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Food – The Elephant in the Room in any Discussion of Collective Progress

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It has been two years since the last burning national debate on food safety broke out, after the Nestle Maggi noodles scandal. Yet, we now seem back to square one and Maggi is back on the shelves. Much has happened since then and our food has become progressively worse. Reports, word-of-mouth stories and social media messages and videos that circulate everyday describe how rotten is the food we eat. Yet, we remain unmoved and continue consuming the same food, knowing fully well that we are harming our health with every morsel.

The reason we are unmoved is simple – we are consumed with greed and despite knowing the reality, we are so steeped in inconscience and denial that nothing can move us. It is the case of a typical utilitarian society, where producers and sellers do everything possible to make the maximum profit out of our greed. They raise prices and destroy quality, and we, knowingly, become party to this self-destructive economy.

Food, lust and money have become the three pillars of this utilitarian system. These, as The Mother had said, are the sites which are the most pervaded by falsehood. They seem to be the root of all our problems and will be the most difficult to change, since all reason and consciousness, even of well-meaning people, fail here, as they are thoroughly pervaded by forces of darkness.

Nothing left to eat

Today we are battling a crisis of food scarcity. Except that it’s not visible to us, since we are producing artificial, fake surplus food. We have come a long way since the time of Green Revolution, where pesticides and chemicals were used in the crops to ensure higher yield. Similarly, till a few years ago the only food contamination we used to hear about was adulteration by adding stones or water or using bad oils in a few items.

But now, things have become much worse. Today, everything, starting right from our morning tea and coffee, has the ingredients to lead to fatal diseases. Coffee may have coffee-flavoured mud, while tea has coal tar dye which may lead to lung or skin cancer. Even simple milk has become very harmful and not just because it is ‘synthetic’, but because antibiotic gentamicin, pesticide boric acid and preservative formalin are pumped into cows, leading to hard-to-treat infections, lead poisoning and massive kidney damage.

Eggs are prone to causing deaths due to green diarrhea, because hens are kept in starved and torturous conditions for the sellers to make profit. Much like eggs, bread is another common consumption item, be it bread or our handmade chapattis. Shockingly, the flour used is bleached and contains 25 different harmful chemicals, including harmful fumigants used in pest-control, mud, dust, insects and fungus (Datta 2015). And we eat this flour every day. Similarly, wheat, oats, maize and barley are contaminated by mycotoxin, which can cause diseases like jaundice and gastronomical bleeding.

Even bottled water has bromate in it, while fruit juices have non-permitted synthetic colour and DNA-altering carcinogens.

According to reports, the maximum number of violations occur in raw or minimally processed foods, such as fruits, vegetables, spices, dairy products and grains. While fruits are injected with harmful chemicals to make them look fresh and colourful, spices have been given lead synthetic colouring to make them look bright yellow or red.

Spices, including sugar and salt, are the most basic of items that go into the everyday food we cook and consume. Yet, they have resulted in serious cases of food poisoning. Indian spices, in particular, are coated with lead, and had resulted in deaths of several Indian children in Boston in 2010 (Park 2010). In 2013, the US Food and Drug Administration released a report, which indicated that nearly 9% of imported spices from India were contaminated with Salmonella. In fact, almost 12 percent of spices brought to the US were contaminated with insects, rodent hair and their excretions (ANI 2013). Also, as studies indicate, Indian spices have suffered from high pesticide residues, aflatoxin contamination and the use of prohibited food colorants.

What more – the field of organic farming has also become infested with commercial interests. ‘Organic’ turmeric has been found to contain immensely harmful contaminants and chemicals. It seems that no matter what exalted or ideal way out is given to the human instrument, the pervasive utilitarian mentality will always enter and spoil all of that – in all areas and innovations.

The most recent cause of popular outrage was about how grains like fake plastic rice are flooding the markets. They have been imported from China and they look milky white and smooth. But suspicion was raised after people in Kerala – whose markets were flooded by this rice – started contracting stomach infections after eating this rice.

Contamination in everyday food through new technology

The brief scenario highlighted above shows that right from morning to night, nothing that we consume is without danger. And when we take the case of individual basic staple items like fruits and vegetables, spices and dairy products, there is ample compelling evidence that shows how food contamination is occurring through deliberate means.

In fact, if as early as 1989, reports had warned us of the automobile exhaust fumes (containing lead and manganese) settling on our food and water, then the situation now must be much worse, since the number of automobiles has gone up manifold. Similarly, the discharge of untreated industrial effluents into rivers and fields ultimately enters our food chain. Japan’s Minamata disaster – for which the Convention on prohibiting the use of mercury was signed recently – ensured that food chain contamination due to industrial discharge of mercury crippled generations, much like any chemical weapons disaster would do. But even today, the industrial discharge of so many chemicals continues to rise indiscriminately.

These are just classic examples from history. Today, there is a whole range of technologies to be used in food that can hasten our demise. To give a recent example from India – the government has been looking at setting up ‘irradiation facilities’ to boost the shelf life of our fruits and vegetables, so as to prevent the surplus from being thrown away due to storage problem in high production years.

Fruits and vegetables are amongst the most contaminated items on our table. Fruits like the mango – known as the king of fruits and everyone’s favourite – is, as is well-known in India, artificially ripened using calcium carbide. According to an investigation, more than 80% of the mangoes reaching Delhi’s biggest Azadpur mandi are artificially ripened. The chemical is also used to ripen other fruits like watermelon and bananas.

Using calcium carbide – a banned chemical which contains fatal arsenic and phosphorous – affects the neurological system, causing headaches, dizziness, mood disturbances, mental confusion and seizures (Vikram 2015). Calcium carbide can also turn human cells into cancerous cells.

Unfortunately, the instinct for greed and profit-motive is so strong that sellers ripen mangoes artificially to save time and make them look attractive to consumers. The greedy and self-destructive mindset of the consumers encourages the sellers to resort to such means.

The upshot is that there is no such thing as a ‘safe’ store from where one can buy fruits and vegetables. Even the places that are rumoured to be relatively safe – like Mother Dairy – use chemicals like ethylene to ripen their fruits, by their own admission, since ethylene is supposedly a less harmful ripening agent.

However, the game is no longer about just chemicals. In India, and especially in Delhi, new technologies are being experimented with, to keep fruits and vegetables fresh. One such recent technology has been the creation of a solar-powered vending cart for poor vegetable sellers. The cart can regulate the temperatures and environment around itself in summer and winter to keep the vegetables and fruits fresh for up to five days, dispensing with the need of poor sellers to sprinkle water on their gunny bags covering the produce. The solar cart can reduce the temperatures by up to 5-8 degree Celsius (Vikram 2015).

Since this is a very new technology, we cannot be sure of its effects. Nevertheless, technology is always a double-edged sword, and especially if it involves manipulating the environment. Most often, such innovations ignore the basic logic of human nature for which more will always be less. In our current mentality, we will always find more ways to subvert morals and make a profit for ourselves, no matter what the stage of technological advancement.

The solar powered cart is just a small-scale example of what the government is seriously considering. In view of the quick decay of perishable horticultural produce, the government is considering setting up irradiation facilities across the country in order to increase the shelf life of the produce, in case of plenty of production.

Irradiation disrupts the natural biological processes that lead to decay, by exposing the produce to brief nuclear radiation or gamma rays to kill the microorganisms. Bhabha Atomic Research Centre had recently agreed to transfer technology to increase the shelf life of litchi in Muzaffarpur, Bihar. This enabled them to preserve the litchi for 48 to 60 days at low temperature. The government is making such facilities available in other parts of the country where farmers could preserve perishable produce and sell it as per demand and adequate price in the market.

This is an example of a commonly available, affordable technology in India. But exposure to radiation can have harmful effects on health – yet no one opposed this move. In Bihar, where irradiation of litchi was done, recall how cases of poisoning due to litchi consumption spread like wildfire. No scientific link has been made between those litchi deaths and irradiation and none will be made, but, amongst a combination of factors, this may be an important contribution.

 The irradiation technology was triumphantly discussed in Bihar in 2013, in the case of litchi and mangoes, potatoes and onions – and how these can then be used to meet export demands. The involved scientists also said that use of nuclear energy in agriculture in general, can lead to new variety of seeds.

While the rationale for using nuclear technology in food is ostensibly to make crops ‘climate-resistant’ and ensure food security and farmers security – even at the cost of health disasters – the commercial motive is never missing. In Indonesia farmers are producing surplus new varieties of rice using nuclear radiation, funded by IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency).

Often such technologies are passed on in the name of saving on water and minimizing the use of fertilizers and killing diseases, but the side-effects of this unnatural process that raises yields immensely are something about which scientists are keeping mum and people are not demanding answers to.

Besides irradiation, 3D printing, artificial intelligence, synthetic biology and lab-grown food are other exploding technologies that are fast gaining pace in the field of food production. While 3D printing promises us that the future space explorers will soon be able to print and eat pizza on Mars, AI and synthetic biology promise to contribute to the trend of lab-grown food by experimenting with the cell structures of organisms. When one goes into the details of these technologies GM food appears like a thing of the past – so fast are we hurtling towards destruction.

In fact, the food that is being grown in laboratories now-a-days through cellular agriculture is being called ‘sustainable’ and ‘clean’, especially in the context of meat production. To offset the environmental harm of meat consumption, businesses and universities (like Stanford and UC Berkeley) are working on lab-grown meat, produced by manipulating organisms’ cells. “The future belongs to scientists who can hack yeast cells to produce egg whites, torque plant proteins into muscle-like fibres and grow slaughter-free “duck” or “chicken” in factories”, according to the San Francisco Chronicle (Srinivasan 2017).

By as early as 2022, the market for lab-grown food is expected to earn about 220 million USD. Lab-grown meat or cultured meat was funded in 2014 and created waves for its success. Cultured or lab-grown milk is also being worked upon – no matter that the products will be only cell-based and will deploy the technique of synthetic biology. Synthetic biology goes one step further than even DNA sequencing or gene-editing – it can actually create new organisms or life. Much like Artificial Intelligence, its development poses great dangers in the hands of commercial interests – besides the fact that manipulation of Nature by an egoistic human instrument can only lead to inevitable disasters.

Artificial Intelligence technologies are already being deployed by American companies to ‘reinvent food’, that is, to understand the molecular structure of animal-based foods such as milk and eggs, then predict how they can make products using plant-based alternatives (Card 2017). The term ‘plant-based alternatives’ is often passed off as being sustainable and healthy – but how can it be healthy if it involves cell structure engineering and a subversion of natural processes? On a similar scale, experiments are happening which attempt to grow food under conditions where it can be free from insecticides and pesticides – but it is like replacing the old harmful chemicals whose overdose led to the problem with further entirely new and unprecedented ills.

With such advances and ambition, it is not surprising that besides the military and medical fields, the potential of synthetic biology is being explored in the field of food also. In cultured meat, bovine cells are made to grow in a plastic dish, to ultimately produce a meat-like substance that resembles a food item like a burger, having been made of the exactly same cells. It is being touted as plant-based meat and is being called sustainable and healthy. It is nothing of the kind.

All kinds of lab-grown food pervasively uses FBS or Fetal Bovine Serum – this is essentially cow fetus’s blood, procured by slaughtering the pregnant cow, getting the fetus out and killing it to get its blood. FBS is essential for lab-grown food, because this food is dependent on cells and cells have a natural tendency to die if they are in the wrong place – as seen in human body. When these cells are put in a plastic dish to produce lab-grown food, they will do their best to die. FBS keeps the cells alive, because it contains growth factors that can convince the cells that they are in the right place – especially so in the case of the blood of the young fetuses than the older cows and FBS is the best and most commonly used alternative to make any type of cells grow (Thieme 2017).

This means that the so-called cultured meat that is being called healthy and sustainable and vegan is still unhealthy and very much made from slaughtering cows. How it can be sustainable is anyone’s guess. While proponents of this technology claim that lab-grown food will consume less resources – less land and water and lesser greenhouse gas emissions – one needs to ask at what cost will this happen. Systems and technologies that promise a surplus, idealistic future, under the present degenerate human condition, need to be viewed with suspicion. We have been promised these things before – communism promised a future based on human equality and material surplus, while capitalism also promised us material surplus and a fulfillment of our freedoms and desires. But the consequences we are facing now – in political, religious, social, economic and environmental terms – belie these false idealistic theories.

While most of the above technologies are fast gaining pace and acceptance world-over and are likely to come to India soon enough, our policy-makers here have already started seriously working on the applications of biotechnology (GM food), nanotechnology and others to boost agricultural production and ‘improve’ soil conditions.

While the debate about the GM food is well-known, other applications, such as through nanotechnology, are still not out in the open. Nanotechnology – the technology of micro particles – will be used to create Nano fertilizers, which will supposedly increase the nutrient use efficiency of the soil by three times and provide ‘stress tolerant’ abilities, and are also regarded as being economically cheaper than the usual fertilizers.

Furthermore, a combination of nanotechnology and Artificial Intelligence – as proclaimed by Microsoft in the context of Indian farming – can provide farmers advanced information on soil and crop conditions and what needs to be done, via advanced sensing abilities.

Once again, the commercial motive is not hidden here also. As early as 2002, the ambitious nanotechnology ‘roadmap’ for agriculture by the United States Department of Agriculture, had envisioned the ambition of applying nanotechnology for harvesting feed-stocks for industrial processes, by working on the principle of ‘flexible matter’ in which properties of nanoparticles can be adjusted to create cheaper, smarter replacements across the food chain (Manjunatha, Biradar and Aladakatti 2016).

Besides further enabling genetic engineering by delivery of genes at specific cellular sites in plants and animals, nanotechnology is also expected to enable practices of controlled environment agriculture (growing plants in a controlled environment, to make production ‘efficient’) and using means like Nano-sensors for Precision farming (to predict the exact environmental and soil conditions, so that use of inputs can be minimized and production yields become high).

Besides these, Nano fertilizers and Nano pesticides for slow and efficient release, nanoparticles for soil conservation and Nano-based genes which can withstand sudden temperature swings due to climate change (such as the ‘Primo MAXX’ plant regulator designed to withstand extreme weather conditions, being marketed by a large global corporation), have already been recommended in the Indian context (TERI 2009). Remember how ‘golden rice’ variety evoked a debate in India some time back? Well, nanotechnology has also been used to genetically alter golden rice. Hyped as combating Vitamin A deficiency and capable of being grown round the year, it yet poses immense health risks to people, besides surely contaminating non-GM rice, if released into the environment, as has, reportedly, happened in US and China during field trials (Greenpeace India 2013).

This may sound impressive – since it represents an advancement in technology designed to make life easier – but what about the results? Large, mechanized farms in the US are already using these technologies to make their production more efficient. Yet, the quality of food there – thanks to the flooding of unregulated GM food in the markets – is going down. The overall quality of life and well-being – both physical and psychological – is also worsening, more than ever before. So, most of these innovations are largely limited to mechanical applications designed to yield efficiency and profits, but with the quality of food worsening.

Our current, blind faith in the power of technology – even as we continue on an unabated trajectory of greedy possession – is the false idealism and construct that has trapped us and that will come crashing down on us in the near future. We think that now that we have destroyed the environment, resulting in a condition of loss of food, air and water, we can actually rectify these conditions by the proposed technological innovations. To every environmental and food security problem, we issue the solution of technology and we label these technologies as ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’ – which they are clearly not.

But nobody talks about why these problems came about in the first place – due to our psychological disease of pulling everything towards our ourselves for our own satisfaction – and how can the root-causes be tackled without a change in our own psychology.

A foolish civilization

In the face of these realities, our obsession with food, coming even at the cost of our well-being, has violated even basic common sense. Even though we are a thoroughly utilitarian society, our current food propensities defy all basic economic logic.

Considering that nearly half of our household spending is on food, by eating fake food nowadays, that entire spending is going down the drain. And if we add extra costs like ill-health accruing from bad food and the fact that people with means are often found spending on eating at hotels or coffee shops etc., we go much beyond the 50% expenditure on basic household food of an average family. All these added costs would nearly amount to 70-80% (since today’s younger generation is addicted to fancy and welcoming road-side cafes dotting every city). Presumably, this expense will increase dramatically, as we fall more ill by eating poison. Unfortunately, even though we know this reality in our hearts, nobody is ready to acknowledge these hidden costs, which are not computed by economists when they try to measure well-being.

And this is just one part of the economic folly. It is common knowledge that if we stop relying on chemicals and fake means of producing food, we would be in a state of acute global food crisis. That means when we consider the actual food available, there is nothing. Effectively, we are eating non-food! And that is why governments, all over the world, including in India, are under pressure to accept deadly technologies like Genetically Modified (GM) crops, with America, of course, taking the lead. In the absence of GM and these other artificial – even DNA-altering technologies – to make food, we would all be running to cut each other’s throats due to shortage of food and water.

With the deep malaise of utilitarianism spreading like wildfire, there will be no way to ensure quality, well-grown food, with commercialism and urban expansion ensuring that no or little land is left for agriculture – whatever little harm-free agriculture one may want to practice.

This is as dreary a picture as one can currently imagine. And this doesn’t even capture the whole reality. With every passing day, as our mentality vitiates and we seek quicker and easier ways to make profit, food will be the biggest casualty and, along with environmental disasters, the cause of our collective impending demise.

Ultimate cause – a possessed mass with a distorted consciousness

The fact the we continue to operate foolishly despite the stark reality before us seems inexplicable, especially with regard to a generation that regards itself as a proud offspring of a rational, utilitarian society – the greed with regard to food, ironically violating even basic reason, is almost that of a possessed person. This, indeed, is true. Like most other things, when it comes to food too, our consciousness is distorted and we become puppets in the hands of mischievous forces.

Enter a hotel or a café and you will see a crowd of people milling about, hogging their food. Sometimes there would hardly be any place to stand. In this mob, if one is even slightly perceptive, one can actually experience the gross manner in which mischievous forces operate. All kinds of wrong and inconscient vibes come from this food mob and is enough to make any sensitive person recoil. Food is thus a field where consciousness is most conspicuous by its absence.

Another ascertained reality, which anyone can experiment with easily if they observe closely, is that the more we eat wrong food, the more our brain and true vitality diminishes. It was not for nothing that the ancient Aryan culture and the sages of this country spoke about the necessity of moderation in food. Even a common person can experience this – once we start consciously controlling what and how much we eat, nearly 60-70% psychological problems can be sorted. It will actually remove our clouded perceptions. And when we eat wrongly, bad psychological effects are immediately visible.

This is something that we need to start observing daily within ourselves.

This has become even more clear in the present scenario, where things have reached a breaking point and the quality of what we consume has reached its lowest. The unfortunate thing is that we have stepped from greedy utilitarianism to sheer foolishness, so much so that we have started applying utilitarian thinking to our own lives – the thinking that it is acceptable if we die at an early age after consuming wrong food. After all, in an average lifespan of 80 years, even if you die at 70 or 75, it’s not a problem. The main point is that one gets to enjoy life to the fullest and eat whatever garbage one wants to eat. For an average person whose only aim is to earn money, enjoy and procreate and then die, this seems a fair enough cost-benefit balance – enjoy fully and die at a normal, little early, old-age.

This evokes little sympathy for such ultimate victims.

It explains the puzzle about why the literally poisonous Maggi noodles (over the years, there are reports about children dying after eating Maggi) went and came back in the Indian markets and why there is never any public outrage – not even in media – over massive food scandals that are unearthed. In fact, look at human behavior – we can recall that when Maggi was being banned, instead of a public outrage (outrage and gusto was only limited to the enthusiastic Food Safety and Standards Regulator of India which finally got to show some muscle and the reluctant state governments), there was a frantic mad-rush among the people to buy and stock up on as many packets of Maggi noodles as they could get, before it was banned. Sad youth wrote emotional messages on social media about their childhood attachment to Maggi. The result was that the price of a 20 rupees Maggi shot up to 100 rupees in the days leading up to the ban on Maggi! Thus, instead of a national outrage, a whole new black market was created for a poisonous but popular product. The Modi government was also widely targeted for trying to ‘destroy a brand’ by certain industry people.

Same thing happened when there was a scandal, some years back, about there being worms in the Cadbury chocolate. It didn’t have any effect whatsoever. Cadbury remains as popular as ever. At least, in other countries there is outrage over compromised food quality, even though the basic nature of people remains entrapped by attachment to food. But in India, the situation seems much, much worse. So, when this is what happens in the wake of food scandals in India, there can be little sympathy for obese and bed-ridden victims of bad food. It reflects poorly on the national character of our country and makes a mockery of the lofty ideals of our forefathers. This irrational greed – with its pull-down effect towards tamas – will eventually constrain our capacities to think and progress collectively. It is a big vulnerability that the country should realize is of the scope of a national emergency.

Bibliography

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Card, Jon. 2017. The Guardian. July 24. Accessed December 14, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/small-business-network/2017/jul/24/lab-grown-food-indiebio-artificial-intelligence-walmart-vegetarian.

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Thieme, Nick. 2017. Slate. July 13. Accessed December 14, 2017. http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2017/07/why_is_fetal_cow_blood_used_to_grow_fake_meat.html.

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