World Food Day ( October 16 ) may be just the right time to reconsider several highly controversial decisions taken in recent times which will create several avoidable problems in food and farming sectors.
The Union Food and Public Distribution Minister Sh. Piyush Goyal said whle addressing a press conference in Shimla ( lead news in Amar Ujala dated 26 September, 2021) that all ration depots of the country will be given fortified rice by 2024. This comes on top of wheat flour and salt being already fortified in many parts of the country, and announcements having already been made for fortification of milk and edible oils.
This fortification with several artificial nutrients has already been criticized by several experts. A much better approach would be improve existing processing technologies which remove invaluable natural nutrients from rice, edible oil and other staple food products in huge amounts. Excess of important nutrients like iron can also lead to serious health problems, and with the kind of all-round food fortification taking place now ( in addition to directly given supplements) this very real danger has appeared now.
For example, a recent review published in The Indian Express ( A wrong recipe for India, 28 August, 2021) written by two experts Anura Kurpad and Harshpal Singh Sachdev says, “ When the iron intake excceeds 40 mg./day, the risk of toxicity goes up. The unabsorbed iron that remains in the gut can wreak havoc among the beneficial bacteria in the large instentine.” Such excess iron, the authors of this timely review state, causes oxidative stress, and more seriously, is implicated in diabetes and cancer risk.
Money is needed for protecting health. Why are scarce resources being spent on endangering health? The least the government can do at this critical juncture is to call a conference of unbiased independent experts who have not yet sold their soul to big businss interests. Let us hear their voice, their collective opinion on this issue before it is too late.
In all honesty have all implications and evidence been considered carefully? Here what we are seeing is reductionist technology at its worst, wasting scarce resources and endangering public health at the same time. What has happened is due to the pressure of big business interests. Food fortification mechanisms and organizations have been set up whose only agenda appears to be to take forward fortification more and more regardless of its actual impacts. Hence carefully argued, well-referenced dissents sent to authorities have not led to desirable corrections in these highly distorted policies.
As this fortification leads to food processing being done more by big business interests and smaller units have lesser capacity to handle this, mandatory food fortfication inevitably leads also to domination of food processing by big agribusiness interests while the need is exactly the opposite of handing over most of the food processing to village based units, as suggested by Mahatma Gandhi. The authorities are now moving in exactly the opposite direction of the Gandhian path, while claiming to pay lip service to the great man.
If present trends continue , very soon there will be hardly any role left for smaller scale food processing of the most important food crops like rice and oilseeds. As the government has already declared its clear intention of developing the edible oil sector on the basis of palm oil, already the traditional oilseeds and their smaller-scale processing, the source of good quality edible oils in the country, are threatened. Actually this is just the right time to rise for protecting the traditional oilseeds of the country as well as their small-scale, cottage-scale processing units, and the World Food Day should be a reminder of our duty to protect the invaluable food heritage of the country. Farmers are already in the 11th month of their struggle for resisting big business domination of our farming and food systems, and they deserve wider support for this.
At a time when pastures are declining and oilcake supply is getting reduced with edible oil sector shifting more to palm oil, any step towards mandatory milk fortification will further reduce the prospects of indepndent small-scale dairy farmers in the country. The authorities do not correct the basic problems of small dairy farmers in the form of rising costs of feeding animals and instead go in for regulations which harm the small dairy farmers.
Similarly while bees are suffering great harm in the natural environs because of heavy use of chemical pesticides and other factors, the authorities have been boasting of their efforts to increase honey production in a big way. Let us not forget that the base of sustainable farm and food production of all kinds can only be protected by protecting environment and by opting for ecologically protective methods. But big business interests are not interested in sustainability and environment protection, their interest is firstly in big profits and secondly in increasing their control over the food and farming system.
By increasingly opting for the big-business driven agenda in the food and farming sectors, the authorities are unable to protect the interests of environment protection, of rural livelihoods as well as health of people. It is time to stand up for protecting health, environment and livelihoods, while exposing at the same time the unholy nexus of big business, multinational companies, technocrats and authorities. The World Food Day is a good time to remind us of our responsibilities towards our people, our farm animals, our environment and our food heritage.
Bharat Dogra a journalist and author, is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Protecting Earth for Children and Man Over Machine ( Gandhian Ideas For Our Times).