Oct 27, 2011

The hidden nexus: food, health and insurance industry

The other day, travelling from Chandigarh to New Delhi I stopped to meet some farmers on the way. Sitting under a mango tree a little outside Ambala, I heard Rajender Dahiya, a small farmer; tell me proudly of his visit to an upstream coffee house. “I spent Rs 160 for a cup of coffee. I really enjoyed it.” He didn’t stop here. “I intend to take my wife also to the coffee shop one of these days,” he said, adding ‘I love the taste.”

I can understand how difficult it must be for Rajender Dahiya to shell out Rs 160 for a cup of coffee, which at home may not cost him more than Rs 10. But then, such is the power of marketing blitz that none of us can escape its fury. Agribusiness knows how to tickle our taste buds, and thereby turn us into addicts: beautiful packaging and aggressive marketing skills dictating new developing food habits; ending up by literally force feeding us with what the industry wants us to be fed with; and by the time we realise it our traditional local and nutritious foods are out of our plate.   

Changing food habits have brought the entire food system – from farm to the fork – under a monopolistic industrial food system.

I am therefore not surprised to find food movement in the United States – comprising NGOs, community groups and family farmers – joining the non-violent Occupy Wall Street protesters. As the American activist Eric Holt Gimenez says in his essay ‘Occupy the Food system’ the relationship between hunger, lifestyle diseases and the unchecked power of the Wall Street investors and corporations runs deep and strong. The urgent need is to connect the dots. Let me try.

The connection is however clearly visible. “Big US companies lobbying hard to enter India,” screams a headline. The large US-based multinationals queuing up to grab a pie of India’s robust economic growth includes Wal-Mart Stores, Starbucks and financial services majors Morgan Stanley. Some other technology giants like Pfizer, Dow Chemicals, and telecom major AT&T are seeking support to further strengthen their Indian businesses. Already some food majors, being driven out of America because of the campaign launched against growing obesity among children by the US first lady Michelle Obama, have recently made massive investments in food business in India.   

All this is happening at a time when India had laid out a red carpet for food processing. Planning Commission had provided for Rs 1.50 lakh crore for the food processing industry in the 10th and 11th Plan periods. Massive subsidy is being doled out for setting up food processing units. If you have Rs 50,000 in your pocket and don’t know what to do with it, says a radio advertisement, just meet your banker and explore the possibility of setting up a processing unit.

The backward linkages do not end here. The Ministry of Food and Agriculture has been facilitating the process by amending and suitably modifying the national policies to suit industry interests. Massive subsidy is being poured in for the supply of hybrid seeds, farm equipment, chemical inputs and farm credit. This in reality is the ‘farm to the fork model’ wherein the government extends all help in rooting the industrial food systems. The banks, seed technology firms, manufacturing units, and the retail sector join in to propose cropping patterns, which the farmers are expected to adopt. Scientists also step in by repeatedly bemoaning that only 2 per cent of Indian foods are processed. Not telling that in the US, from where the industrial push comes from, ‘junk foods’ are being blamed for turning food into a killer. More than 4 lakh people die every year in America alone from obesity and its related ailments.

It all began with the advent of Green Revolution some 4 decades back. Agricultural research, farm policies, credit supply, subsidies and technology was woven in to promote high-yielding crop varieties which responded well to chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Since then, technology has come along with a financial package that lures farmers to shift to newer cropping patterns. Over the years, huge subsidy has been doled out to make chemical fertilisers more popular. But no subsidy has been given to organic manures, composting and green manure crops thereby making them economically redundant.

I have always wondered why the banks provided easy credit for exotic and cross-bred cattle breeds whereas no support came for the desi cows. More than 40 years after the White Revolution was ushered in, the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) has now realised the potential of the desi breeds of cows. It is now planning for a massive investment in developing improved pedigree bulls of desi breeds so as to shift the cattle breeding focus to improving the performance of native breeds. If only a corresponding subsidy and financial support was provided for building and improving the native breeds, millions of cows would not have been roaming on the streets. 

Similarly, the food processing industry banking on some of the big players has through a sustained campaign shifted the food habits to meet the industrial needs. White polished rice for instance replaced the highly nutritious red and parboiled rice. White sugar replaced brown sugar. Both these industrial products are now being faulted for the growing incidence of diabetes and other lifestyle diseases. But with the entry of big US food giants into India, the effort will be to wean away gullible consumers to more delectable food choices. In the US for instance, an average Wal-Mart store stocks more than 40,000 food products on its shelves, and no wonder the country is faced with a health epidemic.

The more the sale of unhealthy processed foods, the more is the gain to the economy. The more the processed and nutritionally poor products are sold, the more is the growth of medicines, wellness and thereby an upswing in the visits to hospitals. In other words, the growth of pharmaceutical industry is directly dependent upon the performance of the food industry. And more the pharmaceutical industry grows; the bigger is the share of health insurance industry in the economic pie. The future of food, health and insurance industry therefore are interlinked. Not surprising therefore to find the insurance sector in the US investing $ 2 billion every year in the food sector. The reason is obvious. The more the contaminated food, more is the gain for the insurance sector.

The rules and institutions governing food supply favour its monopoly control by corporations. World Bank/IMF, World Trade Organisation, Free Trade Agreements, and Wall Street define the regulations. The challenge is to delink food from the Wall Street. This can be achieved by building up sustainable alternatives, and also by reverting back to daily cooking and encouraging a healthy lifestyle. At a time when the world is once again at the doorstep of an impending food crisis, and with lifestyle diseases growing out of proportion, the time is ripe to bring about a change in food habits and more importantly the thinking that goes in restoring the pride in traditional foods and the natural farming system. The 99 per cent must wake up to the threat to their food. #   


Aravind Kumar said...

People have to be educated about this message. Unless this goes viral people will not think twice before biting into that juicy burger.

Anonymous said...

a good and thoughtful article
Anand Pyati

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