Make Food About Nutrition, Nature and Livelihoods

India, Rajasthan, Udaipur, boy selling spices at market
India, Rajasthan, Udaipur, boy selling spices at market

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 make them obese and ill. It is only when societies get very rich, that they rediscover the benefits of eating real food and value sustainability. Then it becomes difficult to reverse the cycle as the business of food takes over.

In my country -- 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, 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 Indians eat local, nutritious, home-cooked meals, which are more than often frugal. But this is because we are poor. The question and challenge is 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 favor 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.

For the past few years ago, my organisation has tested pesticides in processed food, then trans-fat in edible oil, antibiotics in honey and most recently antibiotic residue in chicken. These tests shook consumers, and Indian government acted. It has brought in more stringent standards for pesticide residues in processed food; agreed (reluctantly) to regulate trans-fat, adopted near-zero antibiotic standard for honey and most recently, banned the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in poultry. But all this is not enough. Not nearly enough.

The fact is that we need a model of agricultural growth that will value local good food production and not have to first "chemicalize" 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 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 food that is junk and unhealthy.

This is what the government committee set up to frame guidelines for junk food, of which I was a member, decided to do. We agreed that it was time that we should have a three-step approach to nutrition and food in the country. The first is to ban or at least severely restrict the availability of ultra-processed food -- high in salt, sugar and fat -- in schools. Secondly, we said that all this would not work unless people are informed about what they are eating. To do this, labelling on food should specify how much fat, sugar or salt it contained in relation to our daily diet. Third, governments need to regulate the promotion and advertising of unhealthy junk food. Most importantly, celebrity endorsement -- from cricket to film icons -- should not be allowed. In 2014, the Delhi High Court endorsed the report. It has now directed government to take action to reign in powerful junk-food interests.

But concern is growing. In 2014, the Indian finance minister, himself a diabetic, introduced a sugar tax on beverages -- calling sugar the new tobacco. Now the government is considering imposing a substantial "sin tax" on sugary drinks, which will make consumers rethink and business of bad-food shrink.

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.

First Food is our recipe book to rejoice this connection -- 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.

This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the EAT Foundation, in conjunction with the latter's inaugural EAT Stockholm Food Forum (Stockholm, June 13-14, 2016). The third EAT Stockholm Food brings together some of the world's brightest people in the fields of science, politics, business and civil society to shift food systems toward greater sustainability, health, security, and equity within the boundaries of our planet. To read all of the posts in the series, visit here. For more information about EAT Stockholm Food Forum, read here.