Last year, when India stood tall in the global hall of fame for R K Pachauri being named a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize along with former US Vice President Al Gore, speaking to news agencies on the eve of receiving this prestigious award, Pachauri emphasized that reliance on technology alone wasn’t sufficient to keep the world cleaner. He was, of course, referring to the ways countries could cut CO2 emissions, following the example set by Norway. Simply put, industrial technology will have to yield more space to a sustainable approach that would propel real development for countries. Pachauri must have used the word ‘alone’ knowing very well for India, a country that looks at technology as a quick-fix solution to almost every ailment, a broader and more balanced strategy needs to be adopted. In the spirit of his mission he said, “We all have to adjust our way of life to minimise the looming threat.” Translates as, we need to re-evaluate methods and arrest the silent turmoil that is ongoing regarding our environment, health and lifestyle.
But think of it, does it need a Pachauri to tell us things are a bit off-track? The US doesn’t need a Gore to tell them what’s been going on with their environment, their food, and consequently, their health (Code red on that last one – obesity is the new enemy)? Or maybe it does. While unluckily for me, six year’s of stay in the United States has been fraught with the constant struggle to avoid cheap, abundant and bad food, industrially mass produced, luckily, 2006-07 has been a transition to local and organic food, to understanding my role in contributing to a cleaner environment, basically to understanding how the ‘karmic’ cycle of bad environment, bad eating and bad health works.
Let me backtrack to illustrate the last point.
Fat chance for health!
Within a week of the Pachauri-Gore sound bytes still dominating our media, I spotted a BBC story about dead fish surfacing in the river Brahmaputra in Guwahati, the capital of Assam, apparently because over-zealous fishermen had been using pesticides in the water to kill more fish for larger profit. Thousands of dead fish reportedly had been washed ashore. The number of sick fish matched those killed. There’s an alleged controversy that perhaps the fishermen really did not kill the fish, but that the fish died owing to the rise of pollution level in the river. The Guwahati refinery, as everyone who has lived in Guwahati (as has this writer) or follows health and environment news knows, has been a defaulting polluter according to Assam Pollution Control Board (APCB) officials. But whether the refinery is the culprit or it’s the greedy fishermen, the bottom line is, there was a serious breach.
Fish happens to get contaminated very easily and once eaten, passes the contamination to our body. There is a global debate raging about PCB and mercury levels in the fish we eat. For those who do not eat fish, things are not rosy either. Pollution levels in rivers and seas only pollute further our environment, even so seriously, affecting vegetables and crops. In fact, the worsening climate change owing to pollution – industrial and otherwise – have been linked to obesity and other more serious diseases (as if obesity isn’t enough disease causing and organ destabilising). With climate change, diseases of weird nomenclature have been popping up now and then in India and abroad. Remember the recent occurrence of chikungunya in Italy, a disease supposedly of warmer tropical climates? Apparently immigrants didn’t bring it!
So, did I say obesity was somewhere linked to all this? Quite likely.
I’m reminded of a time when as a nonprofit group’s media officer I was on a field tour to Hyderabad promoting grassroots journalism in the mainstream media. A prominent newspaper editor told us a story about his visit to China. He, also a prominent Left supporter, said that all around him in Beijing and other big cities, he noticed that half the number of children seemed not just fat or plump, but patently obese. He also noticed the Chinese kids ate fast food and their parents took them to shopping malls. This was eight or more years ago. I don’t believe things have changed much the other way round.
Fast-forwarding from China to the India of today, it seems things are surely caught in a vicious cycle between a polluted environment, bad food and obesity. Visiting Kolkata in 2006, I was amazed to see how not fat, but obese kids and teenagers dotted the malls, Big Bazaars and other shopping center landscapes. This was India’s middle class – the news spenders who are also new vigorous polluters. A vendor roasting corns on charcoal outside my apartment complex bitterly complained: “The babus now order pizzas … and of course their favourite restaurant is Mekdoonal (McDonalds)!”
Traditional Indian food – the gourmet variety – has always been high in calories, but there is still the option to eat healthy. Typically, now most urban middle class Indians are consuming foods like French fries, soft drinks, cookies, burgers, deep-fried meats and other highly processed fatty, sugary and salty items.
Fat chance for health then!
A turbulent Rubicon
It may seem gibberish to say that global temperature is expected to increase by 5 degree Celsius in the 21st century (according to The Human Development Report 2007-08) thereby endangering all life. Still wish Union Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss took a cue from the HDR while planning to launch a pilot project for ‘Prevention and Control of Cardiovascular diseases, Diabetes and Stroke', reportedly budgeted at Rs. 5 crore for a year (The Hindustan Times, Jan. 3) in six districts, before it is extended to the whole nation. The six districts are Kamrup in Assam, Jalandhar in Punjab, Bhilwara in Rajasthan, Shimoga in Karnataka, Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu and Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala. While Ramadoss’ vision that these districts will offer a national footprint maybe correct, such a project must factor into it the overall environmental pollution, the food chain, popular lifestyle, sustainable and eco-friendly farming and trading practices, etc. Only then can the national footprint be deemed holistic. Although seemingly a drop in the ocean, these types of efforts would no doubt contribute to improving the lot of the worst sufferers, about 40 per cent of the world’s poor people, which is 2.6 billion. Go ahead and calculate the number of India’s poor.
As for the moneyed Indian middle class with their increasing girth (I read somewhere that 55 percent of Delhi women are overweight and 76 percent have abdominal obesity), alarm bells are already ringing. This sordid statistics brought to my notice a recent effort launched on a war footing by the British government (BBC, Jan. 23) – a £372 million strategy aimed at cutting levels of obesity in England. Reportedly, several "healthy towns" would be created at a cost of £30 million with comprehensive cycle routes and pedestrian areas. The thrust of the effort is mainly on children with obesity. So, everywhere it seems, there’s now a growing concern for healthy living. Has to go hand in hand with promoting a clean environment.
On this cue, because I live in North America, I had to dig out the fact that ‘the average American meal travels 1,500 miles from field to fork, consuming untold gallons of chemical fertilizer, pesticides and fossil fuels along the way (New York Times, Dec. 14, 2007)’. Now do we see the connection between healthy living and eating and a clean and sustainable environment?
The Pachauri-Gore tips probably only point to the tip of a dangerous iceberg that’s melting fast. There are hundreds of activists and scientists working in various areas of the composite environment-health-food/lifestyle problem. Maybe our ministers and policymakers would like to know a few of the strategies they suggest in order to cross the turbulent Rubicon.
The food karma
Some advocates of healthy eating, a clean environment and fair trade practices propose the “100-mile diet” plan. This of course won’t ensure 100 per cent overnight improvement in our lifestyle, but will certainly instill a sense in us that we have more control over what we feed our body. For example, whenever I buy from my local farmers market, I ask about their farming methods, if they use pesticides, if the poultry is free-range, etc. I’m not fanatic about staying cocooned within the 100 miles. So coffee, tea, wine, rice, wheat, spices and a few others are definitely ‘outsourced’. But it feels good to eat local, organic and seasonal vegetables and fruits, as also locally raised free-range poultry or meat. Because even organic carrots shipped from California would mean a huge amount of fuel being burned, I’d soon shift to locally grown organic beets.
Certainly, it’s tough being a ‘locavore’, like learning to swim or drive as an adult! But it’s worth it. The other benefit is that you get to know more local people when you buy and eat local. Fosters good camaraderie. Something my aged parents still hold precious without knowing the jargon around it. When Jeevan the local grocer gets them items produced locally, Suleiman the local fisherman sells them fresh fish brought from his village, Bimala the local vendor lady gets them seasonal fruits, vegetables or herbs from her kitchen garden, they rely on each other economically and form a humanistic web. This is notwithstanding the proliferation of supermarkets and malls in the city that are systematically taking away jobs from small farmers and local growers and compromising with our overall health.
So high time we earned a bit of good karma! Buy local, buy seasonal, and buy organic at least for the famed “dirty dozens” – apples, cherries, grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, raspberries, strawberries, bell peppers (Shimla mirch), celery, potatoes and spinach. Milk, red meat and poultry are the other preferred organic buys.
Often however, the complaint is, although locally grown produces are not usually expensive, certified organic fruits and vegetables sometimes cost fifty percent more than their regular counterparts. So does it mean by becoming willing to contribute to a green environment, we turn into paupers? Not really. Eating local and seasonal can be a great way avoiding paying too much. Exotic or non-seasonal produces can cost us a packet, as these would invariably travel long miles before reaching us. Going to a mandi or a weekly haat can open up the doors to fresh, local and sometimes organically grown food. Paradoxically, while trying to save up money by not buying organic, a large number of population in the US or the UK have recently been incurring high medical costs on account of obesity and other ailments.
One might ask, where’s the organic certification in India? That’s something advocates are working on. For thousands of organic farmers in India and elsewhere, organic certification currently is a political hot potato, hopefully to be resolved soon. So far, most certification guidelines have been coming from the affluent West, and what wonder! It is American and European companies that have jumped into the fray smelling good money in the organics business. The latter insist that farmers everywhere follow a prescribed database of seeds and buy only from them, which is being opposed by farmers of the global South.
We have good news. In India, various state governments now have incentives for farmers to go organic. At the ‘India Organic 2007’, a trade fair and seminar, there were business enquiries worth Rs. 150 crore, “a growth of 80 per cent over 2006”, according to Manoj K. Menon, executive director, International Competence Centre for Organic Agriculture (ICCOA). This, after reports that most of India's farms – 65 percent of the country's cropped area – are "organic by default”, according to a study by Rabo India, a subsidiary of Rabobank International. This means that small farmers, located mostly in the eastern and northeastern India, have no choice except to farm without chemical fertilizers or pesticides. On the other hand, it is also true that many of them choose to farm organically, as has been the tradition for thousands of years.
To go back to Pachauri’s warning about heavy reliance on industrial technology, several of our farmers have seen firsthand the effects of chemical farming – erosion of soil and soil nutrients, low-nutrition food, and human diseases resulting from chemical seepage in the water table as well as from emissions in the air. We as consumers can alone help prevent this. So the food-health-climate karma watch is ticking away, right as we read this. The best reason for investing in it will be a healthy planet, awarded to us in this life itself.
About FOOTPRINTS IN THE BAJRA (Cedar Books, New Delhi); By Nabina Das
"Fittingly for a poet, Nabina’s novel also has a strong lyrical core. 'Footprints in the Bajra' takes the homely image of the millet field as its central metaphor. ... But the novel is less a thriller about guerrilla action than a subtly colored character study of a fascinating group of individuals who intersect at various points in their lives ..." -- DEBRA CASTILLO, author, editor and distinguished professor (Cornell University, April 17, 2010).