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Sunita Narain: Connecting with food

In current model of agricultural growth, what goes out is what is best for our bodies and our health - small farmers and local food businesses. What survives is what we do not need - large agribusinesses

Sunita Narain 

Sunita Narain

What it eats reflects a society's position on the modernity trajectory. Poorer countries have health problems because of the 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, it is happening all at once. We have the huge challenge of malnourishment - and now a growing battle with the bulge and its associated diseases of diabetes and hypertension. But we also have an advantage - we have still 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 and challenge is if we can continue to eat healthy meals that are sourced from bio-diverse 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 a powerful industry to take over the most essential of our life business - of eating.

We need also to understand that eating badly is about the changing practices of agriculture, so that business becomes integrated and industrial. This model is built on the model of supplying cheap food, with high resource and chemical inputs. So names change; but food goes from one chemical ingredient - pesticide, antibiotics - to another.

For the past few years, the Centre for Science and Environment - where I work - has tested pesticides in bottled water and then colas, then trans-fats 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-fats, adopted a 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. Not nearly enough.

The fact is that 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 as well as livelihood security. As yet, the food safety business is designed to focus on hygiene and standards. But regulations need food inspectors - and so the cost of surveillance increases. Ironically, in this model, what goes out of business is what is best for our bodies and our health - small farmers and local food businesses. What survives is what we do not need - large agribusinesses.

But simultaneously, we need to protect ourselves 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 food they know is junk and unhealthy.

The first step 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 contains in relation to our daily diet. Third, 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. 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 colour, flavour, spice 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.

First Food is our recipe book to rejoice this connection - to make the connection between what we eat and why we eat it. Because if 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.

The writer is at the Centre for Science and Environment
Twitter: @sunitanar

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First Published: Sun, June 21 2015. 22:46 IST