Storm In Maggi’s Cup

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As the controversy over Maggi — Nestlé’s nutritionally empty noodle snack — gains momentum and Nestlé pulls Maggi from shelves in India, Nestlé’s CEO, Paul Bulcke asserted, “The popular snack was safe, passing every independent test ordered by the company.” Independent tests ordered by the company? If Nestlé’s objective was food safety, Maggi noodles would not have lead or the multitude of other industrial ingredients that cannot be considered food. Sadly, that is not the case. Nestlé’s objective, aligned with every global multinational jockeying for position to control more and more of our food market, is profits — even if that means compromising consumers’ health.

The Maggi controversy is a symptom of what happens to our food when global corporations take over. There are three sectors in the food systems where corporations are entering in a big way — seed and food production, distribution of food or trade and processing.

While the laws that govern these aspects of our food system may seem to be written to protect consumers, they become tools for these corporates to expand, often at the cost of local, artisanal alternatives that are safer, tastier and healthier.

At the international level, the World Trade Organisation laws that have forced entry of global corporations into the Indian food system are the agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (Trips), the intellectual property laws, agreement on agriculture, and the sanitary and phytosanitary agreement (SPS).

Until corporate globalisation forced India’s food and agriculture policies to change, most of the food in India was processed at the household and cottage level.

In fact, food processing was reserved for the small-scale sector, especially the khadi and village industries for reasons of employment and food safety.

And food processing was largely women’s expertise. Lijjat Papad, Induben’s Khakhra, Navdanya’s Mahila Anna Swaraj are examples that have survived the wave of globalisation.

The junk food industry of the West succeeded in creating a health crisis there. Similarly, it also succeeded in shutting down India’s abundant indigenous small-scale food processing industries.

Artisanal processing is now making a comeback worldwide because of issues of safety, quality and health associated with an industrial food system.

People have started laying an emphasis on the source of their food. However, in India, we seem to be in a time warp. At a time when the world is waking up to local, artisanal food systems, we are destroying our rich heritage, culture and economy of food. Food processing has been de-reserved and special incentives are being given to the food processing industry. A special ministry of food processing has been created to facilitate this transformation from local and artisanal to global and industrial.

Chips made in a local shop like Hot Chips are better than the ones packaged by PepsiCo, which exploits their contract farmers, often paying them as low as 50 paise per kg of their produce. “Vadis” have been replaced by “Nutri Nuggets” — a byproduct of the solvent oil extraction industry. “Bikaneri Bhujia” is not made fresh by 50,000 women in Bikaner anymore; it’s made in factories with chemicals, additives and preservatives because industrial food system has no room for “fresh” food.

The richness and diversity of India’s food culture is amazing. We have to decide whether to become a nation of food diversity, high employment in producing quality food and low risks of food safety? Or should we follow the US and become a “Fast Food Nation”, thoughtlessly stuffing junk into our mouths?

Sadly, the government policies initiated by the United Progressive Alliance government, continuing under the National Democratic Alliance government are giving privileges to the junk food industry.

During the Supreme Court hearings (under the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954) on non-permissible additives such as phosphoric acid and anti-freeze in Coca Cola, the lawyer for Coca Cola pulled out a bunch of papers saying the PFA was being replaced by the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006, and the PFA will not be applicable. Coca Cola knew because it had a hand in shaping the law which would wipe out all our street foods, small dhabas and all our artisanal processing, and with it destroy millions of livelihoods and lives, and fresh and quality food.

Fresh hot food is always safe. It is the water that is not. And municipalities and governments have failed to ensure clean drinking water to every citizen. The lack of safe water is being used to criminalise and ban our street foods under the pretext of food safety. In Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, street food vendors are guaranteed safe water. Local food is celebrated and not criminalised. And this is what is needed in India — a little more pride in our own food.

Lead-laden Maggi is a wake-up call. Firstly, it’s a reminder for the government of its role and responsibility in regulating corporations to ensure that public health and safety are not compromised. This is important in the present climate of deregulation of actions of large corporations and criminalisation of the daily activities of ordinary citizens, whether it is the sugarcane juice seller or the rajma-chawal stand that provides affordable and safe food to the daily office-goers. It is extremely important that communities that are served by street food rally in their support. Like we have a participatory guarantee system for organic food, we should create a participatory guarantee system for street food, including street “chefs” and those who can vouch for their safety, quality and work with them to get access to clean water and hygienic spaces.

The second reason why the Maggi controversy is an opportunity for India is that it can help our society from becoming a junk food nation. We need to know our food and we need a nationwide movement for food and nutrition literacy. There’s a need to understand that corporations, like Nestlé and Coca Cola do not care for people’s health. In the US, they have joined Monsanto to prevent citizens from having GMO labelling and have sued the state of Vermont for passing a labelling law. The right to know what is in your food is our fundamental right and the duty of the government. The right to know is a pillar of food democracy.

Vandana Shiva is a philosopher, environmental activist, and eco feminist.Shiva, currently based in Delhi, has authored more than 20 books and over 500 papers in leading scientific and technical journals. She was trained as a physicist and received her Ph.D. in physics from the University of Western Ontario, Canada. She was awarded the Right Livelihood Award in 1993. She is the founder of Navdanya http://www.navdanya.org/

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