Public Health Needs Our Involvement

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In India today, we have a situation where one third of the babies born are low birth-weight babies. 46% of children under five years old are under-nourished. In this scenario, does the economic growth rate of 8 or 10% that the country is pursuing really matter? How do we understand the distributive injustices and the government’s public health policies that do not recognize the rights of the poor who do not have purchasing power?

When natural resources are being grabbed and instead of food, jatropha is being grown for bio-fuel, who’s rights and who’s needs are we talking about? When cereals with no nutritive value and foods with harmful chemicals are being sold to people since making profits is the only aim and people are being looked upon as markets - it means that public health
is not a major concern for the powers that be.

National and International policies and agreements on agriculture are being made, about what is grown, who supplies seeds and what kind of food we eat. These policies progressively are limiting our choices of foods, their safety, quality and quantity.
For several long years I have worked on hazardous medicines. Just as Rachel Carson drew the world’s attention to the harmful effects of pesticides, Dr. Isabel Gal showed that the use of high dose oestrogen and progesterone by pregnant women was the main reason for congenital malformed babies being born in the U.K. The company manufacturing the drug denied it and Dr Gal was thrown out of her job. Even academic bodies like the Gynecological Society of India supported the company’s position that the drug was safe. We had to fight through a Public Interest Litigation for 8 years to get the drug out of the market.

I deliberately bring in this dramatic example where to fight against a drug which causes congenital malformed babies was so difficult. Several drugs which are banned in the countries of their origin are still being sold here. We have to both educate the public and fight against these companies to stop such hazardous drugs from being sold to the public.
Tinned milk with pictures of bonny babies on them were sold in many countries by sales reps dressed as nurses, telling mothers to give their babies tinned milk rather than breast milk. Doctors were given lots of goodies to prescribe tinned milk and baby foods. Several studies showed that when powder milk was given to babies, very often the water used could be contaminated and a huge number of children were dying of cholera. Moreover, most poor mothers would give very diluted milk and the babies would be undernourished. Mother’s milk boosts the immune system and gives all the ingredients the baby needs.

But the companies denied it and it took ten years to fight against the promotion of tinned milk as the ideal baby food. If infants can be so targeted, even unto death by these organisations, how can we expect them to take care of foods for adults? Expert committees on food safety include people from corporates like Nestle and Pepsi. How can we then protect the interest of children? We need to be vigilant ourselves about foods in the market today.

Being Vigilant about Food
We suffer from selective amnesia because of media pressure. There is no one to advertise that ragi and amaranth are good for health – hence over a period of time we forget about the goodness of foods we have been eating for centuries. On the other hand, the food processing industry aggressively targets women and children. Vested interests will not let go of profit making markets very easily – and thus we adopt new and unhealthy food habits, letting go of good ones.
TV advertisements which show celebrities using tinned foods delude many people. The media colonises the mind and dictates what is needed – and the capacity to analyse and get unbiased information, to think for ourselves, is systematically decimated.
Health literacy and nutrition, Legal literacy, eco-literacy are not taught to us at all. Such education is necessary to develop the conscience of people to prevent large food companies from making profits from the blood of others.
People should know about legal provisions, the Acts that exist for food and biosafety and what they can do.
Where does one go to get samples tested for hazardous chemicals in vegetables, under which act can action be taken? All these should be part of consumer education. For instance, the chemical – malachite green - used in vegetables to make them extremely green – where the colour runs off when we wash them as in some peeled green peas – how can we protest against the use of malachite green in the market? Do food inspectors know what is put into food? Or what is malachite green? Even recycled engine oil is put into certain food stuffs.

Food issues are driving farmers to suicide and destroying livelyhoods, apart from destroying the health of our people through slow-poisoning. What our people are facing today is much worse than what happened to the Red Indians
Unless enough people rise up and feel outraged about the adulteration and poisoning of our foods we cannot get them out of the market.

Global Food Infiltration

Anything that is heavily advertised, we should be wary about. Suddenly, yellow pea dal came into the market. Nobody advertises for toor dal or urad dal. But yellow pea dal is advertised officially by the government and sold through Government distribution. And this dal is fully imported. In a dal eating country, where we use dals in idly, dosa, vada and in several dishes and curries, if dal prices are skyrocketing, then something is drastically wrong with our policies of growing and supplying dals. Why is soya and soya oil promoted? Is it because the US has an excess of genetically modified soya? What does fructose corn syrup which is added in several processed foods as a sweetener do to our health? This sweetener is 100% imported from the US and Canada. Why?

There is also this new concept of i-dal – to sound hep like i-pod and i-pad. It is an extruded, pelleted product which contains wheat, soya, turmeric etc., and it looks like dal. People may lap it up and the diversity of rich Indian dals can get forgotten over a period of time. We are now importing more and more colourless, odourless oil. What is wrong with our til and mustard oils? The European Union refused to import GM Soya oil, so they dumped it on India, and we are happy to be a dumping ground. Now research says cold-pressed oils are the best – but the neatly packed refined oils have closed down the dhanis and chakkis where oil is extracted traditionally.
To deal with adulteration the Government brings in a regulation that only 1 litre packs can be made and sold. This only helps the big oil companies increase their market by driving out the cold-pressed oils that are measured and sold in even small quantities. But according to the Arjun Committee, 77% of Indians earn less than twenty Rupees a day – so they can afford to buy only a little bit of oil everyday. This is another example of blindspotting through policies, programmes and schemes of the Government. These amount to social pathologies – should we accept them?

The poor in India end up becoming diabetic because of de-nutrified rice and wheat which are high glyciemic. They cannot afford dals and vegetables and the cheap carbohydrates make them diabetic as well as malnourished. In Andhra, Orissa, Chattisgarh and so on, diabetes among the poor is increasing because of eating only rice.

We have only 1% of the Central Government Budget budget allocated for health. 80% of medical care expenses is borne by the individuals. De-nutrified food on the one hand and poor medical facilities on the other have resulted in a situation where deaths and indebtedness are not uncommon among the poor after a family member is admitted to a hospital.

Processed Foods: Mop the floor or Turn off the Tap?

Indian farmers carried sathroo to work – it contained channa dal and cereals, roasted, germinated and made into powder – a nutritious food that could be kept for a long time. Now, Bournvita, Protinex and Complan are advertised as a health drink for mama’s darling child. Bournvita was advertised in the UK as a Good-Night drink. But in India it is sold for energy, brain development etc. Are we aware of these marketing gimmicks?

Processed foods containing a dangerous slow-poison like monosodium glutamate (MSG) are being pushed in the market by corporate giants. Our local snacks like pappad and chikki and our own fresh roadside foods like peanuts and channa are being pushed out. MSG is an excito toxin which makes junk foods addictive by triggering pleasure centres in the brain. MSG is used in a whole lot of processed foods like chips, pizzas, burgers, soups etc. Also called ajinomoto, it was once used mostly in Chinese restaurants. When children are exposed to things like instant noodles which contain MSG, early in life, their addictions are very difficult to cure.

MSG causes headaches, palpitations, flushing, facial lightness and chest pain amongst other things. The more severe ill effects of MSG include brain damage which causes or aggravates autism, seizures, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, brain tumors etc. MSG is banned in many countries. When people became conscious of the ill effects of MSG, the processed food labels were changed to include ‘Natural Flavours’, hydrolysed vegetable protein, flavour enhancers etc.and all of these are other names for MSG. These labels make it difficult to take action against the offending companies.

Processed foods contain chemicals as colouring agents, preservatives to increase their shelf life and for ease of transportation. These are called junk foods because they only contain empty calories from lots of sugar, salt, fats, refined carbohydrates like maida, and of course MSG etc., to make them tasty. Junk food has created a whole range of health problems in the US – more than one third of its population suffer from cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

Trans fats in processed foods are another major problem area. Transfats make biscuits crisp, increase shelf life of foods and definitely help company’s make better profits. While saturated fats are supposed to be harmful, hydrogenated fats were promoted as better alternatives. But it has turned out that these contain transfats which are worse than poly unsaturated fats. It is now known that trans fats cause strokes and heart problems which have emerged as major causes of death. Denmark allows not more than 2% transfats in processed foods – but there is no such regulation in India.

Colouring agents and preservatives also cause food allergies – and we have a high rate of aasthma in our country. Many processed foods like Doritos are made of corn and GM maize whose potential to create allergies are not sufficiently studied.
Processed foods are also available cheaply – hence the poor who cannot afford better quality foods get obese, diabetic etc in countries like the US and Australia – the same will soon happen in India. Higher awareness by citizens’ groups is needed and we need to prevent processed foods getting into school canteens, especially since youngsters may end up eating such foods for a longer period of time.
Now, a senior minister, Mr. Sharad Pawar has been given charge of the Food Processing Ministry in India – which goes to show the Government’s intentions in promoting processed foods. People working on public health are concerned that the next wave of health problems in India will come from processed foods as in the US. Food processing giants like Nestle have held conferences in medical colleges. Pepsi sponsors events in schools. These are insidious ways in which these companies get children addicted to unhealthy processed foods and we need to find ways to resist them.
We can stopping eating junk food individually – but that is like mopping the floor. We need to make sure that we stop such foods from being marketed – ie., turn off the tap that lets in health problems. Unless we work at both levels, we will be forever mopping the floor and still get more sick, since we can never mop fast enough.

Value of Traditional Indian Foods

There is a push for Golden Rice – GM rice where they put in Vitamin A. But we have a whole lot of natural foods which are yellow – carrots, pumpkin, mangoes - which have plenty of vitamin A. Vitamins A, D and K are fat soluble and when absorbed can be stored in the body unlike vitamins B and C. This means it is enough to eat these fruits and vegetables in seasons when they are available – the body is able to store them. So why should we allow genetically modified Golden Rice with vitamin A into the country? Isn’t it only to ensure profits of the companies that sell these seeds?
Turmeric has curcumin as its active ingredient and it has anti-oxidant, antibiotic and anti cancer properties. We have used turmeric for centuries without knowing its properties precisely, yet with a strong awareness that it is good for health.
Similarly we have known that ajwain is good for digestion, we have known of the value of tamarind, ragi and garlic. Now when garlic pearls is patented by some company we learn that garlic can reduce our cholestrol levels. We learn that Ber or Wood Apple has anti-amoebic properties.

The value of Indian foods has been documented in a book called ‘The Nutritive Value of Indian Food’ brought out by the National Institute of Nutrition. The principal of Agra Medical College wrote a book called ‘Indian Bazaar Medicine’ in 1945 – the wisdom and knowledge embodied in the Indian foods need to be disseminated so that people do not get carried away by the advertisements by corporate giants that make false promises of nutrition in various branded food products.
Finally if we look at GM foods – we find that not enough studies are done to understand the safety and health value of these. The bio safety hazards of GM foods are not known. The hazards of genetic contaminants and horizontal gene transfers need to be understood. A range of 90 day studies have been done, which are not enough to study effects on reproduction and fertility – where there are questions of the harmful effects of GM foods.
In the Indian bio-technology regulatory Act, there is a clause saying that anyone misguiding the public can be put in jail and fined up to Rs. 2 Lakhs. Such clauses are put in by vested interests as a threat to anyone doing independent research, anyone who may speak out against GM foods.
We are ignorant of the nutritive and therapeutic value of our own indigenous foods on the one hand and are vulnerable to the aggressive marketing of certain new ‘health’ foods on the other. We need to act to prevent the loss of traditional knowledge and resist the marketing pitch of companies to whom we are mere markets – not people whose health and lives matter.

This article contains exceprts from the speech by Dr. Mira Shiva at the Bhoomi Conference, January 2011.