When I opened up the India International Centre’s event calendar the other day, I hardly expected to see such a familiar name: Dr. Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health and professor of sociology at New York University. I became aware of Nestle during my days working at a Tufts nutrition lab, an environment that made her 2002 book Food Politics seem particularly timely to me.
But based on her continued status as expert on all things related to food politics, industry, research, and marketing, I doubt I was the only one struck by the thoroughness of her writing. And later, when I was attending NYU’s science journalism program, she was kind enough to send a personal rejection to my emailed request for her to be my mentor. With her schedule, I don’t blame her!
The lecture took place on October 2nd, which is Gandhi’s birthday and thus a national holiday in India. It was the 8th annual Albert Howard Memorial Lecture set up by Navdanya, a group that works on preserving the diversity of local food culture. Albert Howard appears to be the grandfather of organic farming in India; he was sent in by the British in the early 20th century to modernize Indian agriculture but instead found he had a lot to learn from Indian farmers about non-chemical pest control and fertilizers.
I was eager to see whether Nestle would be able to connect her interpretation of food, which focuses largely on the American context, with India’s food universe. She did remarkably well. And having lived in Delhi for over a year now, when she described the awe-inspiring supermarket aisles in the US, the scene’s instant familiarity practically gave me the chills.
The lecture, as well as the opening and closing remarks of Navdanya’s Dr. Vandana Shiva, covered a lot of ground. Here are the highlights:
- Dr. Shiva began by summarizing India’s multidimensional food crisis. She highlighted sugarcane farmers from western Uttar Pradesh, who still haven’t received payment from the sugar mills for last year’s crop. She reminded the audience to think about this injustice every time they put sugar in a cup of coffee or tea. Given that processed sugar is marketed here as pure and “untouched by hands,” this example draws an important connection between urban consumerism and rural agriculture.
- She also said that India’s food crisis consists of two main elements: food sovereignty (being able to provide all of its people with adequate quantities of nutritious food) and food safety (free of agricultural chemicals, unadulterated, fresh, not genetically modified). She pointed out that the latter point is particularly relevant because India is currently considering how to label, test, and ensure the safety of genetically modified foods.
- Dr. Nestle first examined how corporations are changing India’s food supply. She was surprised, as I no longer am after a year here, to find Frito Lay chips being sold at a roadside stand on the way to Jaipur. Frito Lay is owned by Pepsico, and in India the chips cost about 50 cents for a three ounce bag, around the same price as a simple meal of rice, daal (lentil soup), and subzi (vegetable).
- WalMart’s impending entry into the Indian marketplace was, naturally, a big topic. Dr. Nestle reported that, according to the Wall Street Journal, India has a $335 billion retail economy that the superstore is eager to tap into. She didn’t say anything I hadn’t heard before in the Indian press, but she did firmly state to the audience that small retailers would, as they did in the US, be overcome by WalMart. Some politicians and business people here are arguing otherwise, that small general stores and local grocers will continue to fill a niche with their personalized service and accessible locations. I tend to fall on the side of Dr. Nestle, though the idea of large chain stores in India does baffle me. For them to be successful at keeping their products at bare-minimum prices, they will need to transform transportation and supply networks throughout the country.
- Dr. Nestle then shifted gears a bit, adapting her analysis of the American food industry to fit the interests of her Indian audience. She explained how the glut of certain agricultural products in the US (namely corn) has lowered prices so much that the food industry must struggle to make a profit. This economic concern has translated into a variety of practices that contribute towards obesity: people being encouraged to eat outside the home, companies selling large volumes of food at cheaper prices than smaller portions, and heavy marketing to promote processed foods, especially to children who will be life-long consumers.
- As I mentioned above, my favorite part of the evening was when she diagrammed the typical American supermarket. She explained how the layout influenced shopping choices: dairy items placed at the back so that people must walk through many aisles to reach them, fruits and vegetables up front to create the mood of a farmers’ market, expensive processed items at eye level and in great quantities that encourage stocking up. By comparison, the Delhi supermarkets I’ve visited (and shopped at) are hardly larger than a gas station convenience store and are very status-oriented (stocking American Skippy peanut butter rather than Indian Prutina, which is perfectly good stuff and a third of the price).
- Her message was that this is the future India has to look forward to: low prices at impersonal corporate stores, the transformation of agriculture, and a slew of overeating-related health problems. All the while, India will still have to address its millions of undernourished citizens. Outright famine is rare here, but stunted growth and chronic diseases caused by malnutrition are common. The sad thing is that India actually has enough food: 2,500 calories available for each person (as compared to 3,900 in the US). The problem is that, due to corruption and poor storage techniques, the food isn’t distributed to everyone who needs it.
- Dr. Shiva concluded with a reminder that India’s food crisis is acute: by the end of the year, she estimates that 200,000 farmers will have committed suicide over their financial desperation.
- On a positive note, the elite, well-connected audience at the lecture seemed very passionate about these issues. Considering how much of this country’s decisions seem to be made through personal connections and networking, maybe this group will be able to use its power to influence how the food business takes shape over the coming years. India in no way has to follow the American example. And Dr. Nestle, for her part, ended her talk with the many grassroots efforts Americans are making to take control over their food supply.