When business rules our kitchens

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

imageOnce again there is a food safety scare. A deadly strain of E coli bacterium has hit Germany, where it has taken the lives of 25 people and affected another 2,300 till date. German food inspectors on the trail of the source of contamination ha­ve as yet made two errors—blaming Spanish cucumbers and then organic bean sprouts—but no breakthrough.

The investigation will not lead anywhere because we are refusing to look where it matters. The fact is that something is seriously wrong with the way the world is producing food and even more with the way it is managing its regulations for safety. But we just don’t get it.

Let’s recap past food scares to understand the crisis and the response. In 2005, avian influenza hit the chicken we eat. The world went on a rampage, killing chickens and wild birds to contain the deadly virus spreading across the connected world. But nobody targeted the real problem—the nature of the modern world’s poultry business, which is highly vertically integrated and globalised, and produces factory chickens not food. In this business companies strive for lower cost of ­production because agribusiness requires scale and global reach. As a result, it is widely accepted, chicken-manufacturing practices are leaving the birds susceptible to diseases and consumers vulnerable to mutated viruses. This is an inconvenient truth.

So what did the world do? It went after the backyard poultry business. Vietnam, under pressure from international food inspectors, went as far as asking its people to convert to factory-style methods. Ironically, in the name of hygienic food the world ended up promoting the very nature of the business that was causing shock and shame.

Cut to 2009 when the next big food scare hit the world: Influenza A (H1N1) virus, formerly named swine flu. Across the developing world, pigs, important sources of food for the poor, were slaughtered. But mega hog-factories, run by powerful food giants, were not indicted for their toxics-rich practices. The modern factory uses everything from antibiotics and hormones to biocides and vaccines to grow pigs in highly concentrated and unhealthy environments. The nature of business was not questioned.

Worse, the food crisis allowed the big business to further concentrate its hold over the lucrative pork. Family farms went out of business because of tightened safety regulations and cost of surveillance.

In 2008, China was racked by milk contaminated with melanine, which killed babies. Next year the US was hit by salmonella in popular brands of peanut butter.

Food has become a dangerous business. Just consider how the food scare over E coli, which is confined to the city of Hamburg, has hit farmers and shaken consumers across Europe. The reason is that food is no longer a local or national business; it can be grown in one place, pack­ed in another country, shipped to yet another for proces­sing and then lifted to supermarket shelves across the globe. It is an anonymous business built to scale, hence profitable.

The world is now hooked on this model of churning out vast quantities of food at the lowest possible cost. Industry does not care if it compromises public health. What’s worse, food regulations, designed for environmental safety and public health, end up promoting this fundamentally flawed and fatal model of growing food.

The problem is we have designed regulations for food like for any factory product. The focus is on good manufacturing practices, which boils down to improving internal hygi­ene by donning white coats and hair nets, scrubbing factory floors and using plastic in packaging. This ends up driving out small producers and local food vendors. They cannot keep up with the cost of meeting tougher standards, inspectors and now certification.

In this way, bad food business thrives. Health suffers.

How, then, should it work? Cheap, mass-produced food, whi­ch forces farmers to cut corners and use intensive practices, cannot be the way to secure our health. Securing he­alth requires food regulators to see food as food, not business. It will mean drawing guidelines, which will incentivise food grown naturally and locally by small producers. It also means we pay more for food as consumers—or subsidise farmers for growing healthy and safe food.

This recognition is growing perhaps for the first time even in the US, the mecca of food business. In a recent article in Science leading academics have argued that the US must transform its agriculture, which has become environmentally and socially destructive. But it can do this only by transforming policies, particularly those that reward the consolidated agro-food industry’s thrust for large volumes of low-cost food, feed, fibre and fuel. This requires going back to the drawing board to invest once again in knowledge systems for agriculture that are driven by public interest and public funds.

I write this knowing well that we in India are succumbing to the definition of food that sells us the idea of modern lifestyle, which must begin by discarding the culture of locally grown, home-cooked and seasonal food. This is not accidental; this is a deliberate strategy to seduce us to be part of the food business that compromises our health for profit.

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  • "...we in India are

    "...we in India are succumbing to the definition of food that sells us the idea of modern lifestyle, which must begin by discarding the culture of locally grown, home-cooked and seasonal food. This is not accidental; this is a deliberate strategy to seduce us to be part of the food business that compromises our health for profit..."
    Agree with this totally. In the name of growth and economic development(aped from the West), we are losing our cultural attributes in matter of food and health - and ironically even the government is hell bent on promoting it. We see youngsters flocking the likes of McDonalds, and those working in the corporate world wholly dependent on all these industries for providing them with food! From a local independent food supply system, we are moving to a unreliable, dangerous, unhealthy wasteful - agriculture and food systems - which are prone to collapse in case of crisis. The problem lies with the way growth and development are defined - such centralization is actually termed as growth in economic opportunities when it is actually not.
    We need to recognize this inherent danger in these kind of systems - and work to avoid becoming a part of it. Fortunately, there are movements around it already - http://harmonist.us/2009/11/the-transition-movement/

    For a glimpse of how much food is wasted in America - http://harmonist.us/2010/12/on-food-waste-in-america/

    For the high cost of cheap food - http://harmonist.us/2010/07/the-high-cost-of-cheap-food/

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • An excellent article...on

    An excellent article...on slow poisoning the future by corporate sector..
    Even people in India have started believing that small agriculture no longer remains sustainable and they are selling land to larger groups. The animal stock is already sold by the propaganda in first green revolution and now the land.
    Farmers are going to be bonded labors in countries like India..

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • The question that we need to

    The question that we need to focus on is whether we want to sensationalise the issue and use big businesses as a whipping boy or whether we want to work on solutions. Without defending big businesses because I do agree that businesses CAN and MUST do more when it comes to ensuring the health of people and sustainability of the planet. I can make the counterpoint that how are we going to deal with the the fundamental issue of feeding 7 billion people and providing them with basic amenities - water, food, shelter with electrical connection? If big businesses should pack up and go, can the govt. or the civil society step in their place and solve the problems. It is very easy to point to problems but who is in charge of taking actions once a problem is found - it is very revealing that when the society as a whole is not in a position to take fast and corrective action, it leads me to believe that our societies have become so complex that we are now incapable of taking the right action even when we know them - that to me is a much dangerous situation because businesses, governments, common citizens are all jointly responsible for bringing us to this stage - reminds me of Jared Diamond's arguments in his book Why Societies Fail?

    Coming to the topic of food safety, when we are not sure if the watermelon or mango that we are buying contains harmful chemicals (steroids and carbides) and we are always worried about the negative impact on our health because of the food that we eat or the water that we drink, it is a very GRAVE situation. Who is to blame for this situation? Why can't the citizens of India get clean water from our taps that can be drunk without fearing for our health? If businesses capitalize on the opportunity that has been presented to them because a whole govt. dept. has failed to perform its job, it solves the drinking water issue partially (albeit at a higher cost and with negative environmental implications) but we create another environmental problem (proliferation of plastic bottles in a country with barely any recycling infrastructure), who is to blame for that? I can't describe how envious I become when I visit Europe and US - not because they are more "developed" but because common people have access to clean air, water, and now less contaminated food. Is this asking for too much while living in India?

    Let us not be myopic about these issues and just criticize because that will be useful in a very limited way. One solution is that the food processing industry can be highly regulated with all the checks in place but it will be serving only 10-20% of a country's population because they are the ones who will be able to afford it. Is that a better situation? Businesses are always under pressure to reduce prices because that is what the society wants. At the same time, it is a matter of survival for businesses and they are not in it for charity.

    So, either you propose a system with better checks and balances that reins in businesses or you propose an alternative solution where there is a readymade substitute. If none of them exist then government, businesses, and civil societies working together to improve the current situation is the way to go.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • I could not agree with you

    I could not agree with you more. Well said. Food no longer looks or acts like real food. I stopped drinking milk years ago-milk is processed liquid with vitamins added back in. Our food is killing us. Grow your own food and tend your garden so that you can tend your body.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • In context to your article, I

    In context to your article, I added an Article written by Dr. Suzuki, Canada.he is one of the most famous Environmentalist in Canada, although Geneticist by profession.

    Small farms may be better for food security and biodiversity :Dr. David Suzuki
    We often assume the only way to feed the world's rapidly growing human population is with large-scale industrial agriculture. Many would argue that genetically altering food crops is also necessary to produce large enough quantities on smaller areas to feed the world's people.

    But recent scientific research is challenging those assumptions. Our global approaches to agriculture are critical. To begin, close to one billion people are malnourished and many more are finding it difficult to feed their families as food prices increase. But is large-scale industrial farming the answer?

    Large industrial farms are energy intensive, using massive amounts of fossil fuels for machinery, processing, and transportation. Burning fossil fuels contributes to climate change, and the increasing price of oil is causing food prices to rise. Deforestation and ploughing also release tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing further to climate change. And industrial farms require more chemical inputs, such as pesticides and fertilizers.

    Agriculture also affects the variety of plant and animal species in the world. According to a review of scientific literature by Michael Jahi Chappell and Liliana Lavalle, published in the journal Agriculture and Human Values, agricultural development is a major factor in the rapid decline in global biodiversity.

    In their study - "Food security and biodiversity: can we have both?" - the authors note that agriculture, which takes up about 40 per cent of the world's land surface (excluding Antarctica), "represents perhaps the biggest challenge to biodiversity" because of the natural habitat that gets converted or destroyed and because of the environmental impacts of pesticide and fertilizer use and greenhouse gas generation from fossil fuel use.

    Large-scale agriculture also uses a lot of water, contributes to soil erosion and degradation, and causes oxygen-starved ocean "dead zones" as nitrogen-rich wastes wash into creeks and rivers and flow into the oceans.

    On top of that, despite the incredible expansion of industrial farming practices, the number of hungry people continues to grow.

    Concerns about industrial agriculture as a solution to world hunger are not new. As author and organic farmer Eliot Coleman points out in an article for Grist.org , in the 19th century when farming was shifting from small scale to large, some agriculturists argued "that the thinking behind industrial agriculture was based upon the mistaken premise that nature is inadequate and needs to be replaced with human systems. They contended that by virtue of that mistake, industrial agriculture has to continually devise new crutches to solve the problems it creates (increasing the quantities of chemicals, stronger pesticides, fungicides, miticides, nematicides, soil sterilization, etc.)."

    Volumes of research clearly show that small-scale farming, especially using "organic" methods, is much better in terms of environmental and biodiversity impact. But is it a practical way to feed seven billion people?

    Chappell and Lavalle point to research showing "that small farms using alternative agricultural techniques may be two to four times more energy efficient than large conventional farms." Perhaps most interesting is that they also found studies demonstrating "that small farms almost always produce higher output levels per unit area than larger farms." One of the studies they looked at concluded that "alternative methods could produce enough food on a global basis to sustain the current human population, and potentially an even larger population, without increasing the agricultural land base."

    This is in part because the global food shortage is a myth. The fact that we live in a world where hunger and obesity are both epidemic shows that the problem is more one of equity and distribution than shortage. With globalized food markets and large-scale farming, those with the most money get the most food.

    It's a crucial issue that requires more study, and the challenges of going up against a large industrial force are many, but it's hard to disagree with Chappell and Lavalle's conclusion: "If it is ... possible for alternative agriculture to provide sufficient yields, maintain a higher level of biodiversity, and avoid pressure to expand the agricultural land base, it would indicate that the best solution to both food security and biodiversity problems would be widespread conversion to alternative practices."

    We need to grow food in ways that make feeding people a bigger priority than generating profits for large agribusinesses.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • I agree fully. If in a farm

    I agree fully. If in a farm chicken are found to be contaminated, should we not kill them. Will they not reach somebody's table? So also with pigs, cucumbers etc.What has the big business and factories have to do with the spread of the disease unless they use the contaminated materialin their factory.
    Since of late Sunita Narain ( I admire her otherwise) has a habit of denouncing anything that is done by any big corporate. If they are doing something wrong let's point it out and go after them.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • The artical "when business

    The artical "when business rules.....Kitchen is a eye opner towards today s Food business.
    It s a fact that at the time of globalization ,where we are growing in different sectors ,the human life n health is under great risk..'cause of envoirnmantal damages,Pollution,Excess use of mobile,tinned food ,camicals etc...
    There is a need of awarness to control over such issues to make the world more GREEN and HEALTHY.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • A very provocative insight.

    A very provocative insight. Being in the same youth category, i completely agree to the fact that the exposure to food & food types today is way too different and very suceptible to change. It is actually gradually deteriorating the value of our traditional food culture & making methods. BUt then i think there are many other factors, which are behind all these. Our lifestyles, competetive markets ,Time consuming academic structures, rising income opportunities, increasing affordability & capacities to spend more, and many more .All this actually demands huge time investments. Given the scenario, the fast food concept suits the best. After all its the world of consumerism, where consumer is the king. Its a completely demand oriented market. No supply chain can ever even think of entering into the market, where the demand is low.
    So , ofcourse our policies, the entire " FUNDAMENTALLY FLAWED", food processing system plays a significant role in determining the benchmarks of the public health & safety, but then consumers, themselves, too are eqully responsible to make the market highly fragile and vulnerable to their own destruction.
    How many of us actually see the manfacturing and the expiry dates published on any food item, how many of us actually take efforts ot file a petition in consumer court, when confronted with any violation of norms?
    Unless and until the masses are aware of their actions and reactions, the revolution cannot b eexpected.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Congratulations on this

    Congratulations on this candid and hard on facts editorial. The Indian case is fast moving towards the designed food system. The Indian food safety authority is yet to wake up from its "Kumbhakarna sleep". In this whole episode the German Chancellor is reported to have called names to the Spanish farmers and citizens for unleashing this food infestation. Hope our PM will not resort to the same. But with the stupid recommendation of the IMG to allow FDI in food retail to contain food inflation India is in fact the most likely candidate for the next E. coli or other food borne epidemic.
    Two outcomes are guaranteed. Globally the move to voluntary standards that is rubber stamped at the world bodies like WTO's SPS committee and FAO being completely dominated by the factory farm advocates such food infestations will be a common occurance. The only antidote is home cooked food. One does not have to be tempted by the middle class bait of rising income. Health is precious and one has to merely check with the BPO employees in all metro towns how their health status is being ruined by the out of home food that is their survival package.
    Secondly, the production mode will shift to contract that will be death knell to the millions of small holder farmers. This outcome is ensured since the onus to prove safety effectively shifts to the producers under the factory farm production mode being forced onto Indian agriculture.
    It is time, as succinctly pointed by Sunita, to take our grandma's recipe more seriously. Home cooked food, locally produced seasonal food items and obeying nature's rules are a few of the small and firm steps we all can take.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply