Jul 1, 2015

The Toxic Food: from farm to plate and everywhere in between

- Nirma Bora.

Food is supposed to be a source of nutrition but what we eat today has been touched by science more than it has been by Mother Nature.  Starting the day with a cup of tea, relishing green salads and fruits, savouring a meal of rice , chapattis, vegetables and daal  for, sipping in beverages or munching a bite of the crispy chips in between – we are exposed to toxins rights from the beginning of the day to the end of it. The harmful and banned chemicals in food follow a long chain: from farm to fork. The exercise of adulteration starts from the stage of lab-developed seeds, continues to extensive chemical spraying of crops in the field and is later subjected to prohibited colours and flavours during processing. In between it may also be subjected to misbranding, inappropriate food handling and packaging methods. 

The Fatal Seed Saga
It was until the Green Revolution that farm-saved seeds were sown, harvested and consumed. With the beginning of the Green Revolution, came hybrid seeds and later in 2002 Bt was introduced in India. Though, currently, the only Bt variant commercially grown in India is Cotton which is not used for edible purpose but it is not too long when GM food will be out in the market for commercial use as GM is critical to Modi's goal of boosting dismal farm productivity in India (ToI, 2015). Last year, 21 new varieties of genetically modified (GM) crops such as rice, wheat, maize and cotton were approved for field trials by the Narendra Modi government (DNS, 2014). While the GM mustard has completed all rounds trials, the other varieties are still undergoing tests in Punjab, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, and in Delhi at IARI (Zee News, 2015). Scientists associated with the project indicate towards commercial sale of the varieties within two years. The news comes at a time when evidence from laboratory experiments around the world clearly indicates that GM foods can be highly toxic with probability of causing thyroid cancer, diabetes, renal failure, intestinal infection, Alzheimer's, and brain stroke among many other diseases (Swanson, Nancy L et al. 2014).  

Supporters of genetically engineered crops claim that their technology is needed to feed the global population, which by 2050 is likely to increase by 35 percent (Nat Geo). However, even if genetic engineering were consistently to produce bumper yields, it would not deal with the problem of world hunger. Food insecurity is caused primarily by political reasons such as unequal access to food, distribution problems, and wastage.[1] The anti GMO lobby rightly claim that there is greater sinister side to this industry than just commercial concerns driven by profit. They perceive it as a heady mix of US geopolitics to gain global control over agriculture and hijack the world’s seeds and food supply. To stop hunger, we need to address its root causes, and get control over our farming and food systems back into the hands of farmers and communities, instead of private corporation. Widespread opposition to GMO cultivation has already led to ban in 9 European countries including Austria, France, Germany, Italy, etc (Longo. N, 2013).

While the debate over the contentious subject of GMOs is still not over, another extreme form of genetic engineering in our food, called synthetic biology, is making way for arrival.[2] This synthetic life- form is poised to revolutionize a number of fields, from medicine to food production. Research to evolve the technology is already underway in India. With Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call to the Niti Aayog on building a policy paper for providing sound scientific advice to develop modern biotechnology, synthetic biology is about to get a big push in India.

Unrestricted Pesticide Application
Even as GM and synthetically engineered food has not entered the diet plan of the Indians, the overwhelming majority of pesticides used on Indian farms shows that there’s no limit to the number of different pesticides that can be traced in our food. More than a third of food frauds take place due to "excessive or illegal pesticides", pathogen contamination and filth or insanitary conditions.  Although pesticide consumption in India is low at 600g/ha as compared to 13,000 g/ ha in China and 7000g/ ha in USA, pesticide residues in food products India, specially vegetables, are highest in the world. This may be due to unregulated use of pesticide caused by calendar spraying and pesticide subsidies for plant protection and high yield. A research project on pesticide residues under the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), New Delhi, found that 51% of food commodities were contaminated with pesticide residues and out of these 20% had pesticide residues above the maximum residue limit (MRL) values. The global figures for the same are 21% contamination with only 2% above the MRL (ICAR, 1999). 

After going through 3 major tragedies- Bhopal Gas Tragedy, the Endosulphan Tragedy in Kerala[3], and the Tragedy of Punjab’s Cancer Train[4] the government should have woken to excessive intrusion of science and technology on agriculture and food. But acceptance by the government in 2011 to the continued use of as many as 67 pesticide, which are either banned or severely restricted in other countries but allowed for use in India, is a matter of concern for human and ecological health. Of late, numerous incidences have been reported where edible items of daily consumption have been loaded with pesticidal residues much above the stipulated level. From discovery of pesticidal residues in vegetable, fruits, and grains in Kerala (2013) to a cocktail of more than 10 different pesticides with DDt present in tea leaves of leading brands, India still keeps and uses the that have been globally-rejected hazardous chemicals under pretext of the “poor farmers”.  

The Cancer Train in Punjab and patients of congenital deformities in 11 panchayats of Kasaragod district are symbolic of the complete breakdown of the regulatory mechanism on food safety in India despite presence of three government agencies that function under three different ministries to control and regulate pesticide usage in India. While, the Central Insecticides Board and Registration Committee (CIBRC), functioning under the Union agriculture ministry , approves introduction of new pesticides, officials from Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), under Union health and family welfare ministry, are responsible for checking the Maximum Residual Level (MRL) of pesticides in food crops at the end level (TNN, 2015). The third agency, Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA), under Union ministry of commerce and Industry, sets the guidelines and standards for certifying organic farms.

Look what you cook!
Assuming that the food crop harvested from farms are cultivated organically without the use of synthetic chemical inputs or GMOs, the quality and health standard of the food item being sold in the market is still dubious. From soapy milk to toxic apples, India has suffered adulteration scandals for years. One out of five food samples fails quality test in India, reports the FSSAI Annual Public Laboratory Testing Report, 2014-15 (India Today, 2015). Out of 49,290 food samples tested by the apex food body, 8,469 did not clear the laboratory tests for food safety, bringing the rate of food fraud rate-adulteration, contamination or mislabelling to a gasp-worthy 20 per cent (India Today, 2015). This figure for food adulteration was just 13 per cent in 2011-12

Milk is one of the most commonly adulterated food items. In a nationwide study conducted in 2012, 68.4% of the 1,791 milk samples violated the standards set by the Food Safety Standards Authority of India standards (FSSAI). The study found detergent in 103 samples and skimmed milk powder in 548 samples. Water was identified as the most common adulterant. Some samples even contained impurities like urea, liquid formaldehyde, and detergent solution. Cheating was just over twice (68%) as high in urban areas vis-à-vis rural areas (31%). All of the samples from Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Daman and Diu, Jharkhand, Orissa, West Bengal and Mizoram were substandard.

Even fruits and vegetables are manipulated to focus on its cosmetic appearance by being waxed for a longer life or ripened quick by adding ripening agents. The pressure to ensure a regular supply of fruits, much before their due time of arrival in the mandis, make traders and retailers use all kinds of unscrupulous methods to ripen fruits artificially. The problem is more severe in the case of mangoes and bananas, and sometimes apples, papayas, guavas, pears and plums as well (The tribune, 2006). Though many techniques are employed to ripen mature fruits, the most commonly used agent is calcium carbide, a cancer-causing chemical banned under The Prevention of Food Adulteration Rules, 1955 and also under Food Safety and Standards Regulation, 2011. It has carcinogenic properties and is used in gas welding for steel goods. This method is being used in most of the climacteric fruits (fruits which are picked when mature, and ripened only after they are picked) like mangoes and bananas. No wonder, health freaks that go on a fruit diet to keep fit, often end up with mouth ulcers, gastric irritation or even food poisoning.  Fearing these trends, our primary fruits and vegetable importing countries are keeping the imports under additional scrutiny. In 2014, the European Union temporarily banned the import of famous Alphonso mangoes, eggplant, taro plant, bitter gourd and snake gourd while Saudi Arabia banned the import of green chillies (Economic Times, 2015).

The booming adulteration business has a wide expanse. It goes beyond natural / minimally processed foods to processed and ultra processed food.[5] The neatly wrapped and sealed packet of a leading brand of noodle is as much an object of suspicion as Samosa or tikki on the roadside. In fact, the former may be more misleading; hiding harmful effects. A  lab tested on 16 major brands of junk foods relished by people, particularly the young, that included items like  potato chips, snacks like aloo bhujia, noodles, soft drinks, burgers, French fries and fried chicken found that companies resort to large scale misbranding and misinformation ( CSE, 2012). Many claimed their products to contain zero trans fats, but had heavy doses of it, along with salts and sugar – which inevitably leads to severe ill health and diseases like obesity and diabetes. The table below blows the lid off the popular food we have been consuming without realising the hazard they impose on human health. 

Table 2: The Food Scandals

S No.
Food Item
Detecting agency
Maggi Noddles
Lead nearly seven times the permissible limit and significant levels of MSG
Food Safety and Standards Authority of India
Energy drinks  (Monster, Tzinga, and Cloud 9)
Irrational combination of ginseng and caffeine
Food Safety and Standards Authority of India
Chicken (Delhi, NCR)
Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) 
Milk (Delhi, NCR)
Significant levels of paint and detergent
Food Safety and Standards Authority 
Branded Tea
Use of ‘unapproved’ pesticides and in excess of recommended limits
Energy drink ( Red Bull, Cloud 9, Monster)
Breach the caffeine limit of 145 ppm set for carbonated beverages
Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) 
Coca Cola , Pepsi
High levels of pesticides and insecticides
Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) 
Bottled Water
(Aquaplus, Mac Dowell’s, Bislery, Kinley)
Cocktail of pesticide residues
Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) 
Source: CSE and Outlook

Since food passes through multiple hands from the farm to reach our plates, ensuring food safety requires multisectoral collaboration. The approach needs to be preventive — to improve food safety and quality through application of good farming practices by using agro chemicals or veterinary drugs only in the prescribed amount. Good storage, transportation, retail and restaurant practices are equally important to make food safe. Precautionary measures also needs to be taken from consumers’ end, e.g., not buying fruits and vegetables that arrive in the market before the due season, rejecting pieces that have a uniform colour, buying from small vendors than from the supermarkets, selecting smaller varieties (as smaller the piece, the more organic it is), soaking them in a clean vessel and thoroughly rinsing thereafter, and most importantly, growing our own food.

Some promising announcements have been made by the government in 2014 including the phase out of the use of Endosulfan by 2017 and all existing stock of the pesticides that have passed  its expiry date, as well as review the Food Safety and Standards Act.  But with new threats to food safety constantly emerging — the impact of climate change on food production, distribution and consumption; emerging biological and environmental contamination of the food chain, new technologies, new and emerging pathogens; antimicrobial resistance— there is an urgent need to make the food safety policy more comprehensive, and incorporate a national food safety programme encompassing all sectors and aspects for food safety. Some countries have taken novel and notable initiatives such as the mobile food courts in Bangladesh and certification of street food vendors with a “Clean Food, Good Taste” logo in Thailand. Safety is the essential precursor on which the food industry is built – the absolute bottom line.

[1] A third of food produced around the world is wasted every year. 
[2] While genetic engineering is usually about one engineered gene, synthetic biology is about organisms with whole new gene clusters. By using engineering principles, synthetic biology designs and constructs biological parts, devices and systems and redesign natural organisms to meet useful purposes. 
[3] It is one of the world’s worst pesticide disasters that took place in Kasaragod district of Kerala due to a public sector undertaking spraying endosulfan aerially in cashew plantations for 24 years (1976 - 2000), three times a year. 
[4] The passenger runs train from Bathinda to Bikaner carrying cancer patients. Chemicals used in this region during Green Revolution and afterwards are held responsible for making it a cancer prone belt of the Punjab. 
[5]  Naturally processed food is obtained directly from plants or animals, processed includes pickles, cheeses, tomato extract and ultra processed and packaged snacks, biscuits, ice-creams, energy drinks, instant soups and noodles and pre-prepared meat, fish, vegetables, pizza, pasta dishes and burgers.

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