This ‘Basic Conversation’ is a part of the critical response of INTER-ACTIONS to the contemporary development models that have radically altered the way we deal with the basic human need of food. Our speed-infested time has filled the realm of food with exploitative, gendered, and even fatal enterprises. So, we find sodas and maggis selling best in the market, even as everyone knows they are harmful, and that their advertisements misrepresent. We see food processing centres becoming major agents of environmental pollution and degradation of nature. But what is the way out? Does critiquing alone help? Do protests bring awareness to producers or consumers of new age foods?

We converse with Marion Nestle, arguably the most vocal of the anti-food-industry activists in the US, about the triad, Body-Food-Development, with an eye on possible organic developmental solutions.

Marion’s works: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health; Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety; An Illustrated Guide to Food Politics; Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning); Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics (with Dr. Malden Nesheim); Eat, Drink, Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Food Politics; Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine; Feed Your Pet Right (also with Dr. Nesheim); What to Eat.

Marion Nestle, renowned author, responds to questions about the politics of food, food equity and others

RIZIO: Marion, thank you for agreeing to be a part of the first issue of INTER-ACTIONS. I would like to start the discussion with you by referring to a growing tendency that we see these days—to choose food options that offer speed of preparation and delivery and attractive appearances over the body’s nutrition and health. Is this a special feature of our time with its prevalent notions and formations of progress and modernity? Have there been similar developmental crises concerning food in the history of civilisations?

MARION NESTLE: I can’t comment on ancient history, but marketing research tells us that nothing sells better than nutrition and health. Every food company wants to put a health claim on its packages. When they do, sales go up. So, for customers who pay attention to such things – and these are highly influential people who are educated, well off financially, and generally healthy – nutrition and health matter a lot.

R: The market is flooded with foods that not only do not offer nutrition, but also upset the natural digestive process, chemical make-up, and hormonal balance of the human body. Such packaged foods are sold in large quantities and consumers seem indifferent to their harmful effects. As you mentioned, among customers of these products, there are a lot of highly educated people. But it is surprising that, with all their learning, they do not exercise their active choice to stop consuming such foods. Why do you think education is not bringing awareness and transformation to overcome this predicament of indifference?

MN: Education about nutrition alone rarely changes behaviour. Studies of behaviour change classically suggest that this is a three-step process: knowledge –> attitude –> behaviour. An intention to eat more healthfully is a necessary preliminary step. Attitudes are best changed by peer pressure. If everyone around you is eating healthfully, you will too. Short of improved knowledge and attitudes, behaviour is best changed by fixing the environment of food choices to make the health choice the easy – and preferred – choice.

R: A corollary concern here is about what polarises discussions in this field between the activists and the industry. Our lifestyles do not seem to allow earlier models of food production, preparation and consumption within households. There is a perception that packaged food is an important agency in liberating many people, especially women, from earlier restrictive roles within families and societies. Can we altogether avoid mass production of packaged foods, which use preservatives and other substances that may be harmful to the body in the long term? Can there be a governance solution for this?

MN: Convenience does not have to come in a package. People who can afford them can choose pre-prepared healthy foods and meals. It also helps to know how to cook. People who do can certainly put delicious meals on the table in lesser time than it takes to go to a store to buy packages.

R: So, it seems to be a matter of self-governance. But, even as there are internationally accepted measures for food safety, there is hardly any certification for nutrition that will help a consumer distinguish between a food item that is ‘not harmful’ and another that is ‘nutritious’. Do you think some worldwide reforms need to be brought into the nutrition certification of industrially produced foods?

MN: Some countries require food labels to disclose nutrition information and some have front-of-package labels that give an overall assessment of nutritional quality in one icon. The rest of your question is asking about countering the excesses of capitalism. Doing so requires government regulation of food companies in different countries and, therefore, enormous pressures from constituents to do so.

R: Well, that is a hard task, indeed! But coming back to self-governance, the growing occurrences in our societies of obesity, depression, cancer and early maturation have been attributed by many experts to unhealthy food habits. But the trends continue. What could be done to make an experiential change, to dynamically connect academic research with everyday life? How do we practically bridge the gap between people’s knowledge and their daily action? In India, this is a real challenge…

MN: In the United States, at least, this is happening among the more educated and well-off segments of the population. The real challenge is making healthy choices the easy choice for low-income groups. This requires a combination of rational education and food policies in particular countries. For instance, I can’t speak to India which has a low-income population as large as the entire population of the United States. India’s food security problems are that much more challenging than ours. Food security requires adequate income and access to food that is safe, culturally appropriate, and liked. Any policy aimed at income, access, safety, and culture appropriateness should help.

R: But, does food security connect with food equity? How can we congruently think about food security and food wastage in a locale?

MN: Food insecurity is inevitably a result of income inequity. The best ways to ensure food security are through stable, uncorrupted governments devoted to social equity and food justice. In public health terms, the food waste issue is ‘downstream’ – focused on individual behaviour. ‘Upstream’ policies that prevent problems from occurring make much better sense in the long run, but often run into political barriers. It is easier to tell people to stop wasting food than to make sure they have enough income to buy what they need and enough access to get it.

R: How can we counter environmental degradation caused by food processing industries? How can waste from there be managed to minimise harm to nature?

MN: For such challenges, we have two choices: grassroots political action or pressures on government. Both are needed.

R: Let me come to the question of organic, native farmers who are forced to compete in the present-day markets that offer sensory gratification. What is the way out when consumers themselves, with their intolerance to glitterless, slow, natural material and processes, are encouraging adulteration and market monopolies?

MN: I think we need local solutions to address local food insecurity. And a lot of food education accompanied by rational policies. Some of this requires grass-roots political action. If enough people support more sustainable food systems, governments might have to listen.

R: But there seems to be an irony in the campaign for native and organic produce. In a country like India, if the farmers do not join hands with food processing industries, and equip themselves (with the use of fertilisers etc.) to meet the supply demands, they can’t come under any minimum support plan of the government. That means, they are completely exposed to the vagaries of nature as well as the fluctuations in the market. The independent farmer trying to take loans and build her life does not have an environment that helps her survive. So, they sell off their lands, and move out of their agricultural practices…

MN: Again, this sounds to me as though a grassroots campaign for local, sustainable food production would be well worth the effort. The USDA just put out a report on China’s buying of agricultural land in developing countries in Asia and Africa, mostly, but also the United States. This too needs to be addressed by policy.

R: How do you see the controversies around ethical issues like animal slaughter – in India, this has become highly sensitive these days – what in your view is a balanced stand?

MN: People who are malnourished benefit from eating meat. If their religion or culture forbids it, they need to know how to construct healthful diets from food plants. Eating a wide variety of food plants, especially beans of one kind or another, helps. People who eat no animal products at all need a source of vitamin B12.

R: Advertisements also spread wrong notions about things – and families including children get trapped in their lure. What are your thoughts on this?

MN: I am greatly in favour of teaching media literacy to young children – how to tell when they are being sold something. This can be done in schools or at home, but everyone in society would be better defended against advertising if they understood how it works – especially because so much of its influence occurs at an unconscious level, and is not recognised.

R: How can we develop the language and media we use to discuss food in our times towards a vocabulary and means communicating universal urgency as in the global climate debate, because food belongs to all?

MN: Keep talking about it and show local examples, whenever possible. These issues are all difficult because all these are results of inequitable and undemocratic economic systems. To change these systems, the first step is to recognize that they exist.

Knowledge is power, and our intention is to bring the power to you. We have initiated a thought movement that aims to strengthen democracy by bringing to you direct voices of important trailblazers and pathmakers, and reclaim deep and patient reflection as an important seed for relevant and sustainable action! Help us take this movement forward. Support Inter-Actions today for as little as Rs. 100.
Donation to LILA is eligible for tax exemption u/s 80 G (5) (VI) of the Income Tax Act 1961 vide order no. NQ CIT (E) 6139 DEL-LE25902-16032015 dated 16/03/2015