Decline of Food Quality
An Increasing Risk for Nutrition and Health

Bharat Dogra

 High levels of malnutrition have remained a serious concern in India. However at the same time malnutrition has been increasing due to a complex of factors which show an increasing trend, by and large, and not enough is being done to check this.

There has been a steep decline in the availability of forest based food, which was a particularly useful source of supply of free, highly nutritious and fresh food to the poorest people living close to forests, particularly various tribal communities and others living in the Himalayan and other hilly regions. Food from forests and natural groves, including fruits, flowers, nuts and seeds is a major part of the diet of people in the rural areas who live near  them. These communities are very well-informed about which forest produce is useful as food and what should be avoided.

According to a survey by Living Farms voluntary organization in several tribal villages conducted with the help of three other organizations,121 types of forest food were identified and it was found that a single round by a tribal villager on average results in collection of around four and a half kg. food. This food is entirely free from the impact of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and rich in some nutrition sources, particularly minerals. This food is generally shared with community members and is particularly useful during droughts and lean season. 

Another important but neglected aspects of declining nutrition is that it is also related to the degradation of soil in which food is grown. A world-level assessment of human-induced soil degradation, which was prepared by the International Soil Reference and Information Centre in the Netherlands, concluded that 1.96 billion hectares of soils were degraded to some degree and out of this 300 million hectares have suffered strong to extreme degradation. “It seems incredible that something as basic as the very soil on which we stand should be disappearing at such a rate”, warned an editorial in the prestigious New Scientist journal.

The green revolution phase has generally involved the spread of intensive monocultures, but this is harmful for the long-term fertility of land. As the World Resources Report (WRR) says : “Soils under intensive monoculture tend to lose organic matter and their ability to retain moisture thus becoming more susceptible to erosion and ultimately losing their fertility and productivity.” Spread of intensive monoculture generally involves a higher reliance on chemical pesticides. A very small part of the pesticide applied on a field – less than 0.1 per cent in many insecticides – actually reaches its target organism. The rest plays the role of polluting the land and water poisoning birds and other forms of life. As WRR says, “wholesale elimination of helpful soil dwelling insects and micro organisms that build soil and plant nutrition sometimes occurs, essentially sterilising the soil.”

Excessive use of chemical fertilisers and relative neglect of organic manure also leads to loss of fertility of land. The problems get worse when unbalanced mix of fertilisers create specific nutrient deficiencies in soil, particularly the deficiency of micro-nutrients. In several countries excessive application of fertilisers, particularly nitrogen has become a serious problem and nitrate pollution of water sources is posing a serious threat.

Particularly linked to the excessive use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and weedicides and the resulting  degradation of land is a steady decline in the quality of food. Wendell Berry truly captured the contradictions of modern food system in one sentence when he said, “it is one of the miracles of science and hygiene that the germs that used to be in our food have been replaced by poisons.”

A report of the London Food Commission  said that at least 92 pesticides cleared for use in Britain have been linked with cancer, birth defects or genetic mutation in animal studies. Another report of the  report of the National Academy of Sciences, USA,  said that pesticides in the food of US citizens may cause more than one million additional cases of cancer in the US over their life-time.

This problem is likely to be even worse in poorer countries because several of the more hazardous and persistent pesticides banned in rich countries are still used in some of the the poor countries.

It is well-known that excessive use of chemical fertilizers causes a loss of flavour of food; what is less known is that is can also cause a loss of nutritive value and even create some serious health problems. According to prominent nutrition expert C. Gopalan, “the use of high analysis chemical fertilisers, which is part of the modern intensive agricultural technology, had not always gone hand-in-hand with appropriate measures for soil testing and soil replenishment, with the result that, as shown by the studies of FAO (1982), there are disturbing evidences of micronutrient depletion of soils in some areas; these are likely to be eventually reflected in impaired nutritive value of food-grains grown in such soils.”

Richard Douthwaite has written in his  book ‘The Growth Illusion’, “Nitrogenous fertilisers can raise the amount of nitrate in the final crop to four or five times the level found in the compost-growing equivalent, while at the same time cutting vitamin C and dry matter levels. This change is potentially serious, since nitrates can be turned into powerful carcinogenic nitrosamines by bacteria found in the mouth, while vitamin C has been shown to protect against cancers.”

There has been a big increase in recent years in the number and quantity of additives used by the food processing industry, including flavours, colours, emulsifiers, preservatives and an amazing range of other additives. The London Food Commission noted  that about 3,800 additives were being used to perform about a hundred functions. Only about a tenth of the additives were subject to government control. The commission wrote “A single meal may contain a cocktail of 12 to 16 additives. The combinations of additives may react with each other and with foods to produce new chemical substances.” A wide range of health hazards has been reported for an equally wide variety of food additives.

Several foods are very healthy as natural products but instead of protecting the natural sources of obtaining these foods there is a tendency to artificially increase their market availability by adulterating them. A clear case is that of honey. Unfortunately there has been a huge decrease in honeybees in many areas due to the impact of chemical insecticides, pesticides, weedicides, GM crops, electromagnetic pollution and indiscriminate introduction of exotic species. Instead of checking these causes of decline of honeybees , a short-cut is increasingly  being taken by honey manufacturers by adding adulterants to honey. In India  a step further has been taken by changing food standards so that it becomes easier and legal to do so. An unstarred question no. 1107 was asked  recently in the Lok Sabha  whether standards of honey have been revised by omitting specific marker for rice syrup, trace marker for rice syrup and foreign oligosaccharides, and the reply stated that in the revised standards  safety marker for rice-syrup, rice-syrup and foreign oligosachharides have been omitted.

These and related trends can aggravate the malnutrition situation in various ways and need to be checked.

The writer is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements.    

Back to Home Page

Aug 13, 2020

Bharat Dogra

Your Comment if any