How healthy is the food that you eat?
Producing healthy food, instead of producing food surpluses that big corporations thrive trading on, is the kind of food transformation that the world should be actually looking at
Senator Jon Tester, a third generation farmer from Montana in United States, has asked an interesting question. He wanted to know whether more wheat varieties are really healthy for the people, and is anyone studying it.
In response, the director of Food Safety and Nutrition at the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Dr Susan Mayne, said they don't have the resources to study that. In my understanding, the question posed by Senator Tester is fundamental, and especially in the light of the continuing debate on how to address nutritional security, also becomes exceptionally crucial.
Award-winning US journalist Helena Bottemiller Evich, who reports on food policy, brought this to light on Twitter; and in her response says this gets to a bigger issue though – agriculture and human health/ nutrition research are often very disconnected. Although, many believe that this kind of research would not be cost effective, but forget what is more important is to feed the world with safe and nutritionally-rich food, lest we forget that food is actually a medicine. Numerous reports have shown how the food we eat is actually becoming hollow, devoid of adequate nutritional content. Producing healthy food, instead of producing food surpluses that big corporations thrive trading on, is the kind of food transformation that the world should be actually looking at.
Considering what the US Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack, proudly announced on twitter the other day: "At US Department of Agriculture, our vision for the future is an equitable, climate-smart agricultural economy that protects our land, forests and water, improves the health, nutrition, and quality of life of all Americans, helps rural communities thrive, and feeds the world," the emphasis on health, nutrition and quality of life cannot be simply glossed over. Research programmes can be easily re-initiated to evaluate the health impacts of popularly grown wheat and rice varieties to begin with, and as a suggestion redesigning the research priority of the international agricultural research centres, governed by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), should help. The USDA as well as big agricultural research programmes in several other countries can be tagged to shift the research focus accordingly.
The question of costs comes only with intent. If we can dole out hundreds of billions of dollars every year in tax concessions to the rich and elite, I see no reason why research cannot be directed at the basic human right: to ensure healthy and nutritious food for everyone. Since the days of the economic meltdown in 2008-09, the world has already printed surplus money to the tune of $25 trillion. Let a part of the quantitative easing programme – the surplus money that central banks in several rich and emerging economies print year after year – be directed to support such crucial and of course more relevant research programmes.
When I say producing healthy food, I don't mean using genetic modification to produce Golden Rice. While the debate on genetic engineering and its impact on human health remain inconclusive, the question that Senator Tester posed actually wants us to move beyond the rhetoric – as well as the answers – provided by the agri-business industry. If the industry prescriptions were so relevant and appropriate, there was no need for Senator Tester to make a statement that has in a limited way stirred the hornet's nest. It is no use producing crop varieties which are nutritionally inferior, maybe barring a few exceptions, and later fortifying them with certain essential minerals. Fortification is an industrial solution to partially address the deeper crisis of hidden hunger. While in the short term the industry will walk away after amassing profits, the society will only learn of the implications arising from its forced use, whether healthy or unhealthy, in the years to come.
All things considered, academic research is increasingly industry sponsored. They produce the same research conclusions that the industry wants them to. Take the case of Bt cotton, the genetically modified strains cotton varieties, that were aggressively promoted a few years back in India. Years after its introduction and after the seed industry made hefty profits, the problem remains where it existed earlier. Resistance to the devastating pink bollworm insects began in 2013-14 and since then it has spread to various parts of the cotton growing belt. This year, in Punjab, nearly the entire early sown crop has been affected. While all these years seed industry had marketed the next generation of GM seeds, the insect problem still persists. A few years back, a number of cotton farmers had committed suicide after a severe insect attack, which predominantly had remained confined to GM crop varieties. Traditional cotton varieties had largely escaped the attack.
The point I am trying to make is why agricultural scientists can't instead look for environmentally-safe and time-tested alternatives, which can at least withstand the insect infestation for the long run. It is all a question of priorities, and the need to move away from an ideological research direction, which relies more on what the industry prescribes. At least, public sector universities (not forgetting that many research programmes are industry sponsored) could have looked for appropriate solutions. I am talking of the keet pathshala approach, popularly called as Nidana model in Haryana, where predatory insects are used to control cotton pests. Just because this technology is not industry-sponsored, our universities have not been comfortable talking about it.
Coming back to the question of developing healthy crop varieties, most high-yielding wheat varieties for instance are nutritionally weak. This is essentially because when scientists breed crops to increase its yield potential, plant nutrition goes down. Technically speaking, high yield is inversely proportionate to plant nutrition. To explain, the drop in nutrition levels is so much that the high-yielding new wheat varieties have seen a steep fall in copper content, an essential trace mineral, by as much as 80 per cent, and some nutritionists ascribe this to a rise in cholesterol-related incidences world over.
Nevertheless, as is often said, you are what you eat. A hollow diet will mean more of empty calories, derived from sugar and fat, to fill the gap. The development strategy from 'farm to fork' therefore should aim at getting it first right at the farm level. This means plant breeding has to be re-prioritised to cater to human health, which also means developing varieties that are responsive to cultivation practices that are environmentally safe.
(The author is a noted food policy analyst and an expert on issues related to the agriculture sector. He writes on food, agriculture and hunger)