, and is starving to death, surely some inference should be drawn?

    In any case let me agree with you for now that looking at absolute calorie consumption doesn't say anything about how well-off one is. So let's stick to indicators about serious "nutritional deficits" which I hope neither you nor Swaminathan Aiyar will write off as nonsense.

    Let me request you to have a look at this article for more details.

    This is done by first having a reference consumer unit and then by applying conversion factors to all the population according to age, gender, type of work etc to ascribe consumer units to all sections of the population. Nutritional deficiency means calorie consumption at less than 90% of the units for that particular person. Then nutritional deficiency in India increased by 5% in the period 1983 to 2000 (from 40% to 45%).

    Coming back to calorie consumption, per capita calorie consumption in rural India and urban India is the same (in 2000). Calorie consumption should have been higher in rural India if we go by your argument.

    Swaminathan Aiyar was being disingenuous by taking the example of an average American eating at McDonalds and Burger King, and suggesting that the average calorie consumption is around 1500. Per capita calorie consumption (in 2000) in the US was over 2600 and this is a 7% increase from the 1971 figure.

    By Blogger Anand, at 10:09 AM  

  • Hi Anand
    Thanks for the link.
    I read that article and the one thing that caught my eye was what they used as the baseline of the ideal caloric intake: 2700 calories per day. That is even higher than the U.S. average and would make someone 208 pounds.

    Actually that article mention that maybe the calorie consumption is going down because of mechanization. There really is no doubt that this is driving the numbers in Punjab and Haryana. How else could someone could have eaten 3500 calories per day unless they were working like a complete donkey? Also, reduced donkeywork means less protein requirement.

    I'm not arguing that the rural areas are not poorer than the urban areas. Almost certainly the rural areas are poorer. But that is just a consequence of the increased farm productivity. It happened all around the world: farms became more productive, prices of food went down, and farmers had to leave the farm and go to the city. That's all that's happening on the farms I would guess.

    That's not a bad thing: it frees up labor to do more productive things. The U.S. could not have become anywhere near as productive if we had kept 50% of the population down on the farm like we had a century ago.

    As Amit would say: If these farmers cannot make a go of farming, "Let them start a blog or something." I know, it's a little cold, but it's to the point. These farmers have to move on.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 12:18 PM  

  • Of course I don't say that farmers should be farmers always. But as you also have agreed (you have given your own reasons as well), there's enough evidence that the situation in village India is very grave. And the Rural Employment Guarantee Bill promises to provide work to those who haven't been able to find any work. So REGB is tapping the potential of the labor to get productive things done. I don't think "the Indian govt is flying completely blind here".

    What are your ideas about measuring poverty via income? Do you think consumption pattern would give more accurate results if a more diversified diet pattern is taken into consideration. I like to hear what you think as you are a professional economist.

    By Anonymous Anand, at 12:51 PM  

  • Hi Anand
    I still think the government is flying blind because they really don't understand the phenomenon. They need to ease the transition from the rural to the urban economy by making it easier for marginal farmers to pack it in and go to the city. They could do this by investing in the cities. They could build better roads in the cities, build better infrastructure (better storm drains for sure) better utilities: gas, water, electric, etc. And making cities better for business.

    Farmers cannot be any worse than their second best alternative. If their alternatives are better, then some will leave and some will stay but even the ones who stay will be well-off because they won't have as much competition. The cities are the safety valve for the countryside.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 3:22 PM  

  • Michael
    I completely disagree with you and I agree that you could infer the prosperity of a cross section of the population by monitoring their calorie intake.

    Leave alone the population from rural India. Consider expat engineers like myself who came here sometime ago and basically the nature of job essentially didnt change much from India to the US. Do you think on an average the calorie consumption of a cross section of the engineers who travelled to the US would have gone down ? I think now. Cus with prosperity your consumption increases too.

    While I agree that the cities must be made more acceptable to live in, the farming occupation should be made alluring by providing enough subsidies to the farmers and relief measures against natural disaster. We have seen from the recent elections in AP and Karnataka, that no matter how well u spruce up the citiez viz. B'lore and Hbad, real India lives in its villages.

    By Blogger chappan, at 8:03 PM  

  • Michael,

    Caloric consumption could be a useful indicator of prosperity in a particular society, but caloric consumption is not directly proportional to prosperity in all societies.

    In the US, the inverse is true. There was an article in Time magazine a few months ago that pointed out that more people at the lower end of the income scale were obese. This is because junk food (burgers and fries) is so cheap in the US. It's the healthy, low calorie foods that are expensive.

    In India, ghee, butter, sugar, and other high-calorie or fatty foods are expensive. Poorer people use these items sparingly.

    So you could infer valuable information by looking at a society's diet over a period of time.

    By Blogger Sujatha, at 8:17 PM  

  • ... by making it easier for marginal farmers to pack it in and go to the city.

    I think everybody across the "ideological spectrum" in India would say that's a bad thing. Some would say we need to give villagers enough opportunities to stay back in their villages. Others would say whether or not they suffer in their villages, we do not want them in our cities.

    By Anonymous Anand, at 11:26 PM  

  • "I think everybody across the "ideological spectrum" in India would say that's a bad thing. Some would say we need to give villagers enough opportunities to stay back in their villages. Others would say whether or not they suffer in their villages, we do not want them in our cities."

    You'd think wrong. I think that if it is a choice between staying in the villages and starving and living a hard life in the cities, they are better off in the latter. But seriously, the ideal solution is not that they should "have enough opportunities in the villages, many more villages should turn into small towns which will be a compromise between the congestion of cities and the desolation of villages. Now this might look like semantic quibbling (when is a village a "small town"?), but I must point out that all our policies are designed to prevent villages from turning into towns and they end up forcing villagers to move into already crowded cities.

    By Anonymous Ravikiran, at 12:19 AM  

  • Hi I´m Chris. Great page !!! Greatings from Germany Bottrop !!

    By Blogger ChrisWoznitza, at 5:51 AM  

  • Ravikiran -- I wasn't wrong if you consider yourself not represented in my paragraph (and if I go by your comment). You too say that there should be enough opportunities to stay back in the places where they live though you like to call these improved villages as small towns. My thrust was against the "pack it in and go to the city" policy that Michael advocated.

    By Anonymous Anand, at 9:24 AM  

  • >>"There is absolutely no way you can infer anything about how well off a person is by just looking at his or her diet over time."

    I think everybody agrees that for some people (ie the very poor), reduced calorie consumption could be because the person is starving. I think that everybody also agrees that for some people reduced calorie consumption could be because of Giffen's Paradox, reduced donkeywork, whatever.

    Dr. Patnaik only quotes the statistics of reduced calorie intake as proof that rural India is starving. However, given two equally valid causes of reduced intake , how is it possible to infer, from only the pure data of calorie consumption, that reduced intake is an indicator of starvation?

    If you are to make an inference about the well-being of a person, you need more data than mere calorie intake stats. I think that is the point Michael was trying to make.

    By Blogger Kunal, at 10:14 AM  

  • OT: Happy birthday, Michael!

    By Anonymous Srikanth, at 11:07 AM  

  • Hi Sourin, Sujatha, and Anand

    Sourin: Calorie data might be useful if you kept track of individual's weights. But for farmers, caloric burn rate might differer enormously from individual to individual. A farmer pushing a plow behind two oxen might burn as much as 2000 calories more than the one riding the tractor.

    I agree that someone consuming less than 1500 calories is probably starving regardless. On the other hand, my father told me a story that when he was in high school he had to compute his caloric consumption per day. He came up with 1600 and was so ashamed (for some reason) that he fudged his numbers up to 1800. But he was getting enough to eat.

    Sujatha: I think it is true that obesity is likely to hit poor people in the U.S. because they have the income to get fat (food is so cheap here) and because the might lack the resources to stay thin (health club membership, personal trainer, quality home gym).

    Anand: I have to say that I would be very surprised if Indians are not aware that most farmers today will not be farmers in 20 years time. You should be aware of this. It is happening all around the world. In the U.S. we went from a farm population up around 70% a century ago to 2% today.

    The reason Indians don't want these people in the cities is, I suppose, because the cities aren't prepared to take them in. And it may not be practical to have Mumbai grow to 100 million or more. But some of the villages will have to grow into towns and towns into cities. An amazing proportion of all the productivity of India is produced in the major cities. Obviously, that is were people need to go.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 2:14 PM  

  • Hi Ravikiran, Chris, Anand, Kunal, and Srikanth:
    Ravikiran: I think that is interesting what you say that Indian policy prevents villages from becoming towns. I have often sensed that the problem with the village economy is that the infrastructure (and this could mean physical, legal, mental) for business is just not there in the villages. They seem to be caught in a time warp where things are operate in the way that they were hundreds (thousands) of years ago.

    Chris: Hi

    Anand: I want to reiterate that making the opportunities for farmers to do other things helps both the ones who leave and the ones that stay. Those who stay are suffering because there is intense competition caused by technological improvement. You don't want to stop this. You have to realize that India will have to see the villages depopulate just like everywhere else on Earth.

    You asked before how to measure poverty via income. This cannot be an exact measure but the average income of people who consume only 1600 calories per day would be a good measure. But wouldn't that be the same as the people who only consume 1600 calories or less? No. Some of the farmers who consume more calories will be poor by the income measure because they are spending more of their income on food. And a few who consume 1600 just don't have a big appetite (like my father at 18).

    In general, I think the U.S. bureau of Labor statistics does a reasonably good job of collecting data. They have several surveys going that measure the same people over time and really track a lot of variables. 100,000 people you know a whole lot about will tell you more than billion people you only know a little about. This is the genius of polling.

    Kunal: I agree. A better measure of true despiration on the farm might be people who actually starve, people who die from hunger related diseases and general malnutrition, and people who are treated in some medical facility for symptoms related to malnutrition.

    Srikanth: Thank you very much.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 4:32 PM  

  • Michael,

    1) Once again, no one is claiming that the caloric consumption thesis is flawless. NSS comparisions are impossible which makes poverty debates like this contentious. BUT.. other evidence,including falling output prices, rising input prices, increased unemployment, farmer suicides *and* decreased total calorie consumption would make the notion that its simply a substition effect implausible. And as Anand has effectively and relentlessly pointed out, that objection has been considered in depth by Ghosh and Chandrashekhar

    2) Countries do not magically move from an agrarian economy to an industrialized economy. Industrial policies and supporting social policies have always been crucial. The rural employment guarantee bill is an example of the latter.

    3)If Amit or you honestly mean it with your idea- "Let them eat Blog"-I would say that this is a philosophical and moral difference, and not one based on any idea of economics or how the economy works.

    4)Its nice to say, make the cities good for business and the farmers will have a place to go. But its fundamentally flawed. First, massive skill mismatches. Second, the growth of capital intensive production. Third, high levels of insecurity among the urban poor (its the countryside which is the safety-valve for the urban poor, rather than your formulation). None of this is to say that there should not be public investment in city infrastructure. But the faith in the idea that this alone will lead to labor absorption of the level that one needs is just that- unjustified faith. In the meanwhile, whats wrong with having social policy that protects (some of) the rural poor during transition?

    5) Average income for 1600 calories? The measure will be at least as flawed, if not more. What kind of calories? Averages across states and districts will hide huge standard deviations, especially given poor transport of food grains.


    By Anonymous Arjun, at 8:40 PM  

  • Hi Arjun
    Thanks for the detailed comment.

    1) If farm prices are going down, it is very likely that farm income is going down, since price elasticity for farm outputs tend to be low. Although if you poll farmers, they would probably say that it isn't food that is getting to expensive to buy but everything else.

    2) The U.S. never had any effective transistion policy from farming to industrialization. Farmers did suffer but the transition happened nontheless and mass starvation never happened. There was absolutely no federal policies for farmers until the 1930's, and by then, much of the transition from farming to industrialization had already occurred. Even today, government farm policy is of essentially no use to farmers.

    The thing that really helped the transistion from the farm economy to the industrial economy was the investment in the infrastructure of the cities, in the U.S. There was no way to prevent the decline in the number of farms. But in the US, at least the farmers had alternatives.

    3) I don't want farmers to starve or to suffer. I do believe that they need to move on. It is people who insist that they stay on the farm that cause the misery for the farmers. Increasing productivity always forces some of the people to leave, in every country on Earth. It has to happen.

    4) It is entirely possible that for many people in India, the returns on education and job training could be enormous but people aren't able to invest in skills because they cannot put up collateral for a loan. But I'm not so sure that this argument holds water in India. Ravikiran wrote about how he able to obtain a student loan. Labor unions have a vested interest in investing in their workers. And most people have enough money to get a little training which gives them enough money to get a little more. I'm not saying that these are all perfect solutions but it is a common claim of people who tend to oppose free markets to say that since a particular market failure could happen, it is happening, and it is is overwhelming. But finding new ways to help finance working training may be beneficial.

    It is not the case that capital intensive production makes labor obsolete. If that were true, unemployment in the U.S. would be about 50% instead of 5%. Fancy machines still need people to run them.

    5) Income is income. What people chose to spend it on is immaterial.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 1:09 PM  

  • Michael

    1) You are partly right about the price-income issue. Many farmers have switched to cotton farming and other cash crops. These prices have fallen the most.

    2) Ravikiran is not the median farmer. its disingenenous to suggest that because he can get a student loan, any farmer can. Illiteracy is high, as are other barriers to entry in education and skills.

    3)I was not saying that capital intensification makes labor obsolete in a general equilibrium sense. But it does make labor obsolete in the particular sector- which of course was my point with regard to the rural sector

    4) How do you make the transition from an agrarian society to an industrial society is a huge question which as you know has been tackled by many giants in the development field- I prefer the humane way (which incidentally has worked in many situations) by providing some sort of bridges.

    4) You misunderstand my criticism of income as a measure of poverty (which is that of most development economists)-real income is not even across districs or within districts due to the differential access and cost of food grains.

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