Like Yoga, it’s time for an International Day of Safe Food



Not only yoga, with health problems accentuating in the recent past, the trend is also increasingly moving towards safe food. But while the popularity of yoga received a shot in the arm when Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s suggestion of celebrating an International Day of Yoga was accepted by the UN, safe food has yet to get a political backing.

Although Michelle Obama has taken to organic farming in the premises of the White House, and is known to serve chemical-free food to guests, she has still not been able to convince the UN to have a special day marked for safe food. Nevertheless, the preference and intake for non-chemical farm produce has grown globally over the years, and is growing at a phenomenal pace.

According to the Soil Association’s Organic Market Report 2013 sale of organic food has grown by more than 25 per cent since 2008. While in the US it is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 14 per cent between 2014 and 2018; in India too, the growth looks very promising.

The Indian organic food market is likely to grow by a phenomenal annual compound growth rate of 19 per cent between 2012 and 2016.

Interestingly, not everyone keen on organic food is banking upon an organic certification. For several decades now I have seen farmers in Punjab and Haryana, comprising the wheat bowl of the country, keep a small patch of cultivated land free of chemical pesticides and fertilizers for home consumption. While they drench the crops meant for the market with whole lot of pesticides, they ensure safe food for their own consumption.

I have also watched with interest a silent food revolution taking place. In the entire northwestern parts of the country, more and more households are relying on organic wheat – the Sharbati variety – coming from Madhya Pradesh. The organic wheat that is being imported from MP comes with no certificate. It is only through goodwill and faith that people are willing to pay a higher price for what they are told is a better quality produce. The atta from Sharbati wheat is relatively expensive but people are willing to pay a price for healthy food.

Several years back, India Today (Oct 15, 2007) had reported on its growing appeal in the metros. In a report entitled Grains of Gold, it wrote: “India’s granary Punjab still produces the lion’s share of the country’s wheat. But when it comes to taste, quality and other attributes, Madhya Pradesh’s Sharbati tops the charts in demand in the metros. The lustrous, golden-hued grain commands premium price, being re-christened golden or premium wheat in wholesale and retail markets of Mumbai, Pune, Ahmedabad and Hyderabad or simply, MP wheat in major North Indian markets like Delhi.”

The primary reason behind the increasing consumer preference for non-chemical food products are the resulting health impacts. More and more people now realize that most babies born today carry persistent pesticides and other chemicals in their bodies. Lately, scientists have found 21 different chemicals in umbilical cord blood. With lifestyle diseases becoming more and more common, people are linking it to the food they eat. So whether we like it or not, the world is quietly moving towards safe food.

This will require changes at two levels. First of all, there are essentially two kinds of improved crops that have been developed by agricultural scientists: the high-yielding varieties (HYV) that need chemical pesticides to be sprayed to take care of insects and pests; and the genetically-modified (GM) crops that creates poison within the plant to kill certain kinds of insects, and at the same time require potent chemicals to be sprayed from outside too keep the other pests under control. Agricultural scientists need to now shift research focus towards organic breeding of crop varieties, which means developing crop varieties that are responsive to organic farming methods.

Secondly, it’s time that the government steps in to encourage farmers to move towards non-chemical agriculture. Every year, huge stocks of wheat in Punjab and Haryana are spoiled in storage. At the same time, huge quantity of Sharbati wheat is imported from Madhya Pradesh to meet the local demand.

You will agree it will make tremendous economic sense for the Punjab (and also for Haryana) governments to encourage farmers to grow wheat without chemicals to cater to the growing local preference rather than allow its chemically-infested wheat to rot. And I see no reason why this can’t be done. If Punjab government can provide a subsidy of Rs 4,000 per acre for the paddy farmers to shift to cotton cultivation, I am sure a similar amount can be provided to wheat farmers to shift from chemical farming to non-chemical farming.