Bending backward for good food

We need to make the connection between what we eat and why we eat it. Because if we lose the knowledge and culture of our local cuisines then we lose more than their taste and smell. We lose life.

By Sunita Narain
Published: Wednesday 13 March 2019
Illustration: Tarique Aziz

Poor 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 a 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 exists, as millions of Indians still eat frugal but nutritious, home cooked meals with local ingredient. But this is because people are poor. The real test is if we can eat healthy meals sourced from biodiverse nature built on rich culinary cultures even as we get rich.

To do this, we must get food practices right. We must understand that it is not necessary, nor accidental, that the richer societies tend to lose the health advantage because of bad food. It is because of food industry and it is because governments have stopped regulating in favour of nutrition and nature. Quite simply, they have allowed the industry to take over the most essential business of our life — 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 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 what needs to be done so that we can have 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, so cost of surveillance increases. Ironically, in this model, what goes out of business is what is best for our bodies and 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. They cannot stand by and watch as industry uses millions of dollars to cajole, persuade and seduce consumers to eat, what they know is unhealthy junk food.

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

This is clearly because of pressure from the powerful 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 consume every day. The objective of this draft notification was to ensure that we as consumers were told that gulping down a bottle of soft drink, for instance, would mean consuming two days’ quota of sugar. Or that the 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 the recommended dietary allowance. It would provide us knowledge to make informed choices. 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 built on the colour, flavour, spice and diversity of nature. We need to know that if biodiversity disappears in the wild, we will lose the 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 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.

This editorial will be published in Down To Earth's print edition, dated 16-31 March, 2019

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