When farmers started their protest on the Delhi border ten months ago, their top allegation was that the new farm laws herald domination of the corporate sector on food production. The government denied this off-hand, but now this charge rings increasingly accurate. For example, the central government released a draft proposal to mandatorily fortify rice, milk, and edible oils this year. If accepted, these rules will likely chase other staples consumed in India.
The fortification route to good health is not a healthy or economical way to pursue nutrition goals. Social and scientific studies indicate that nutritional levels fall when food is fortified. However, big business interests are served when food items get infused with nutrients through industrial processes. The Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) director recently said in the context of the mid-day meal scheme (supervised feeding) that nutrition levels among children improved even after de-worming, without fortifying the rice they consume. She said the individual benefit of fortification is not fully understood in India yet as independent scientific studies have not been conducted.
The Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture or ASHA Kisan Swaraj, a collective of about 400 organisations that promote natural or organic farming and healthy food has written two letters endorsed by around 170 people including economist Jayati Ghosh and farm activist Kavitha Kuruganti to the government. One of these letters urges the Food Standards and S Authority of India (FSSAI) to “stick to current and evolving independent science which is questioning reductionist approaches to complex problems”. They say that given India’s food and health situation, isolated and artificial introduction of specific nutrients will not solve the malnutrition problem. They have alerted the government to possible serious health problems if food is fortified instead of changing how food is grown and processed. “A meta-analysis of data from several rice eating countries shows that rice fortified with iron, vitamin A, or folic acid made no difference to anemia and little difference to Vitamin A deficiency,” they wrote.
Added nutrients cannot replace a healthy, affordable and balanced diet for any section of the population. Moreover, industrialised production of ‘nutrient added’ foods takes food processing from smaller and cottage units to big businesses. This is because mandatory fortification will require large units to process great quantities of food. The authors say in their letter to the government, “An indicative cost of producing rice through fortification for a medium-sized mill is Rs 3.2 crore (as mentioned in Pilot Scheme Fortification of Rice and its Distribution under Public Distribution System).”
The nutrition and farming experts have raised disturbing questions about the evolving food systems. First, valuable nutrients are extracted from foodgrains, creating excessively polished wheat or rice. Then, the nutrients extracted during the polishing get introduced into other food items. For example, the chaff removed while processing dry grain is introduced into biscuits for example, and called a fortification. Other parts of the grain, such as wheat germ, are introduced to heavily processed food items, as an “added nutrient”.
All of this boils down to removing and reintroducing by-products and lost nutrients into packaged food, which is done at an additional cost. It, therefore, means increasing the cost of food. It also means giving opportunities for super-profits to big business. One, removing the nutritious outer layers of food grains is a process that requires the use of machinery, which adds to the cost of the end product while reducing the cost of labour. This is how the processing of food and its fortification reaches economies of scale. Consumers then pay to have nutrition removed and reintroduced into food. It would be far better to introduce indigenous varieties of staples that are known for their nutritional value.
Farmers and agricultural organisations have been exploring direct contact with consumers to increase their income. Dairy farmers often supply directly to consumers. Many self-help groups work on small-scale processing and value-addition for crops. Mandatory fortification will hurt them all economically.
The government has also rolled out a palm oil plantation exercise to hike edible oil production in India and reduce imports. Palm oil trees are a non-traditional source of aninexpensive edible oil. Palm oil scores much lower on nutrition and health standards than traditional native oil varieties, but it seems corporate-led marketing will try to make up for this by promoting fortification, lower costs, or other presumed benefits. India’s food security concerns have made it the largest importer of edible oils.
Palm oil plantations in the Northeast and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands have sparked concerns for environmental degradation that large-scale edible oil plantations cause. Senior scientists also warn against introducing exotic and invasive palm oil trees in biodiversity-rich areas. Palm oil plantations use more water than other varieties of oilseed, increase soil erosion, and their processing causes pollution.
Another instance of big business disrupting food systems is the recent problems of apple growers in Himachal Pradesh. Many orchard owners in the state recently demanded a Minimum Support Price for orchard produce and blamed a leading business house for a Rs. 16 per kilo fall in apple prices compared with last year. They said this dip encouraged other purchasers to cut their offer prices. Earlier, tomato farmers in villages in the Solan district suffered after a leading company supplied them with poor quality seeds.
For all these reasons, farmers are right if they feel vindicated about their protests against the new farm laws, which began in Delhi, Haryana and Punjab last year.
The writer is honorary convener, Campaign to Protect Earth Now. The views are personal.