At a TV panel yesterday on food security I wasn't surprised when Amit Mitra, Secy General of the industry-lobby group FICCI, said that India ranks 66th among the 88 countries categorised in the IFPRI Global Hunger Index. This is happening at a time when 40 per cent of fruits and vegetables go waste due to improper storage and in transportation, and that too in a country which is the second biggest producer of vegetables.
This flawed arguement was very cleverly used to clamour for the urgent need to push in for food processing. Whether this will help in ensuring food security for the poor and have-nots is something that is very clearly ducked by the industry. No wonder, the Planning Commission is making available roughly Rs 1.50 lakh crores in the 10th and 11th Plan period for the food processing industry. It isn't therefore surprising when you hear radio advertisements telling you about Rs 50 lakh subsidy available if you set up a food processing plant.
When the issue was passed on to me, I made it abundantly clear that the statistical figure of 40 per cent existed when I was a student some 30 years back. I am sure ten years from now, we would still be quoting this data of 40 per cent wastage, with actually no body making an effort to find out whether the wastage has been reduced or increased. The figure of food loss is used by the industry to seek more subsidy, more funds. And the academicians, and the policy makers, ostensibly appalled by the extent of food wastage, and in their ognorance support the massive investment that is being made.
I was therefore happy when Swami Ramdev interjected and made it abundantly clear that the Patanjali Vidyapeeth in Haridwar had recently set up a food processing unit, probably one of the biggest in the country. But as someone who is actually engaged in food processing, it was revealing to learn that processed foods do not feed the poor and hungry. In fact, he said that the processed foods are expensive and therefore not an answer to the bigger question of feeding the country.
Only a few days, I was asked by a food processing publication to comment on Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee's Budget allocations for the food processing industry. Just to draw you back into what the Budget 2010 provided, Finance Minister did make a provision to set up 5 more food parks, and also provided some exemptions for the import of processing machinery. Fair enough.
The Finance Minister in my opinion has been more than kind to the food processing industry. He has allotted five food parks and given concessions on machinery for food processing equipments, which ofcourse would be welcomed by the industry. Considering the impact of the policies, I wonder how will it help in addressing the food challenge for the country. Now, I am aware that food waste has to be minimised, but why do it in the name of feeding the poor?
Often the industry quotes another statistics -- only 2 per cent of the food in India is processed, which is a pittance considering what the US and Europe does. This is something that I cannot digest. In fact, this is simply a misinformation campaign simply to hoodwink the gullible consumer to believe how urgent is the need to set up food processing plants.
Let us look at it dispassionately. In the Indian households most of the food is cooked and is processed at the home level. In other words, 100 per cent food is processed, the only difference being that it is done at the household level. The statistics that we quote are therefore misleading. If this food is not being processed by the industry, is there a problem? Does it mean that the processed food in the market would be more healthy and nutritious? If not, than why are we promoting a shift in our food cosumption habits and patterns just to expand the reach of the market?
In the US and Europe people increasingly rely on processed foods from the shops because they do not know how to cook. British food for instance is considered to be bland. In the OECD countries, the agri-business industry has over the years succeeded in building up the dependency for food supplied through shops. People have simply forgotten (and I am talking at the macro level) on how to cook at home and eat healthy.
I am therefore not surprised to know that in the US alone, more than than 4 lakh people die every year from obesity, and its related suffering. In other words, from eating the wrong food.
I am sure you will agree that there is no need for us to follow the US and European models and increase the sale of processed foods in the shops. There is no need for us to spread the faulty information and 'educate' the people (including the housewives) that they don't have to waste time in cooking, and that it is demeaning for the women to be in the kitchen. But yes, there is an increasing percentage of the neorich class that feels ashamed in spending enough time at home to cook, and it is this class or generation that suffers more from diabetes and heart-strokes.
With growing awareness over health issues, consumers in India (and elsewhere) should be directed to reduce their growing preference for processed foods. The other day, I picked up ready-to-serve paranthas from a departmental store in New Delhi. I had to throw them in the dustbin, they were so bad. I was amused to also find canned dal makhani on the supermarket shelves. Oh dear ! what an aweful taste (and I am not even talking about the harmful ingredients it carries). Please don't get me wrong. Some of you may find these products very useful, but I strongly feel that we need to educate the young on the advantages of cooking at home. It is not only economical, but also healthy and nutritious.
All industries thrive on subsidies and bailout packages. This is how the GDP goes up, and the Industrialists loot the State exchequer. I think the industry is capable of taking care of itself and does not need support or handholding from the government. The subsidy allotted for the food processing industry should be removed and instead it should be given to the farmers who are in any case dying. If the farmer welfare is given adequate consideration, the entire food chain would be safe. And if you and me shun processed foods, the industry will not be able to do damage to the present generation, and also save the future generations from the unhealthy and hazardous foods that are being marketed.
Swami Ramdev has already inspired the nation to take control of their own health in their own hands. We now have to extend this to the food that we consume. We have to take control of the food we eat. There is a need to build up a nationwide campaign on healthy cooking and healthy eating. As to the role the agri-business industry can play, I suggest we divert the attention of the food processing industry to focus on rampant food adulteration that prevails.
If the industry can somehow ensure that the raw material and the ingredients that we need for our daily consumption are safe and pure, believe me it would be no less than a revolution. At the same time, processing industry need not be always high tech and sophisticated in the manner that it bypasses some of the normal requirements that people have, like milk-based products (especially sweets) that are at present highly adulterated.
I am equally worried at the increasing dependence of the industry on imported fruit concentrates. If you import orange concentrate from Brazil/Chile and then provide juice in tetrapacks, this will not help reduce the 40 per cent fruits that go waste. In fact, the fruit wastage will increase. How can one justify that our own harvest of oranges/kinnows goes waste while the industry finds it convenient to import concentrates from abroad.