Down to Earth - - EDITOR’S PAGE -

WHAT SO­CI­ETIES eat re­flects their po­si­tion on the HAT SO­CI­ETIES moder­nity tra­jec­tory. Poorer coun­tries have health prob­lems be­cause of lack of food. Then as peo­ple get rich, they end up los­ing the health ad­van­tage of food avail­abil­ity. They eat pro­cessed food that is high in salt, sugar and fat, which make them obese and ill. It is only when so­ci­eties get very rich that they re­dis­cover the ben­e­fits of eat­ing real food and value sus­tain­abil­ity.

In In­dia, iron­i­cally, it is hap­pen­ing all at once. We have a huge chal­lenge of mal­nour­ish­ment and now a grow­ing bat­tle with the bulge and its as­so­ci­ated dis­eases, di­a­betes and hy­per­ten­sion. But we also have an ad­van­tage: we still have not lost our cul­ture of real food. The nutri­tion, na­ture and liveli­hood con­nec­tion still ex­ists as In­di­ans eat lo­cal, nu­tri­tious, home-cooked meals, which are more than of­ten fru­gal. But this is be­cause we are poor. The ques­tion is whether we can con­tinue to eat healthy meals sourced from bio­di­verse na­ture and built on rich culi­nary cul­tures even as we get rich. This is the real test.

But to do this, we must get food prac­tices right. We must un­der­stand that it is not nec­es­sary or ac­ci­den­tal that the richer so­ci­eties tend to lose the health ad­van­tage be­cause of bad food. It is be­cause of the food in­dus­try, and it is be­cause gov­ern­ments have stopped reg­u­lat­ing in favour of nutri­tion and na­ture. Quite sim­ply, they have al­lowed pow­er­ful in­dus­try to take over the most es­sen­tial of our life busi­nesses—eat­ing.

We also need to un­der­stand that eat­ing bad is about chang­ing prac­tices of agri­cul­ture, so that busi­ness be­comes in­te­grated and in­dus­trial. This model is built on sup­ply­ing cheap food, with high re­source and chem­i­cal in­puts.

For the past few years, the Cen­tre for Science and En­vi­ron­ment (cse)—where I work—has tested pes­ti­cides in bot­tled wa­ter and then colas, then trans-fat in ed­i­ble oil, an­tibi­otics in honey and most re­cently, an­tibi­otic residue in chicken. These tests have shaken con­sumers, and the In­dian gov­ern­ment has acted. It has brought in more strin­gent stan­dards for pes­ti­cide residues in these foods, im­proved reg­u­la­tion of pes­ti­cide sur­veil­lance; agreed (re­luc­tantly) to reg­u­late trans-fat, adopted near-zero an­tibi­otic stan­dard for honey and, most re­cently, banned the use of an­tibi­otics as growth pro­mot­ers in poul­try.But all this is not enough.

We need a model of agri­cul­tural growth that will value lo­cal good food pro­duc­tion and not have to first “chem­i­calise” and then learn bet­ter. This is dif­fi­cult. But this is what needs to be done so that we can have both nutri­tion and liveli­hood se­cu­rity.As yet, the food safety busi­ness is de­signed to fo­cus on hy­giene and stan­dards.But reg­u­la­tion needs food in­spec­tors, so the cost of sur­veil­lance in­creases. Iron­i­cally, in this model, what goes out of busi­ness is what is best for our body and health: small farm­ers and lo­cal food busi­ness. What sur­vives is what we do not need: large agribusi­ness.

Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, we need to pro­tect against bad food. Gov­ern­ments can­not say that eat­ing pro­cessed food is about choice. Gov­ern­ments can­not stand by and watch as in­dus­try uses mil­lions of dol­lars to ca­jole, per­suade and se­duce con­sumers to eat what they know is junk and un­healthy. The first is to ban or at least se­verely re­strict the avail­abil­ity of ul­tra-pro­cessed food—high in salt, sugar and fat—in schools. Se­condly, peo­ple need to be in­formed about what they are eat­ing.To do this, la­belling on food should spec­ify how much fat, sugar or salt it con­tained in re­la­tion to our daily diet. Thirdly, gov­ern­ments need to reg­u­late the pro­mo­tion and advertising of un­healthy junk food. Most im­por­tantly, celebrity endorsement— from cricket to film icons—should not be al­lowed. But this is eas­ier said than done. The in­dus­tri­al­is­ing world is the favoured des­ti­na­tion for this busi­ness and it is our turn to be turned into food zom­bies.

The way ahead then is all of the above and more.In In­dia, we also need to celebrate our rich food cui­sine, which is built on the in­cred­i­ble ar­ray of colours, flavours, spices and di­ver­sity of na­ture. We need to know that if bio­di­ver­sity dis­ap­pears in the wild, we will lose the food wealth on our plates. Food will be­come im­per­sonal.It will be­come a ster­ile pack­age de­signed for uni­ver­sal size and taste. This is what is hap­pen­ing to­day, where we eat plas­tic food from plas­tic cans.

cse’s recipe book First Food re­joices in the con­nec­tion be­tween what we eat and why we eat it. If we lose the knowl­edge and cul­ture of our lo­cal cuisines, then we lose more than their taste and smell.We lose life.We lose our to­mor­row.

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