When you grab a sandwich or stop for a Pepsi on your way from home or the gym or wherever, do you give even a single thought to what your purchase is going to do (besides the sale for the shop)? Well it is time we do.
Think of the following paradigm. You, and several million people like you have changed your eating habits, and probably now eat the wondrous choices available to us on the gleaming shelves of our super markets. Most of these are what eco warrior Vandana Shiva calls ‘industrial leftovers”, foods made to look and feel different but made from five or six different things well suited to the agro businesses. Yes, most of what we eat today as packaged goods – be it biscuits, colas, pizzas, cakes, mayonnaise, ketchup, noodles, sauces and soups – are reconstituted from just a few things – soya, corn, sugar, palm and starch. Like the fashion model on the ramp, these products are changed and metamorphosize into a variety of shapes and textures and sizes and tastes but they are in fact the same stuff. So what does this do to farmers? Large corporations demand mono farming because high production needs chemicals, and these are different for different crops. Monoculture thus yields the highest results from their point of view. The farmer is induced into this and soon the chemicals and the monoculture kill the fertility of her land. She puts in more and more chemicals and the yield is less and less. The output is no longer cost effective. Debts mount. The ultimate out is suicide.
Think of another paradigm. Soon after Independence the PDS system was set up and decided to offer fair price grain – rice and wheat. Farmers started changing to these two crops as they at least were assured of off take. The lesser crops – ragi, bajra, jowar – all of which were water efficient and much more nutritious ,started falling off farmers’ fields. So did pulses because they too were not being bought for the PDS. As a result water tables started falling and irrigated crops replaced rain fed ones. And pulses, the main protein for most Indians, started being consumed less. Second result? Malnutrition, even amongst the well to do. And the PDS continues to buy just wheat and rice, and pulse and jowar production continues to fall ( although this year there is a slight rise), and water tables continue to fall and people continue being malnourished.
Our diet today is mostly polished grains devoid of nutrition, white bread, white sugar, white rice, processed grains, preserved vegetables, or deep fried foods. The resultant health trends for the country, and especially for the young, are terrifying. Today the fastest growth in heart problems is amongst the under 40s. Children of 7 and 8 get adult diabetes. Close to one fifth of our urban kids are overweight and many amongst these are also malnourished. We are the diabetes capital of the world and will soon have more than 73 million people with the disease. Blood pressure is rising fast. All these life style diseases are directly related to what we put into our mouths. And that is indirectly related to what the farmer grows, how she does, how low the water table is, and how much our food is going to eat into our budget. Yet we have five different Ministries dealing with each of these aspects as though they are singular issues. The Ministry of Women and Child is concerned about their health. The environment Ministry is concerned about the water tables. The Ministry of Health is wondering what to do to pay for the increased burden of life style diseases and the huge sums needed to combat these. The Ministry of Agriculture is pushing cash crops rather than food grains. The Ministry of Civil Supplies is trying to buy more wheat and rice. And the PMO laments farmer suicides. But do they realize that the issues are related and that planning together might solve or at least alleviate the overall problem? No.
Meanwhile in Gujarat the powers that be are not concerned about the rapidly falling food grain production. After all we can all eat BT cotton if need be!
But what about our own purchase decisions? As nutritionist Dr Vijaya Venkat says, “Eat local, fresh, ethical, ecological, timely, seasonal”. If that seems impossible to find, I suggest starting a kitchen or balcony garden. That will be a worth while first step. And if you must buy shiny packaged food - read the fine print.
March 27th, 2011, DNA