Food Models that Work

What follows is the third part of a talk called “Women’s Rights Perspective in Birth, Breastfeeding and Food” that I presented at a Training Program on Gender, Work and Health held at the National Labour Institute, Delhi in March 2014.  The earlier two parts concern Birth and Breastfeeding.

Part III. Food Models that Work.

Time is not on our side. We are on different coaches of a long, accelerating, burning train. The few air conditioned coaches in the front are insulated for the time being from the fire that is blazing in the coaches at the back, where the majority of the passengers travel. one of the coaches have already derailed (think of the 200,000 farmer suicides). However, the wealthy people in the AC coaches want the engine staff to run the train even faster. The latter are fully aware that the flames will be further fed by the wind if the speed is increased, creating many more derailments and casualties But they are either seduced by the thrill of the ride or appear helpless before the pressure brought upon them by the occupants of the luxury coaches (both Indians and foreigners (no less than by the international station masters (the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank) who are cheering on each such national train in the ruthless economic race that globalization has unleashed between nations.

– Aseem Shrivastava & Ashish Kothari, Churning the Earth: The Making of Global India

The breastfeeding model that works depends on a food model that works. Posing an unrelenting threat to breastfeeding is a food model that does not work. And the communities practicing the working models of birth, breastfeeding and food are the ones most threatened by the current policies of food and by extension, the policies of land, water, industrial development and globalization. In order to recover and uphold the working traditions of food and health, we must oppose the forces of globalization and corporate-driven development that are threatening those who have sustained the knowledge and practice that keeps these available for all and not just the few.

Nothing undermines breastfeeding and food more than the food industry, which is determined to control the global food system by modifying people’s daily food habits and the culture and cultivation of food. Destroying the ecosystems that support uncultivated food, and the communities that sustain the biodiversity and harvest these wild foods is just a step along the way to political and economic control of agriculture, land, water, forests, human resources, transportation infrastructure, media and all that is required to make industrial food a viable alternative to the real thing.

The real thing being, as Michael Pollan has said, food that comes from a plant, and is not made in a plant. Food in all its feisty diversity, local food, fresh, wild, home-prepared, slow food, varying by season and region – in short the food that people have eaten for generations, but which the prevailing policies of land, water, agriculture, industrial development and corporate media, make into a luxury that only the rich can afford. While so doing however, the industry also persuades the government that this is good for the public, and persuades the public that their products lead to success in life.

The rapid substitution of industrial food for food, however, spells doom not only for personal and public health, but also for the environment, for democracy, and for society as a whole.

Catching stomach-share early and often

One path to undermining people’s faith in food is to undermine their faith in breastfeeding. As long as breastfeeding is recognized and trusted as the normal and adequate source of nutrition, and the resulting growth accepted as normal, then there will be no motivation to increase the pace or quantity of solid food consumed.

Without this motivation not only will the consumption of formula and other infant milk substitutes be limited to those with medical needs, but people will also tend to see packaged foods as suited to specific situations like travel or movies or emergencies and not for everyday use.

For those selling packaged food, this scenario is bleak. Therefore, by fuelling the motivation to see that children eat more food sooner, and gain more weight faster, the food industry supplies products designed to bring about those results. If they succeed, and children eat more solid food, they will breastfeed less. However if the solid food they eat is highly processed and manufactured to cultivate the taste for more processed food with industrially calibrated flavors, textures and salt-sugar-fat concentrations, it will not lead them to eat food.  Breastfeeding, in contrast, introduces the diverse tastes of everything the family eats.

In other words, children learn to eat food by first tasting the food through breastfeeding. Eventually every child learns to meet all nourishment requirements through food, and until then, keeps on breastfeeding to complement food-eating.  If children learn to eat food, then it is more difficult to market packaged food.

When allowed to find their own balance between breastfeeding and solids, children gradually wean without pressure or short-cuts. However when they are expected to eat more food than what they eat on their own, or gain more weight than what they do on their own, then those monitoring their eating are prone to feelings of disappointment and inadequacy.

By propagating insecurity about breastfeeding, casting doubt on women’s bodies and babies’ instincts, questioning whether a mother has “enough milk” or whether the milk is “good enough” or whether it is okay for a child to breastfeed “so much” or “so long,” the food industry has presented its products as substitutes for meals, making tall claims endorsed by men and women in white lab coats, athletes, and even religious tradition.

Government Stamp and Public Funds for Packaged Foods

Apart from subsidies that the food industry gets in order to consume land, water, electricity and human resources, and to pollute air and water, the public funds the packaged food industry in a way that directly helps them increase their stomach share.  For several years the food industry has attempted to get contracts to supply the Anganwadis through the Integrated Child Development Services program with no avail.  Such prominent economists as Amartya Sen spoke out strongly against it.   However in recent years we have seen the food industry bag lucrative contracts with the ICDS in Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh and perhaps in other states.  In lieu of raw grains as take-home rations and freshly cooked hot meals served on site, the anganwadi in Srikakulam District, Andhra Pradesh has started providing “packaged snack food” in the anganwadi and packets of powdered food for use at home.


See also:  Keep Industrial Food out of ICDS
Should the ICDS serve packaged food?
While it is illegal to state or suggest that formula is as good as breastmilk and there are strict rules, however poorly implemented, about the marketing of formula, there aren’t any rules against comparing packaged food to food.

Violations of Food Safety Standards and Advertising Laws

I have listed in “Towards a Breastfeeding Model that Works” several companies that violate food safety standards set by the government and specifically use false advertising.
Unfortunately, as Down to Earth reported, “The regulations in India allow companies to get away with whatever they want to advertise to people. Companies can be a fined a maximum of Rs 10 lakh for false and misleading claims under Section 24.  This is negligible amount for the companies which make crores by selling their products.” [Avimuktesh Bhardwaj, “Complan, Saffola and Kellog’s under Scanner for Misleading the Public,” Down to Earth, Dec 1, 2012.]

No Horlicks

Horlicks’ false claims, banned in the UK still appear in India.

For example, an advertisement for Horlicks that is banned in the UK and other countries still appears in India.  Though there is no evidence for the stated claims, the advertisement features a practitioner of a lucrative pseudo-science dubbed as a “nutri-absorb scientist,” wearing a white lab coat and suggests that the product is actually better than food.

Not stopping with marketing to children by means of false advertising, the company has gone ahead to violate the Infant Milk Substitutes Act and the International Code of Marketing Breastmilk Substitutes, with one of the most egregious examples of “idealizing the product.”

Using the religious ritual of the "Anna Prasna" or baby's introduction to food, to sell powdered packaged food substitute.

Horlicks uses the religious ritual of the “Anna Prasna” or baby’s introduction to food, to sell powdered packaged food substitute.

On television, an advertisement recommends that Junior Horlicks suggests deserves a place in the religious ceremony known as the “Anna Prasna,” which in some traditions is baby’s first introduction to food. This represents the persistent effort of the food industry to increase the stomach share for processed foods, or “industrial food-like substances,” as early as possible.

And by vigorously promoting packaged food as an alternative to food, and even superior to food, the food industry threatens not only the practice of eating food but along with it, the practice of breastfeeding as well.


The culture of eating

In natural resource based communities, particularly in indigenous communities, uncultivated food forms a significant portion of the diet. The recently held Adivasi Food Festival in Rayagada highlighted this fact, featuring 1500+ foods, of which more than 900 were uncultivated.

Adivasi Food Festival in Odisha featured 1500 varieties of food, of which more than 900 were uncultivated.  Photo:  Devinder Sharma.  From India Together.

Adivasi Food Festival in Odisha featured 1500 varieties of food, of which more than 900 were uncultivated. Photo: Devinder Sharma. From India Together.

As these communities lose their lands, forests, water and natural resource base, these food varieties as well as the culture and ecosystems in which they grow, are lost to humanity, often irrevocably.

What are the land policies that shape and are shaped by food habits that are shaped by the food industry, and how does our path of development affect land tenure, food habits and agricultural policy?  Among the major critiques of the Food Security Bill (2013) are that it is disconnected from agriculture and land rights, and treats food distribution in isolation from food sovereignty.   It therefore calls for no change in the policies that are moving people away from their lands, forests and sources of food and water, such the Land Acquisition Act (1894), The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, Special Economic Zone Act(2005), Special Investment Region Act (2009) and Foreign Direct Investment.  FDI in the food industry has crossed the $2 billion level and is growing at nearly double the rate of agriculture.  The National Mission on Food processing      We cannot separate these policies from issues of food security, food habits, breastfeeding and women’s rights.

Let us look at how industrial policy and involuntary displacement affected the food habits of the Koya Adivasis of Dantewada, who had lived on their lands for centuries but were abruptly ousted between 2007-10.  Let us look specifically at what they carried in their bags as they fled through the forests across the border into Khammam and Warangal Districts in Andhra Pradesh.


They carried their seeds.  In the small patches of land they could cultivate in the forest, they managed to grow varieties of vegetables as well as grains and pulses not supplied by any government ration supply.   Little millet, Sorghum, Foxtail millet and Pearl millet.  They also dry and process these grains in front of their homes.   Other families living in the area also cultivated these grains, on much larger fields.  The government could purchase these grains and included them in the ration supply – thus supporting the local farmers and supplying a more nutritious grain to the villagers – but instead the government supplies rice, that too white, stripped of most of its nutrients.    In contrast what they grow on their own is nutritionally far superior and they also eat the whole grain.

In a generation, their food habits will change.    They will not have the land required to cultivate millets, nor the skills to process them at home.  Elite food lovers in the city will buy all the millets, attend seminars on the weekends to learn new ways to prepare them, and the government will continue procuring white rice for the poor.  Decrying this trend, Devinder Sharma quotes a tribal woman who took part in the Adivasi Food Festival.

“We don’t need your food security system,” said Minati Tuika of Katlipadar village. “The more ration shops you open in our villages, the more you force us to abandon our own food security system so painstakingly built by our forefathers.” This was strange, coming from someone who perfectly fit the bill of the typical underdeveloped tribal that policymakers had in mind while drafting the Act. In a larger sense, this was what we, the educated, have been thinking all along: that all efforts must be made to bring these underdeveloped tribals into the mainstream.

Instead, for a food model that works, we must make efforts to bring ourselves into the streams that keep alive the culture of eating right.  For this we must keep alive the land, water, forest, people’s knowledge, and people’s rights.

A food model that works is interdependent with a development model that works.

For further reading:

Devinder Sharma, Looking Beyond the Spread on Our Tables, India Together, 14 March 2014

Devinder Sharma, “The Culture of Eating Right,”  Tehelka, 11:11, March 7, 2014

Ministry of Food Processing Industries  and Infrastructure Leasing and Financial Services Ltd, Draft Report of Working Group on Food Processing Industries, 12th Five Year Plan (2011).


One thought on “Food Models that Work

  1. Pingback: Women’s Rights Perspective in Birth, Breastfeeding and Food | Signals in the Fog

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