Seeing the Connections: Food, Health and Climate Change

In this era of oil, technology and information, all of us are busy all the time. There is so much to do, so many demands from within and without, and we need all the comforts and entertainment we can get to avoid falling off the treadmill of daily work. It is also an era of specialization and division of labour. Engineers know little of social sciences, eye specialists don’t know the work of bone specialists, and most of us in cities do not know how the farmers grow our grain, where our food comes from or what exactly is in it.

During the last decade, however, we are getting subjected to constant jolts. Climate change, predicted long ago by some scientists, seems to be signalling to us that the party is over (or more meaningful, and grounded life is about to begin, which is another way to look at it). Terrorism and climate crises keep jolting us now and again. And now, several scientists, journalists and nutritionists are giving us another jolt – that our food is not something we can take for granted.

Thanks to two thirds of Americans having become overweight or obese, and suffering from an increasing incidence of cardiovascular diseases, strokes, diabetes, cancers etc., several researchers and activists have been prompted to share with the world the truth about the foods we eat.

Seeing the whole picture about food is difficult for most of us because, with our present complex globalised economic system, we have no idea, for instance, if the soft and juicy corn we get at the malls and movie theatres today is genetically modified corn from the US (which is producing double the corn it needs, and more than half of its corn is GM); neither do we know what role the WTO, various food companies or various politicians have played to make it available everywhere; nor do we know which chemicals have been used to make the corn tasty and attractive…

Consider what is happening to food and our health today –

  1. 􏰒􏰿􏰞􏰊􏰅Typical American fast foods, known to cause obesity and several lifestyle diseases are now becoming popular in India – and are sold even in educational institutions and􏰔􏰜 hospitals.
  2. During the last three decades there have been several research studies and books, revealing the dangers of trans-fats, excito-toxins, sugar substitutes and other chemicals used in processed  foods.While the west is beginning to worry about its processed foods, countries like India are happily embracing them.
  3. Very few shops in cities sell pesticide- free vegetables; and wheat,rice, meatetc.Often have pesticide and antibiotic residues in them which we are not aware of. Chemicals in foods are said to be one of the causes of cancers today.
  4. More than 2000 chemicals are used in processed foods like jams, cheese, sausages, biscuits, chips, beverages, etc.Several of these, which are banned in some western countries are being used with insufficient or no regulation in India.
  5. Many of these chemicals are used in Indian, Chinese and other restaurants and in street foods like ‘chats’ etc. These together with excess salt, sugar and fats make for reduced nutrients and increase in empty calories in these foods.
  6. Polished grains, particularly polished rice and maida are used extensively in India., and a recent research study says that these are responsible for the high incidence ofdiabetesinIndia, adding to our supposedly genetic predisposition to it.
  7. Genetically Modified Foodsare expected to enter India in a big way – while the campaign against GM Foods the world over is intensifying because of its known and unknown potential for disaster.

Information and rational arguments alone do not help us see all the complex issues regarding our foods. Our irrational desires, our compulsions of the mind and addictions of the body all play amore important role in our difficulty in seeing the larger picture.

Facts about slow poisoning versus our compulsions

“Well, I have been eating all kinds of foods for several years and I like good food – I’m fine, so why make a fuss?” Such statements are common in response to the kind of information given above. But what is good food? Good food has come to mean certain kinds of tasty food, irrespective of its true nutritional value, harmful ingredients or its food miles.It does not seem to matter if food has been made tasty with excessive salt, sugar, fats and chemicals. Also by default, truly nutritious “good food” is considered non tasty – without actually verifying this assumption. Certain kinds of foods, be it polished rice or fried foods have become addictions or compulsions – it is difficult therefore to change our food habits unless we suffer a drastic health problem and are practically forced to do so. Even then there is usually a strong sense of missing out on indulgence for the rest of our lives.

The problem with the modern food system is that its negatives show up slowly. We don’t drop dead or always break out with a rash soon after eating the processed or chemical ridden foods, nor even in a decade sometimes; moreover, these foods do not affect all of us in the same way. The slow poisoning by these foods leads to a range of diseases, and only when we fall prey to illness many of us wake up.

The connections between particular foods and specific diseases are not linear, cause-effect connections. When we do suffer migraines, fatigue, unexplained body pain, indigestion, constipation, or more serious illnesses, we are unable to trace their cause, so we either look for medicines or short term diet change. It has taken America about three decades to become obese and sick to wake up to the dangers of processed foods, excessive meat eating and unhealthy foods in general.

Isn’t this fact enough to make us take charge of our foods – to understand and search for a way of life and a “way of food” ?

Systems approach: Organic Agriculture

At least 35% of greenhouse gas emissions are created by the chemical agriculture, meat and food industry.

The figure may well be over 35%, since we do not have precise information about the carbon emissions produced by the long distance transportation of food, by factory processed foods etc. According to the United Nations (FAO Report, 2006), the meat industry alone is responsible for 18% of GHG emissions.

With the food sector contributing about a third of the carbon emissions today, there is no option but to review our food habits and change them. While there is certainly a need to look at food politics and the globalised free market economy, the actual process of agriculture and agricultural commerce cannot continue as at present, if we are to seriously attempt carbon mitigation.

Chemical agriculture requires production in factories and transportation, needs several times more water than organic agriculture and is responsible for more nitrous oxide emissions which is 296 times more potent than carbon-dioxide for global warming. And finally, the chemicals used degrade the soil, the pesticides pollute the water and there is a growing amount of scientific proof that they cause cancers and various congenital and other problems.

There is a large body of scientists and thinkers who are convinced that organic agriculture is the only long term solution to both carbon mitigation and food security. What we need to understand is that respecting Nature’s cycles are essential for a sustainable way of living. Only through organic agriculture can the cycle of sowing seeds, growing plants on soil and replenishing it back with organic matter for another cycle of growth be possible.

We need a systems approach to deal with agriculture in our world of fragmented, reductionist science and economics that externalizes costs. Trying to deal with insects eating up the harvest by spraying a pesticide is a piece-meal solution which does not take into account the unintended consequences of pesticides in food and water and does not see all the connections and patterns in nature and agriculture. Dealing with the same insects by understanding the relationships between different plants, using biodiversity to reduce crop loss, using bio-pesticides to avoid pollution of the land and water, taking into account a fair price for farmers etc., – all this is possible through small organic farms and would be more holistic – it is a systems approach that would be respectful of the ways of nature.

Organic agriculture is also labour intensive – and has the potential of slowing down urbanization which is part of the many ecological crises we face.

In other words, organic agriculture can simultaneously solve many problems, although during the first few years of transition from chemical agriculture, the farmer is likely to make losses because the soil richness takes time to develop from the years of abuse.To work with the farmers to go through this phase, communities in many parts of the world have begun to form tie-ups with them. Such farmer-city-community cooperatives helps the community get good food and the farmers get a fair living. Such arrangements are necessary and in India, a few organisations have begun procuring organic food items from farmers and supplying them to a niche market.

Satish Kumar, Jonathon Porritt (Forum for the Future), Wendell Berry, Vandana Shiva, Thomas Moore, Devinder Sharma, Claude Alvares are some of the many scientists and thinkers who advocate organic farming as well as a low or no meat diet as essential for dealing with the climate crisis. Several farmers’ organisations which are slowly growing all over India are also proving that organic agriculture in the long run does not lower yields if multicultural crops are taken into account. It istime we stopped romancing the world of consumer goods and valued the work that is important for our food security in the long run.

The issues about food are much more complex than they seem – but one thing is definitely true – what is good for the earth is good for our bodies too.

The Alkaline way: Following Nature’s wisdom

“We are not just a part of nature, we are nature”

As we have neglected to understand nature without, we have also overlooked nature within us: aspects that are crucial for our own health and well being. Yet again, we find that following Nature’s wisdom is the only real wisdom for us.

Homo Erectus evolved on earth about 200 million years ago and lived largely by eating fresh and raw fruits and vegetables and possibly a little small meat and fish. Our teeth, our jaws, our digestive system with intestines more than 60 feet long were designed to get as much nourishment as possible from leaves and fruits.

About 10,000 years ago, human beings began agriculture. While human beings adapted to their environment –be it in the Arctic or the Sahara, gradually agriculture enabled urban life and civilisations to flourish. Industrialisation and now, the globalised free market economy has led to a situationwhere our food consists largely of cereals and extracted oils, salts, sugar and chemicals with a limited quantity of fresh and raw foods.

Has the human body, which evolved through eating leaves and fruits for about 200 million years, learnt to adapt itself to eating the kind of foods we eat today?

An increasing number of scientists, nutritionists and authors on food are telling us that the best foods to eat are still plants – leaves, vegetables and fruits with reasonable amount of other foods suchas cereals, beans meats, fish and milk. Many scientists also spell out the needto maintain the body’s alkaline-acidic balance which is possible through such plant foods, (while oxygenation through deep breathing, having enough of water and amino acids from nuts, seeds, beans etc are also important for maintaining alkalinity).

What is alkaline – acidic balance ? Alkalinity and acidity are measured as ph levels of body fluids like blood and saliva. ‘Ph’ stands for Potential for Hydrogen. Ph levels range from 0 to 14. A ph value of 7 is neutral- water is normally neutral. Ph values less than 7 are acidic and ph values of more than 7 are alkaline.

Science is clear that our blood needs to be maintained at a ph level between 7.35 and 7.45. The ph level of blood is critical to our very survival – if it goes slightly above or below this range, we will die. When the ph of arterial blood is less than 7.41, the body is said to suffer from acidosis, when it is above 7.41, the body is said to suffer from alkalosis. This narrow range of ph level is as important for survival as the narrow range of temperatures within which our bodies have to be maintained. Our body does everything in its power to maintain the blood ph level within this range.

As in everything in nature, self- regulation is the key to sustaining life. Our bodies have this amazing ability of self-regulation so that if our food is very acidgenic (ie if it leaves acidic residue in the body) the digestive process borrows alkalizing materials or electrolytes from other parts of the body; electrolytes containing calcium, potassium etchelp to maintain this ph value. When different parts of the body lose electrolytes, we feel weak, get headaches or body pains, have an ‘acidic’ stomach, and in severe cases, over a period of time, we may get ulcers, cancers or other diseases.

While there is no scientific dispute about the significance of ph for the body, this fact has not been emphasized. We do not learn in school for instance, about the kind of foods we need to eat to maintain the slight alkalinity that we need for our health. The alternative health systems like naturopathy and some others, stress on the importance of maintaining a proper acid-alkali balance in the blood and the body, and therefore on eating foods that are about 60% alkaligenic and 40% acidgenic . Examples of alkaligenic foods and acidgenic foods are given in the table below.

Classification of some acidgmenic and alkaligenic foods adapted from the work of Dr. Regnar Berg.

The connection between acidosis and ill health is quite simple: our cells need to be healthy for all our organs to function well, and cells need an alkaline environment to function well. Interestingly, the alkalinity of the soil is essential to grow healthy plants and the alkalinity of the oceans are essential for life to be sustained in them. Human milk is also slightly alkaline.

Without focusing on the importance of maintaining our bodies at a slightly alkaline level, over the last 200 years, our food has become more and more acid-genic, eroding our strength and our immunity to a host of diseases. The Food Pyramid ‘A’, which is used as a guide to good eating is simply not sufficient and is actually misleading. It has led to a situation where the foods eaten by a large majority are as shown in ‘the failed food pyramid C’. Recently, doctors have warned us of increasing juvenile diabetes, even in rural areas in India. Modern medicine has been extremely successful with respect to communicable diseases. But now the bigger health problems we are faced with are what are called the non-communicable or lifestyle diseases – which we can deal with only if we respect nature within us, the nature of our bodies.

A major issue in India is our fondness for polished rice which is very acid- genic and according to recent research is responsible for increasing the incidence of diabetes in India. While storage of polished rice with most of its nutrients removed keeps it more insect-free, we are addicted to its taste as well. Several groups are promoting millets as a more healthful option which would also consume less water and other resources during its cultivation.

We have been carried away by the pampering of our tastebuds – be it through home-cooking, street foods or through the processed foods marketed by food giants. The media and consumerism as a way of life has enabled the monoculture of the American Diet to gradually make inroads into traditional food cultures around the world, leading to a situation where over a billion people are considered obese.

We need to recognize that the era where “consumer is king” needs to end, and accept that it is actually Nature or Mother Earth that rules over us.

Governmental Action and Individual Initiative

While certainly governmental action regarding food and agriculture can be more powerful and quick, its entrenchment in the nexus of various power centres will not allow for much change soon. Processed Foods and Chemical Agriculture increase the GDP, whereas Organic agriculture and discouraging packaged-processed foods will decrease GDP. So, no matter what the benefits of these to individual health, the Government is unlikely to change tracks in a hurry. In fact, our Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, has announced an allocation of Rupees One Lakh Thirty thousand crores for the processed food industry.

Moreover, the fact that almost two lakh farmers have committed suicide in India over the last decade, makes it clear that the Government is helpless in the face of the free market system, and the power of just the six Food corporates who control food in the world -Monsanto, Cargill, Syngenta, Bunge, Bayer and DuPont. These multinational corporates, with a huge number of their subsidiaries around the world, control 60% to 90% of the trade (not just production) in cereals, seeds, fertilizer, pesticides and also in the field of giving loans to farmers to buy their high priced products. The Government is clearly unable to think clearly and act decisively in the interests of the people.

If we cannot depend on the government to understand food, agriculture, food security, ecology, pollution, water, climate change, and much more, simultaneously, what can individuals do?

There is no way except to wake up and get concerned about our food at least at the individual and family levels. We need to search for information, make all the connections and educate ourselves. It also helps to critically understand about our own become aware of our ‘food print’ (carbon foot print for the food we eat), and be able to understand the whole picture including food politics, economics and media etc helps.

Then comes the classic advice by all experts in this area – Be the Change, eat local and seasonal foods, eat more plants, read labels and be wary of processed foods, reduce meats and food miles.

Finally, can we work if possible, not only to change our own food habits and perspectives on food, but also work for collective action which, hopefully, over time, can change the power centres of the world. Let us also remember that the Obamas have begun organic gardening at the White House and opened a farmers’ market just outside it.

This article is an approach paper for the Conference on Food, Health and Climate Change organized by Bhoomi Network for Sustainable Living, on 4th and 5th December 2009 at Bangalore.

(References: “In Defence of Food” by Michael Pollan, “Gaia – A New Look at Life on Earth” by James Lovelock, “Soil not oil” by Vandana Shiva, “The Battle for Health is over Ph” by Gary Tunsky, website of Dr Russell Blaylock)

Seetha Ananthasivan


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