Food = Nutrition, nature and livelihoods

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 makes 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 huge challenges 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 many millions of Indians still eat frugal, but still nutritious, home-cooked meals with local ingredient. But this is because people are poor. The question and challenge are 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 powerful industry to take over the most essential of our life business — of eating. 

We need also to understand that eating bad is about 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. 

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 business. What survives is what we do not need — large agribusiness. 

But 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 Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) is sitting on two crucial regulations — that it published over a year ago — to regulate labelling “junk” food and to guide schools on the food menu that is both nutritional and hygienic. 

This is clearly because of pressure from the powerful and organised processed food industry, which does not want front-of-the-pack labelling that will tell consumers how much sugar, salt or fat their product contains in relation to what we should be consuming every day. The objective of this draft notification was to ensure that we as consumers were told that gulping down a bottle of our favourite soft drink, for instance, would mean consuming two days’ quota of sugar. Or that next time we serve children their instant noodles, it would mean that the rest of the day has to be minimal in salt — in fact it has to be boiled vegetables. The draft notification on labelling, for the first time, required information on the amount of salt, sugar and fat in relation to what the recommended dietary allowance is. It would provide us the knowledge to make informed choices as consumers. But this is too inconvenient for industry, which thrives on making food that is junk and without nutrition.

This is not all. 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. 

We need 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

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel