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Processed food won't feed the poor
By Devinder Sharma



Government is extending all possible support to the food processing industry on the pretext of food security and reducing wastage. However, the facts say the processing industry prefers imported ingredients over local food leading to increased wastage and rise in food prices.

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Food processing will only make food dearer for poor

We repeatedly hear that India ranks 66th among the 88 countries categorised in the IFPRI Global Hunger Index. This is happening at a time when 40 per cent of fruits and vegetables go waste due to improper storage and in transportation, and that too in a country which is the second biggest producer of vegetables, experts tell us.

However, this flawed argument is very cleverly used to push food processing as a solution. Whether this will help in ensuring food security for the poor and have-nots is something that is very clearly ducked by the industry. No wonder, the Planning Commission is making available roughly Rs 1.50 lakh crores in the 10th and 11th Plan period for the food processing industry. It isn't therefore surprising when you hear radio advertisements telling you about Rs 50 lakh subsidy available if you set up a food processing plant.

First of all, this statistical figure of 40 per cent existed even when I was a student some 30 years back. I am sure ten years from now, we would still be hearing this data of 40 per cent wastage, while no body is making an effort to find out whether the wastage has been reduced or increased. The figure of food loss is used by the industry to seek more subsidy, more funds. And the academicians, and the policy makers, ostensibly appalled by the extent of food wastage, and in their ignorance support the massive subsidies demanded by the processing industry.

How can one justify that our own harvest of oranges/kinnows goes waste while the industry finds it convenient to import concentrates from abroad?

However, Yoga guru Swami Ramdev recently made it abundantly clear that the processed foods do not feed the poor and hungry. His organisation Patanjali Vidyapeeth in Haridwar had recently set up a food processing unit, probably one of the biggest in the country. As someone who is actually engaged in food processing, it was revealing to learn from him that the processed foods are expensive and therefore not an answer to the bigger question of feeding the country.

Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee has also made budget allocations for the food processing industry. He has been more than kind to the food processing industry. He has allotted five food parks and given concessions on machinery for food processing equipments, which of course would be welcomed by the industry. Considering the impact of the policies, I wonder how it will help in addressing the food challenge for the country. Now, we know that food waste has to be minimised, but why do it in the name of feeding the poor?

Often the industry quotes another statistics - only 2 per cent of the food in India is processed, which is a pittance considering what the US and Europe does. This is something that I cannot digest. In fact, this is a misinformation campaign simply to hoodwink the gullible consumer to believe how urgent is the need to set up food processing plants.

Let us look at it dispassionately. In the Indian households most of the food is cooked and is processed at the home level. In other words, 100 per cent food is processed, the only difference being that it is done at the household level. The statistics that we quote are therefore misleading. If this food is not being processed by the industry, is there a problem? Does it mean that the processed food in the market would be more healthy and nutritious? If not, than why are we promoting a shift in our food consumption habits and patterns just to expand the reach of the market?


Home cooked Indian food is healthier and lighter on pocket

In the US and Europe people increasingly rely on processed foods from the shops because they do not know how to cook. In the OECD countries, the agri-business industry has over the years succeeded in building up the dependency for food supplied through shops. People are forgetting how to cook at home and eat healthy.

Not surprising to know that in the US alone, more than 4 lakh people die every year from obesity, and its related suffering. In other words, from eating the wrong food.

Considering that there is no need for us to follow the US and European models and increase the sale of processed foods in the shops. There is no need for us to spread the faulty information and 'educate' the people that they don't have to waste time in cooking, and that it is demeaning for the women to be in the kitchen. But yes, increasing number of members from the nouveau riche class feels ashamed in spending enough time at home to cook, and it is this class or generation that suffers more from diabetes and heart-strokes.

In the US and Europe people increasingly rely on processed foods from the shops because they do not know how to cook.

With growing awareness over health issues, consumers in India (and elsewhere) should be directed to reduce their growing preference for processed foods. Now from ready-to-serve paranthas to canned dal makhani are available on the supermarket shelves. Forget about the taste, they carry several harmful ingredients. Some people may find these products very useful, but I strongly feel that we need to educate the young on the advantages of cooking at home. It is not only economical, but also healthy and nutritious.

All industries thrive on subsidies and bailout packages. This is how the GDP goes up, and the manipulative Industrialists loot the State exchequer. More than any one, our industry is capable of taking care of itself and does not need support or handholding from the government. The subsidy allotted for the food processing industry should have been given to the farmers who are in dire need of support. If the farmer welfare is given adequate consideration, the entire food chain would be safe. And we can shun the processed foods, we will help the present generation, and also save the future generations from the unhealthy and hazardous foods that are being marketed.

Swami Ramdev has already inspired the nation to take control of their health in their own hands. We now have to extend this to the food that we consume. We have to take control of the food we eat. There is a need to build up a nationwide campaign on healthy cooking and healthy eating. As to the role the agri-business industry can play, I suggest it pays attention on rampant food adulteration that prevails.

If the industry can somehow ensure that the raw material and the ingredients that we need for our daily consumption are safe and pure, it would be no less than a revolution. At the same time, processing industry need not be always high tech and sophisticated in the manner that it bypasses some of the normal requirements that people have, like milk-based products (especially sweets) that are at present highly adulterated.

Equally worrying is the increasing dependence of the food processing industry on imported fruit concentrates. If you import orange concentrate from Brazil/Chile and then provide juice in tetra packs, this will not help reduce the 40 per cent fruits that go waste. In fact, the fruit wastage will increase. How can one justify that our own harvest of oranges/kinnows goes waste while the industry finds it convenient to import concentrates from abroad? Simply put, the arguments in favour of food processing that it would help in food security and reduce wastage are not based on sound logic and ground realities. But our policy makers are more concerned about the demands of the industry than the ground reality.

 
Disclaimer:
The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.
 

Devinder Sharma  |  hunger55@gmail.com

Devinder Sharma is an award-winning journalist, writer, and researcher globally recognised for his analysis on food, agriculture and trade policy. 

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Feedback /Comments on this article
 
Encourage food processing industry

This is an industry waiting to explode. This will create huge employment opputunity. All government support for food processing is jsutified. But I do agree on the preference of the industry to imported gradients. This needs a careful look. Sometimes quality can be an issue.

Posted By: Dhirendra Mishra
Dated: Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Processing industries can help the farmers

It is wrong to condemn all food processing industries. Not only wastage of crop produce can be reduced by processing but it can also help farmers get good prices for their crops. Agreed, few multinational companies procure ingredients from outside India, but many buy from within India. If farmers work hard to increase production, who will buy their produce if food processing industries are not encouraged.

Posted By: Balvinder Bhatti
Dated: Monday, March 29, 2010

 
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An interesting debate in UK's House of Commons delved on future of development assistance by the British Government. While prioritizing limited resources has been a concern, there has been no denying the fact that development aid must be guided towards tangible gains over a short period of time to start with. There are difficult choices for elected governments to make - should they invest in long-term primary education or in short-term university scholarships? Which of these will bring gains and trigger long-term transformation in the society. As politicians continue to be divided on the matter, poverty persists!!   

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