Thursday, April 29, 2010

What will we be eating?

Suman Sahai
In Princeton last summer I got a real sense of the extent to which the American food chain is industrialized. The food on campus and off campus in the city was largely bad, throwing up a major disconnect between the intellectual standards of the university and the pedestrian food in its environs. You would imagine the educated would eat better than that! Princeton is a small town dominated by the university and its past and present inhabitants. It has a high percentage of educated and affluent people yet most of the food there comes out of boxes and bags.

On early morning walks I saw small and big trucks unloading pre-finished foods at stores, restaurants and delis. Neatly packed boxes of industry made dough labeled ‘farmers bread’, ‘ciabatta’, ‘whole wheat’ or ‘multi grain’ would be delivered for the freezer, to be later put into microwave ovens and served up warm and ‘fresh’. So also with meats, vegetables, pasta, french fries, sauces, anything.

Whether you ate at an up market restaurant, picked up a sandwich from the neighborhood deli or stopped for a hot meal at the university faculty club, the food tasted the same. The sauces came out of bottles, the vegetables and pasta out of the freezer, as did the meat and fish, detouring through the microwave onto your plate. Everything tasted of plastic and preservatives. On travels across the world I have found in hotels that many foods are identical regardless of whether you are in Nairobi or Tokyo. ‘greek yoghurt’, ‘farmer sausages’ or hash brown potatoes ,shipped in giant plastic tubs from a central American facility, appearing simultaneously at breakfast buffets from Reykjavik to Rio has become the norm. At a charming seaside hotel in Granada in the Caribbean some years ago, it was not possible to order fresh fish because the trawlers of the big fishing companies had contracts that allowed them to scoop everything from the sea and send it back chopped and processed into frozen sticks and cubes.

The response to plastic foods was the organic movement, aiming to produce fresh food; that was flavorful and nutritious, was not tired from traveling thousands of miles and looked like food, not briquettes.

In the early days of organic farming, there was no premium, no mass production and no supermarket sales. But even as we watched, the process begun by the early pioneers, about expanding the world of healthy, natural foods began to derail. The organic food and its localized markets of the early days has now mutated into an organic foods industry that is centralized as against local, is riddled with complex regulations and has passed into the hands of big business like industrial food. Increasingly, the same companies have a product line of factory produced foods and another of organic and so called ‘natural’ or
‘like natural’ foods. This ‘organic food’ is as anonymous as the factory food and has as little connection with the geography of where it was produced. Instead, it is packaged like factory food with detailed labels listing its virtues. This hijacked organic food process has gone to absurd extents bearing no resemblance to the fresh, seasonal, unrefined food that was its initial promise. It even puts out ultra heated ‘organic’ milk without realizing the irony of it.

My worry is that in India where many regions continue to produce food that is naturally organic, before a healthy organic trend can be strengthened and made mainstream, the food chain is on its way to getting industrialized. Big players from outside and inside the country are already in food, there is contract farming, organized retail, packaged foods and underpinning much of this, the Indo –US deal on Agriculture. Agriculture and food in India continues to get the short end of the stick despite public pronouncements by all political parties. We face multiple crises in this sector. There is the global food crisis to which India is not immune even if it is not in the vortex, there are the challenges of global warming and the inexplicable biofuel policy threatening to take land and water away from food production. As if all this was not bad enough, we are on the verge of entering the era of plastic foods. Perhaps now, finally, middle class India would find it worthwhile to raise its voice; if not to ensure a livelihood for the farmer, then at least to ensure that the rice for the sushi is organic.

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