Nestle Hits New Delhi

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.

Sugar

 

  • 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.
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It’s been awhile since somebody moved a capital…

These photos of Naypyidaw, Burma’s two-year-old capital city, are breathtaking. I can’t help but think of the many abandoned cities and forts that I’ve visited in India. I imagine they were equally absurd displays of government resources in their day, and now they’re in ruins.

You can learn a lot about people’s aspirations in these scenes: the yawning concrete plazas in front of tidy malls, brightly lit and symmetrical towers, uniformly painted homes…I can process these images and recognize their themes from growing up in the United States. I would love to know what the equivalents were in prior city building. In the 14th century, when Sultan Muhammed bin Tughluk moved the entire, half-million population of Delhi to his new capital Daulatabad, did the elite inhabit something like today’s “model home”?

Daulatabad

My new story is out in Georgia Magazine

I wrote a story this summer for Georgia Magazine, the alumni publication of the University of Georgia, where I went to college. It was fun to renew my UGA ties all the way out here in India.

The article’s a straightforward profile of Dr. Virander Chauhan, who was wonderful to talk with and is involved with a staggering variety of research. As a science geek, I loved it.

But the best part of my experience was when I got to visit the lab. The International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology seems to live up to its name. There were so many students from both India and ICGEB’s other member countries, all working together. The optimist in me (which I admit only emerges rarely) hopes that all this collaboration will extend throughout their careers. It was fun to see their enthusiasm.

Back to Axe

Here are two examples of the Axe postcards mentioned in my previous post. I found them outside the bathroom at Urban Pind. I’m told that pind means village in Punjabi. It’s swank club in South Delhi, the kind of place that serves both imported wines and a cocktail curiously dubbed “The Bronx,” which by all indications is just gin and juice (orange, in fact).

Example #1

AbductedAbducted2

Example #2

MolestedMolested2

Oh, the Web Woven by Unilever

Here I am this afternoon, writing in a conscious effort to stumble back towards relevancy on this blog. I sat down with the idea of commenting on this recent article from the New York Times Magazine about the intersection between public health and marketing for Lifebuoy soap in India. It opens with the idea that corporate social responsibility is not just the domain of large, Western-owned corporations charitably distributing part of their profits to the poor around the world. Another model is to sell to the poor directly, while supplying some sort of benefit to them along the way. Sounds a lot like Grameen Bank’s yogurt (see my post on February 7, 2007).

So, rather than just sell their Lifebuoy soap in India, Unilever has simultaneously run a pro-handwashing campaign that, quite rightly, reminds people that soap can prevent many of the myriad communicable diseases in this country. Another part of their scheme was to introduce smaller bars of soap that would be more affordable. I remember several years ago when I sat in the library of Seva Mandir, an NGO that advocates for the poor in Rajasthan, and read about their efforts to educate village midwives about the benefits of washing their hands before delivering babies. Certainly, it’s not a given that rural people will know how important soap is.

But I couldn’t get another New York Times article, published only two weeks ahead of the Lifebuoy piece, out of my mind. This one had rather a rather creepy analysis of India’s fondness for skin lightening creams, including prominent coverage of the Fair and Lovely brand owned by…Unilever. The article proposed that such creams might in fact be empowering to women, because their new light-skinned selves would be more likely to win competitive corporate jobs previously open to men. Hmmm….

Which brings me to the Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign. In the United States, Dove has embarked on a grassrootsy-flavored marketing blitz to reassure women that diversity is beautiful. Dove is also owned by Unilever.

But while researching the Dove connection, I ran into this little gem. From Axe, a men’s body spray owned by…Unilever.

Axe

But wait! It gets even more confusing. Back to India, where I’ve happened upon several postcard ads for Axe displayed outside the bathrooms of Delhi nightclubs. I can’t find the images online, so I’ll just describe in brief. Basically, they’re mug shots of women who’ve been arrested for molesting, stalking, and otherwise pursuing men saturated with the scent of Axe. Their catch phrase for this irresistability, worldwide, is The Axe Effect. If you just glance quickly, though, it’s easy to mistake the postcards as commands to molest or stalk the woman pictured.

Unilever, my brain hurts.

You’re it!

I’ve been tagged by my friend (okay, husband!) James on his blog 113thStreet. I have to tell you folks 7 things about myself…So this gives me the chance to make what’s been primarily a “work blog” into something a little more personal.

Here goes:

1) I love to knit. I’ve made sweaters, a purse, a tank top, hats, scarves, and a belt. Sadly, though, I’ve been hiatus since my arrival to India. Anyone know any good yarn stores in Delhi?

2) My Mandarin name is Gao Ailing, which means “most lovely one.”

3) I used to be named Gao Kai, until my second-year Chinese teacher in college realized that my first teacher, who was quite elderly and kind of eccentric, had given me a popular boy’s name. She corrected that one fast!

4) One day I’d like to write a novel, perhaps based on something to do with bioethics, frozen embryos, and family. You might ask, why is she not writing it now, when she has all this spare time? Beats me.

5) I sometimes think of going back to school to get a PhD in the medical humanities. But this is unlikely, since I really like writing and reading more than I enjoy analyzing other people’s work in an academic setting. So, I get my fill by reviewing fiction and non-fiction for the Bellevue Literary Review.

6) My favorite albums at the moment are Bitter Tea (by The Fiery Furnaces) and Night Ripper (by Girl Talk).

7) I’m really good with electrical tape. I can get that stuff perfectly straight, tight, and smooth. Not an air bubble or wrinkle. At my old job in Boston, at Tufts University, I got to tape plastic lids on the ends of cylinders that we used for developing 3-D gels. The cylinders were filled with radioactive milk, and if you didn’t tape oh-so-carefully, you’d wind up with a gross, dangerous mess. I was also a “world-class pipetter” according to my former boss, an accomplishment that involved lots of eye squinting and perfecting my hand’s center of gravity. Any ideas on how to use these skills in normal life?

I now tag Alex and Luke.